Why Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan Has a Yiddish Soul

It was not two days ago that I was making a point in a private e-mail in which I reached for this example from the pen of the newest Nobel Laureate for Literature: “Time and love has branded me with its claws/Had to go to Florida/Dodging them Georgia laws/Poor Boy in a hotel called The Palace of Gloom/Calls down to room service/Says send up a room.” That first line of Bob Dylan’s “Po’ Boy” comes from Charles Baudelaire, specifically a New Directions translation of his prose poetry, Paris Spleen. The second line is a paraphrase from Blind Willie McTell, a Georgia bluesman whom Dylan sang about in a 1983 outtake. The final line is a Groucho Marx joke, from “A Night at the Opera.”

The genius of Bob Dylan resides somewhere among French Symbolism, country blues, and Marx Brothers’ shtick, but the revelation occurs in the third line, maybe the only one not copped from a previous source; there Dylan makes clear that what Baudelaire and Blind Willie McTell, Spleen and Blues, share is melancholy, the Palace of Gloom, where Dylan himself has been a semi-permanent resident for the past half-century or more.

It is much less noteworthy that Dylan is one of five Jewish or part-Jewish laureates for literature in the past 15 years than that he is the first American to win since Toni Morrison in 1993. In 2008, the then-Nobel permanent secretary Horace Engdahl claimed that American literature was “too isolated, too insular” to deserve recognition from the Nobel committee; if Dylan’s leap-frog over Philip Roth, Don De Lillo, or Thomas Pynchon was meant to be a joke at the expense of America’s post-modern old guard, it has misfired, gloriously. Bob Dylan is, in fact, the most revolutionary artist of the past half-century, and his innovations in the popular-song form have not just blurred the distinction between poetry and song lyric, they have dissolved the boundaries between high art and popular culture.

Like all great Americans, like all great artists, Dylan maintains the outsider status of his oddball origins, and it’s only fitting that he carries this sense of misbegotten heritage into the canon of World Literature to which he has now been admitted, the only songwriter so recognized, and the only songwriter whom it is possible to imagine receiving such an honor. It is true that great poetry can be found from Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, or Steve Earle — and also Smokey Robinson, Bob Marley, and Jay-Z — but it is equally true that each of these artists is working in a domain of serious popular art that Dylan himself created, perhaps like only Charlie Chaplin or Duke Ellington before him.

It is only as art that Dylan could take the legacy of minstrel tunes, gospel songs, blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley that he melded with modernist poetry, because none of these traditions was a natural heritage for the Jewish misfit from Minnesota, the first kid in his class whose parents owned a TV set in upstate Hibbing, and the first kid to own an electric guitar in high school before trading it for an acoustic model while skipping class and crashing on the couch of the Jewish fraternity for six months at the state university.

The outsider’s devotion to these traditions — the art of ethnic groups far more rustic, far more native, far more rooted to the American landscape than his own second-generation, small-town milieu — animates Dylan’s drive to reinvent himself continuously in the guise of a new style, a new song & dance, a new mask. The easiest of these masks was to substitute “Dylan,” a name he seems to have hit upon long before he knew of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, for his family name “Zimmerman”; once this mask was adopted, all the other re-inventions in style, voice, and cultural reference became a matter of course as Our Laureate has passed from fellow-travelling protest music to amphetamine-fuelled surrealism to family-man crooner to the troubadour on an endless tour, passing over the last four decades from Born Again preacher to crypto-Hasidic mystic, and most recently an off-kilter spirit medium for Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mercer. None of these masks are definitive, nor could they be. What endures among them is a sense of vocal phrasing that has changed the definition of singing as thoroughly as his writing has changed the definition of poetry.

