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?

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Michael Billig

Michael Billig is professor of social sciences at Loughborough University.

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