Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's lyrics never explicitly invoke his Jewish roots, but Jewish influences are never far from the surface.

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Bob Dylan, the great songwriter and performer, was born Robert Allen Zimmerman. The son of Abraham and Beatty Zimmerman, he was born in Duluth, Minn., and spent much of his childhood in Hibbing, Minn., a poor mining town with a small Jewish population. Young Robert celebrated his bar mitzvah in Harding, but did not identify strongly or publicly with his Jewish identity. In his music, he presented himself, under the name Bob Dylan, as the voice of the typical mid-Western American. But as the following article shows, Dylan's lyrics do on occasion show Jewish influences. Reprinted with permission from Rock 'N' Roll Jews (Five Leaves Publications).

jewish music quizDylan's rock music from the mid 60s is arguably among the finest of his output. Certainly, it transformed the rock song. Henceforth, rock could have lyrics which could be compared with Keats and Shelley. Professors of literature dissected Dylan's imagery and significance in ways which they have never done with Gershwin, Berlin, or Pomus. Some have searched for cryptic biblical, even kabalistic [mystical], allu­sions. No doubt they can be found, if the critic is imagina­tive enough. Whether they were intended by the author is another matter, for Dylan claims to write quickly with the words tumbling out, beyond his control.

Biblical Allusions

It is not difficult to find Jewish influences. The open­ing verse of "Highway Sixty One Revisited" irreverently retells the story of the binding of Isaac. God is telling Abraham to "kill me a son." Abe is replying, "man You must be putting me on." The joking familiarity with God--the imagining of an argument with the Almighty--is itself very Jewish, to be found in orthodox texts and in Broadway versions of Judaism, such as Fiddler on the Roof. Abraham is treated with familiarity in the song: He is 'Abe,' just as Dylan's father, too, was called Abe.

Certainly, Dylan's interests have included religion and spirituality. The songs on John Wesley Harding, such as "I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine," contain biblical references. On this album, first released in 1967, Dylan is celebrating the old American west. John Wesley Hardin was a "Wild West" outlaw, a Robin Hood figure, supposedly stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The album contains the revealing "I Pity the Poor Immigrant." The lyrics rage against "the immigrant," who "uses all his power to do evil," "falls in love with wealth," "builds his town with blood," and so on.

The sentiments are ugly. The insider is turning on the outsider. But Dylan was no insider: He was still traveling in disguise. What better way to try to con­vince yourself and others that you are an insider than to use the traditional images of hatred against the immigrant?

 

Album covers for Highway 61 Revisited and The Essential Bob Dylan.

Jewish to Christian to Jewish

During the Seventies, Dylan became Christian, making records which overtly preached his new faith. Ironically, Dylan chose Jerry Wexler to be the producer of his most Christian album, Slow Train Coming. During the record­ing Dylan tried to interest Wexler in Biblical matters. Wexler comments: "When I told him he was dealing with a confirmed 63-year-old Jewish atheist, he cracked up." Wexler was tolerantly amused by the whole business: "I liked the idea of Bob coming to me, the Wan­dering Jew, to get the Jesus feel."

In his musical and spiritual quest, Dylan also seems to have been something of a Wandering Jew. He did not remain locked within born-again Christianity. He went through a Jewish phase. Anthony Scaduto [in his book, Bob Dylan] suggests that he started studying Hebrew. Not one to do anything by half mea­sures, Dylan apparently made contact with the right-wing Jewish Defense League, whose extreme Zionist national­ism was fascistic. Dylan was later photographed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, wearing tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) on the occasion of his son's Bar Mitzvah.

The Jewish period seems to have left less direct influence on Dylan's music than his missionary Chris­tianity. There are no Hebrew songs or explicitly Jew­ish quotations to match the overt Christianity. However, Dylan's 1983 album, Infidels,contains an implicitly pro-Zionist song. "Neighborhood Bully" is a thinly veiled parable about the history of the Jews. The song describes the so-called "bully," who has been dri­ven out of every land. His family have been scattered; he is constantly on trial just for being born; and now, outnumbered by a million to one, he's accused of being the neighborhood bully by pacifists who wouldn't hurt a fly, but who would let the one they call the "neigh­borhood bully" be destroyed.

The song expresses themes which would have been unthinkable 15 years earlier. Yet it still conveys its message indirectly. Neither "Israel" nor "Jews" are explicitly named as such. The pronoun remains the third person: It is "he," not "we" or "I." The song is not, it must be said, one of Dylan's best pieces.

The Outsider

In the 20th century, Jewish creativity has owed much to the simultaneous power and powerlessness of the outsider. Someone comfortably placed within the American folk tradition may not have been able to trans­form that tradition. Such a person might reproduce folk tunes which had been handed down four-square by parents and grandparents, just as Abe and Beatty Zimmer­man wanted young Robert to reproduce the traditional cantillation of his Bar Mitzvah portion.

Or, just as likely, the recipient of the folk tradition might move on. The sons and daughters of Hibbing's miners no doubt pre­ferred Elvis to Woody Guthrie, just as Robert, in com­mon with so many American Jews of his generation, preferred the singing of Woody and Little Richard to those of his rabbi.

Dylan's music was that of an outsider posing as a dis­possessed insider. He claimed an American folk tradition that had not belonged to his grandparents. In taking over this tradition and claiming to be its guardian, he could not but subvert it. His imagination would not stand still. He had to keep moving--to keep wandering--as if fearing exposure, just as, when a young man, he had feared being revealed as "Zimmerman." The result has been an uncom­fortable but undoubtedly genuine originality that resists easy summary.

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Michael Billig

Michael Billig is professor of social sciences at Loughborough University.