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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Friday, August 18, 2006


August 18... the 100th anniversary of the birth of blues singer, pianist & composer Curtis Jones (in Naples, TX) - whose debut-session song 'Highway 51 Blues' Dylan covered on his own debut album, Bob Dylan, and whose 'Lonesome Bedroom Blues' was the opening number on the opening night of Dylan's 1978 World Tour. There's an entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (pages 363-4).

Today is also the birthday - the 18th - of my daughter Magdalena, to whom the encyclopedia is dedicated. She is celebrating not only her accession to adulthood but very successful A-level exam results yesterday, achieved through persistent hard work on a truly admirable scale, especially since accommodated in amongst much other school activity in sport, drama and more besides. So school is out for Magdalena now, and she will go to Bristol University in the autumn to read Law. Very sensibly, after a lifetime of observing the precarious freelancing lives of her parents, she wants to do something in the world that gives her some financial reward.

Next week we're all taking a week's holiday, to the very pleasant Turkish town of Dalyan (where Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn chugged through the reed beds in The African Queen), where we'll be joined by others in the family, including my other child, Gabriel, now 37, who as a 9-year-old boy in 1978, backstage at Earls Court, London, asked for and obtained Bob Dylan's autograph.

Tomorrow a less happy anniversary - that of the death of Blind Willie McTell, 47 years ago in Milledgeville State Hospital in the former state capital of Georgia. He gets an entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia too, of course (pages 443-7).

Meanwhile, I've been buoyed by two exceptional critical responses to my work. The London Review Bookshop has the encyclopedia as a recommended read at the moment, and in the course of saying why, says that "Song & Dance Man III is probably the greatest book about the work of a single popular musician ever to have been published." Golly. And then Dylan fanzine The Bridge has given The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia a great review - great not just because it's very enthusiastic and thumbs-up, but because the writer, Terry Kelly, describes what's within the book very clearly, and why, and with a fine balance between fact and evaluation, and at the same time places it all in the context of my other work and other people's... and the whole thing just reads so well.

It's thoughtful and lengthy without, in my opinion, being unnecessarily wordy - and sometimes it's a boon to find a bit of lengthiness, in a culture so terrified of anything but the short, clipped, ad-man sentence or the fast-on-the-eye jump-cut movie. (Of course I would feel that: my book is itself a megasized, obdurate refusal of the virtues of the very slim volume - but that doesn't often mean it gets any kind of a detailed or substantial response. The review of this 750,000-word book in Q, for instance, was 60 words long. Then again, the London Review Bookshop quote above is only 23 words, including the book title, and I love each one.)

Anyway here's that review from The Bridge (it's in the new issue, No. 25, Summer 2006):

by Terry Kelly

"he hanged himself from a lamp-post
with a length of chain, which made me think

of something else, then something else again."
Paul Muldoon

Michael Gray is the Big Bubba of Bobcats, the Duke of Dylanology, the Kaiser of Dylan Critiques. Since 1972, and the publication of the first edition of his Song & Dance Man - The Art of Bob Dylan, Gray's writings have set the benchmark for Dylan criticism. In truth, there was little in the way of substantial Dylan critical commentary before his trailblazing book appeared. More than six years since the appearance of the third and monumental final edition of Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan (1999), Gray has produced The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (Continuum, 2006). Like the previous work, his latest magnum opus - which he told The Bridge earlier this year will probably be his last book on His Bobness - is an event within the over-populated world of Dylan studies. Often spikily polemical, this is a book to argue for and against. A hugely impressive, meticulously detailed work, it joins an exclusive club of the handful of very best books about Bob Dylan - and most of those are by Michael Gray.