From a Jewish perspective, what is most disturbing in Dylan’s career is his three-year stint spent preaching the Gospel. More than thirty years later, it becomes increasingly clear that if Tim Whatley, the wise-cracking dentist on Seinfeld, converted to Judaism for the jokes, Dylan seems to have converted to Christianity for the sake of the songs. Whatever vestiges of Christian belief remain in his personal theology, a subject on which he has remained characteristically cagey over the past three decades, his work retains much of the imagery of that ol’ time religion, but little of its doctrine. On his most recent album of original songs, “Tempest,” he sings, “I’ll pay in blood/But not my own,” a refrain that reverses the meaning of Christian sacrifice with relish. More reflectively, “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Before They Close the Door),” from “Time Out of Mind” offers an image of repentance and redemption straight out of the Yom Kippur Ne’ila liturgy, hiding in plain sight as clearly as the reference to Tashlich in “Jokerman” (Infidels, 1983): “Standing on the water/Casting your bread/While the eyes of the idol/With the iron head are glowing.”

The frequent Forward contributor Seth Rogovoy — whose excellent 2009 monograph “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” shares much of the spirit and many of the conclusions as my understanding of Dylan — has compared Our Laureate with the Yiddish poet Eliakum Zunser (1836-1913), a brilliant folk poet who was one of the first distinctive versifiers in modern Yiddish literature. The analogy is incomplete, as all comparisons must be: Zunser shares with Dylan both a sense of linguistic inventiveness and a vengeful sense of using public performance to settle private grievances, in Zunser’s case against the Jewish establishment of his native Vilna. But Zunser’s use of Yiddish, unlike the song traditions Dylan adopted and adapted, was native, and his message remains thoroughly rooted in Jewish traditions that would remain far more distant from Dylan’s work than Stephen Foster, the Rev. J.C. Burnett, or Hank Williams, Sr.

A better Yiddish precedent for the world Dylan has created would be a movement that began a few years later and a half-dozen blocks north of where Zunser passed away on the Lower East Side: the Inzikhistn, the Introspectivist avant-garde of interwar Yiddish poetry. Like Dylan, poets such as A. Leyeles (1889-1966) and Jacob Glatstein (1896-1971) carried on a fall-by-the-sword love affair with American culture, which they viewed from the concrete jungle of lower Manhattan, but perceived through the veil of the Yiddish language that they remade in the spirit of classical verse forms, urban nightmares, and a library of non-Jewish cultural and literary references. Like the Inzikhistn, Bob Dylan’s most celebrated work inhales the spirit of New York City and exhales the cadences of poetic experimentation, even as the context from which it derives bears allegiance to Robert Johnson and James Dean, as their focus remained yoked to a Jewish tradition from which they neither completely nor willingly freed themselves from.

When the catastrophe that separated the Inzikhistn from their tradition came, and they became post-war poets instead of interwar idol-smashers, their work moves from experimentation to elegy, and one recognizes a similar shift in Dylan’s work separating his first five years in the public eye from the following half-century. As with the Inzikhistn, a personal trauma might have motivated this change: a motorcycle accident occurring not long after his (first) marriage provided the welcome occasion to leave the touring, and the drugs, of his early rock-stardom in favor of family life, quiet reflection, and a gentler relationship to the popular-song traditions he had been mining for his most innovative work. The personal transformations of those years coincided, however, with a recognition in the national consciousness that the cultures that had created folk music had now vanished even from the most remote corners of America via urbanization, suburbanization, and the pervasiveness of a popular culture that Dylan himself had both challenged and embodied. By the time of the second great renaissance in Dylan’s career, the trilogy of “Time Out of Mind,” “Love & Theft” and “Modern Times,” the folk music that constitutes his imagination and his legacy had become as rare a musical language as Yiddish is a spoken language. Like the “Inzikhistn,” Dylan finds himself remade by history from the greatest innovator in his field to its most honored and honorable custodian. Like all great artists, Dylan is equal to both tasks, simultaneously. Yasher-koyekh, Bob.

Marc Caplan is a visiting professor of Judaic Studies at Yale University and, to the sufferance of his friends and family, a life-long Dylanologist.

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