Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World. Colleen J. Sheehy and Thomas Swiss, Editors. University of Minnesota Press, 2009. $22.95.
This is an uncommonly intelligent collection of 20 essays about Bob Dylan's origins and influence. Some readers will wish that a more discernible thematic thread ran through the book, but no serious Dylan reader will be disappointed in the scope or quality of the material.
The book is dedicated to B.J. Rolfzen, Dylan's influential high school English teacher. Greil Marcus' opening essay is a model of good writing about Dylan. Rolfzen, it is clear, loved poetry. He once told me, "I used to read names on tombstones and repeat the names in claass. I liked the sound of the names." Marcus mentions a paper Dylan wrote about The Grapes of Wrath. Rolfzen told me he gave Dylan a "B" and still regrets it. Anyone who wishes to see Rolfzen in action should view Mary Feidt's wonderful documentary Tangled Up in Bob.
There is an intriguing article by Anne Waldman on Dylan's relationship to the Beat poets. Waldman and Allen Ginsberg were among those who accompanied Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue.
Robert Polito has a suggestive, even eye-opening, examination of "the folk process," a euphemism for stealing. Polito looks at the materials Dylan took from others and inserted into his own work to create songs in which the past and the present mingled.
There are four essays that connect Dylan to race in America. There is a wider point to be made here, one that might have been included in a more expansive approach to Dylan and otherness. Dylan saw African-Americans as only one group of others he was drawn to explore. He famously looked at other religions. In the very album from which the book's title is taken, Dylan examined his feminine side.
David Yaffe's essay reviewing Dylan's connection to race is particularly compelling. Yaffe ends his essay with a revelatory pun tying together Dylan's fascination with blackness in America and a song title from his album Time Out of Mind. Seeking a summary of Dylan and race, Yaffe writes: "He's not dark yet, but he's getting there."
This book asks new questions and, most significantly, amply illustrates that Dylan scholarship can be lively without being trivial and serious without being pedantic.