In essence, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is an attempt to reshape much of the previous volume into a more readable and easily accessible form. But this is no mere literary rehash; the book incorporates a wealth of new material researched and assembled since Gray published his last groundbreaking update on Song & Dance Man. And while the major shift of emphasis is from songs to people, Dylan's unique and unsurpassed body of work remains the central focus. The reach and scope of the new book is vast, taking in everything from songwriters to singers; poets and critics; minor and major biographical protagonists; cultural influences and critics; academic and fanzine scribes; musicians and road journeys; creative junctures in the Dylan story; and much more. Reviewing Gray's 944-page Song & Dance Man in late 1999, I referred to the author's wish that we view his book as "a benign kind of labyrinth, or city-state," so that readers could lose themselves in its many critical arterial highways and byways. Gray echoes and redrafts this wish in his preface to the latest book: "What I hope emerges too is a proper sense that to burrow into Dylan's art at length and in detail is not to shut the door on the wider world in pursuit of a narrow obsession but rather to open up that wider world, to be sent down a thousand boulevards, to hear different musics and read other authors, and to listen out for the myriad voices of the clamorous past: not least the voices of those who did not make records or write books but whose lives and labours have helped inform our own." Such sentiments are of a piece with Gray's wish, first embodied in his 1972 study, to elevate and legitimize an appreciation of Bob Dylan's work as something worthy of serious but clear-headed study. For Gray, Dylan is incontestably a major artist and one whom future generations will continue to appreciate; but he also recognises the singer's musical and cultural antecedents, from Arthur Rimbaud to Jimmy Reed, or T.S Eliot to T-Bone Walker. Gray is also not afraid to excoriate his cultural hero when he believes Dylan has produced inferior songs or whole albums, indulged in excessive rock behaviour, performed shabbily on stage, or, in one infamous episode, appeared in a TV lingerie advertisement with a scantily-clad model.

Dylan's vast oeuvre incorporates a wealth of musical, biographical and literary influences and The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia attempts to reflect many of these within its 736 pages. Admirers of his previous copious volume will recognise much of the material on display, but since starting work on his final Dylan critical book in April 2005, Gray has sorted, rearranged and supplemented the text into a format which is now an easy reference tool. Gray's study of the blues proved one of the strongest elements of Song & Dance Man, but where such insights were threaded thematically in and out of the previous book, the Encyclopedia allows the reader to more readily pinpoint such entries as "blues, external signals of Dylan's interest in," "blues, inequality of reward in," "blues lines smuggled into Dylan's lyrics" and "pre-war blues, Dylan's use of, an introduction," as well as affording easy access to entries on such masters of the genre as Leadbelly, Robert Johnson or Blind Willie McTell (the latter being the subject of Gray's forthcoming book, Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In the Footsteps of Blind Willie McTell, due from Bloomsbury in 2007). While Song & Dance Man contained such thematic chapter headings as "Dylan and the Folk Tradition," "Dylan's Use of Language: Towards a New Simplicity", "The Coming of the Slow Train" and so on, many of these sections overlapped or interlinked within the text. In the new book, the emphasis is on a distillation of such thematic areas in shorter and more compact form. For example, the chapter exploring nursery rhyme and fairy tales in relation to Under the Red Sky covered some 70 pages in the previous book. In the Encyclopedia, much of the same material is overviewed in a concentrated version of just over a dozen pages. It's arguable that Song & Dance Man's vastness, quirkily humorous and voluminous footnotes and minute particularities may have proved off-putting to all but the must committed Dylan fan. But Gray has worked the trick of combining erudition and readability in his latest study, without a whiff of dumbing-down for a wider audience.

The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is also a wonderful biographical guide to the many people, living and dead, who played a part in the transformation of a kid from a lower middle-class, store-owning family near the American-Canadian border into a major 20th century artist and a great cultural icon. All the personal and artistic players of minor and major significance are here: from Blue to Bucklen to Bromberg; from Helm to Helstrom to Hester ; from Sahm to Seeger to Springs. Just pluck a Dylan-associated name out of the air and it's likely to be included in the book. Apart from those figures with personal links with Dylan, Gray also provides many thumbnail and more extensive sketches of musical and artistic figures, of both primary and secondary importance. Gray's passion for Elvis Presley's golden period of rebellious rock and roll grandeur (which he argues ended in 1960) is on a par with his love of Dylan's finest work and he provides a lovingly detailed essay on the poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who changed the world. The six-page exploration, which incorporates an extensive discography, also examines how Elvis has shaped Dylan the artist and man over the years. There are similar generous entries on Allen Ginsberg, Woody Guthrie, The Band, Joan Baez, and many other principal and bit players, musical, literary and otherwise. The influence of individual books in The Bible on Dylan's songwriting and an in-depth look at the Born Again period similarly combine detail with concision.

