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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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.

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Michael Billig

Michael Billig is professor of social sciences at Loughborough University.