Donald Brown,
Bob Dylan: American Troubadour
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)

The Tempo series put out by Rowman & Littlefield doesn't issue standard biographies of musicians. Instead, the volumes in the series, which so far has covered Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen in addition to this work on Dylan, aim to "explore rock and popular music through the lens of social and cultural history, revealing the dynamic relationship between the musicians, music and their milieu."

This is an approach that can pay off big, giving us insights into not just the music but the culture that produced it. It can also be a disaster, leading to semi-informed generalizations that sound impressive until you examine them closely.

Unfortunately, Bob Dylan: American Troubadour contains some of each. Donald Brown has listened to more Dylan than Dylan has; he knows the music intimately, including the officially released stuff, the bootlegs and the never-issued scraps and demos. He's heard it all and has opinions on all of it, mostly positive.

Which, when you're dealing with Dylan, can indicate a certain lack of discrimination. I know people who will only listen to Dylan's work from 1960 to 1963, others who love his stuff up to the early '70s, no one who likes the '80s work, and very few who respond to his current stuff. And is anyone looking forward to the announced album of Sinatra covers?

So when you talk about the chameleon like Bob Dylan, the question is which Dylan are you talking about?

Brown even buys into the "several Dylans" concept, using the artist's several identities as an organizing device for his study; he opens with Bob's Woody Guthrie Jr. phase, moves on to protest Bob, then Electric Bob, Country Bob, Born-Again Bob -- he even covers directionless Bob, although he doesn't call him that.

He finds value in all of these identities, although he agrees the '80s material could pretty much disappear from the earth and no one would miss it. Still, even in albums he finds weak, Brown discovers a good song or two, a feat that in some cases calls for a truly careful and sympathetic reading.

Where Brown weakens, though, is in his cultural discussions. When he discusses social trends, he never goes very deep, sticking to the surface, catching the main trends but never really examining them in depth. In his discussions of the '60s and of the Jesus movement of the '70s, he sticks to the superficial, content to sketch out the stereotypes, capturing the fashion instead of the significance. A few misstated facts don't help either: Joan Baez was not married to draft dodger Tom Hayden, who actually wasn't a draft dodger at all; Jane Fonda was. Baez was married to David Harris, who resisted the draft and went to prison for it.

The major value of Brown's book is that he analyzes dozens of Dylan lyrics, opening them up and arguing against the tendency to assign a single meaning to any. He points out conclusively, for example, that to insist that "Dear Landlord" is about Dylan and his then manager, Albert Grossman, is reductive and simplistic. That's one of the things it can be about but there are many more. Like most of Dylan's good songs, it is complex, carrying a multitude of possible meanings.

Despite the flaws, Brown has written a readable, valuable and compelling book, one that will have you, like me, going back and listening to obscure Dylan tracks you haven't heard in years and finding new pleasure in them.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

4 April 2015

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new