But there's an "Up Wing an' Down Wing" (to quote a chapter heading from Song & Dance Man III). I would have liked more space given to critical assessments of Dylan's 30 studio albums, instead of entries of often wildly varying length on individual songs. And given that this book will hopefully have a wider currency than Gray's previous landmark volume, I would have thought the more general reader or casual Dylan fan will approach the book with similar expectations. For example, almost seven pages of fascinating critical commentary is lavished on the 1981 song Angelina (an admittedly brilliant and lyrically complex recording from the Shot of Love sessions, but arguably more an example of virtuoso rhyming than a fully realised, major league Dylan song) while such landmark albums as Another Side of Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home warrant only shortish entries, which strikes me as disproportionate. Granted, many individual songs from these and other albums are explored elsewhere in the text, but surely encyclopedic convention would dictate more fulsome analyses of Dylan's studio albums, which remain the chief glory of his career. (But I'll admit such a fulsome entry as Gray's almost five-page disquisition on Love Henry from the World Gone Wrong album - redrafted from Song & Dance Man III - is a Dylan critique to cherish). Trainspotters will doutbless notice some unforced errors in the text, but these are too minor to matter. And while there is also the tendency to render aesthetic opinion as incontrovertible truth, Gray's critical certitude can be bracing, as when he cites the Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 (1991) as sufficient evidence of "Dylan's place as the pre-eminent songwriter and performer of the age and as one of the great artists of the 20th century." But I sometimes wish that Michael Gray were a kinder or more even-handed writer. Critical rigour is one thing, but some of the entries are marred by an almost Presbyterian critical severity, which can seem inappropriate, given the often innocent, open-hearted or downright shambolic nature of songs, performers or art itself. (Johnny Cash, for example, is accused of "bovine perplexedness" for his alleged shortcomings during a Dylan duet, while David Zimmerman is framed as "the culprit" for persuading his famous brother to re-record some of Blood on the Tracks in Minnesota. Bovine? Culprit?). Writing about the American literary critic and poet Randall Jarrell, Clive James noted: "We never feel, when reading him, that he is at his most concentrated when he is being most destructive. It is in the effort to draw our attention to merit that he achieves real intensity..." It's a pity the book is occasionally marred by a sort of grudging, critical animus (particularly when his subjects in his new book are chiefly people, rather than songs or literary texts) when Gray possesses Jarrell's rare ability to explore Dylan's work in such an illuminating, revelatory fashion.

This first edition includes a searchable CD-ROM with hypertext, but the book is the real deal. Comprehensive and concise, packing a polemical punch and not afraid to trample over sacred cows, overhyped and overblown songs, albums, performers and reputations of all musical persuasions, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is Michael Gray's second critical masterpiece.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael - has it been brought to your attention that, a few years before BD recorded 'Not Dark Yet', Brett Easton Ellis published a book (American Psycho) that contains the line 'Outside, it's not dark yet but it's getting there'?

I got pulled up short when I came across this line in the novel, in which it has no particular significance. I wonder if BD's magpie-like mind just happened to alight upon it (I can imagine him reading and enjoying the book) and it stuck with him...


11:31 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Thanks for this - and no, you're the first to draw my attention to it. I don't think it's been discussed in the Dylan-fan world.

Thanks for writing.

11:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I definitley noticed it too, and checked the corelation between publication/release dates but can't remember which came first. If it is a direct quote, which it's kind of hard to see how it isn't in relation to Dylan's quotation on the album, then it suggests a lot about the album as a whole. what he saw as relevant to the tone of the songs. I remember reading that the song 'not dark yet' was a first person ballad about the american civil war - dunno what he may be thinking in linking these two things together.

9:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Was reading your discussion of Kenneth Patchen's influence on Bob in the Encyclopedia, in which you suggest that he may have the lines about 'yellow hair' from P's work.

It seems to me that it is more likely that this line comes from the folk tradition, through lines like 'and he took some strands of her long yellow hair' from the song, 'Bows of London', which Martin Carthy has recorded. and:

Oh ragged are your stockings love
And stubbly is your cheek and chin
And tousled is that yellow hair
That I saw late yestre'en

from "Jack Orion' recorded by Bert Jansch.

There is also the lines:

he took him by his long yellow hair,
And also by his feet.

from "Love Henry' which Bob recorded himself.

I think this is also the source for the 'long golden locks' in 'Changing of the Guard'

11:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Dylan & John Dowland, see

for a discussion of the context in which Dowland's version of 'Go from My Window' was written.

It also discusses its use in Hamlet - Ophelia is, of course, The Shakesperian character that Bob has referred to most often - in both 'Desolation Row' and 'Love and Theft'.

"Go from My Window' has also been recorded by Eliza Carthy and Steeleye Span.

6:36 am  
Anonymous Mortimer Lightfield said...


Hear was I thinking that drawing a connection between Dowland and Dylan was a bit far -fetched, when I came across a section in Suze Rotolo's book about a friends of hers named John Winn, a counter-tenor whose repertoire included John Dowland songs & who used to bring Dylan, Van Ronk & Ed McCurdy on stage with him to sing madrigals.

5:12 am  
Anonymous Mortimer Lightfield said...

Apparently Winn is still recording.


5:26 am  

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