by Taigen Dan Leighton
Dylan’s Three Nobel Prize Classics Highlighting War and Aggression
In his brilliant Nobel Lecture in response to receiving the much-deserved 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan cites three specific influential books he read when young whose themes permeate all his work. One is Homer’s Odyssey, already discussed, which Dylan describes as the struggle to return home from war. Another is Moby Dick, a complex masterpiece about the obsessive and ruinous revenge of the demented Captain Ahab.
The erudite Herman Melville, very well-read it’s well known, includes in the novel an extensive catalog of whaling lore and also a wide-ranging history of social injustice from the early nineteenth century back through antiquity. Dylan describes the white whale itself as an emperor and the embodiment of evil. The book features a strikingly diverse crew and contemplations on whiteness. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” from “Bringing It All Back Home” in 1965 is a lengthy, humorous, and satirical tale about Captain Ahab (in the song called “Captain Arab”) discovering an immoral and hypocritical America. Dylan says that the book’s themes would work their way into more than a few of his songs.
The third of Dylan’s most influential books is the powerful anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which graphically details over and over again the horrors of war from World War I. Dylan vividly describes these distresses, a nightmare in which he says you lose faith in a meaningful world. After reading this he never wanted to read another war novel, and claims he never did. It led Dylan to despise the older generation who keep sending the young into the madness and torture of war, the message Dylan would repeat in “Masters of War” and in his speech accepting the Tom Paine award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Union.
All three of the books Bob Dylan cites as seminal to his work in his Nobel Lecture feature themes related to the damages of war, its challenging after-effects, and to aggressive obsession.
Masters of War Fifty Years Later and the Long, Lonesome Road
In Dylan’s interview with Bill Flanagan from March, 2017, appearing on bobdylan.com, Dylan discusses “Triplicate,” his collection from the great American songbook covered by Sinatra, as well as his own various changes since 1970. Bob Dylan says, “From 1970 till now there’s been about fifty years, seems more like fifty million. That was a wall of time that separates the old from the new and a lot can get lost in this kind of time. Entire industries go, lifestyles change, corporations kill towns, new laws replace old ones, group interests triumph over individual ones, poor people themselves have become a commodity.” Dylan has clearly not abandoned his social concerns. Rather, he sees a wall of time since the 60s in which inequality has multiplied. Corporate interests have taken control, destroying towns and making individual people into commodities, mere pawns in the corporate profit margins.
Flanagan asks, “In Don McLean’s ‘American Pie,’ you’re supposed to be the jester.” Dylan responds, “Yeah, Don McLean, ‘American Pie,’ what a song that is. A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like ‘Masters of War,’ ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,’ ‘It’s Alright, Ma’– some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.” Dylan vehemently denies that his life is but a joke (he has been through that, along the watchtower). If he were the jester, he would not have written “Masters of War” and his related scorching songs, and he would not have continued singing them.
Even though in his more recent subversive songs Dylan is not always explicit about his protests, he has continued to speak out against systemic injustice, oppression, and masters of war. Dylan says in “Honest with Me” from “Love and Theft,” in 2001, “I’m not sorry for nothin’ I’ve done, I’m glad I fought—I only wish we’d won.” Like the Old Testament prophets, Dylan feels like his critiques of the masters of war and other oppressors have not been effective. The warmongers continue, but he has no regrets about his efforts.
Bob Dylan has at times been a recluse hiding from his fans, but now recognizes that he has not been alone in this struggle. “I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me,” Dylan sings in “Mississippi” from “Love and Theft” in 1997. Dylan is committed to continuing his never-ending mission, the faith on the long road which includes responding to injustice and warmongers, but also faithful, artistic expression in the many other realms Dylan has engaged throughout his brilliant career of singing the blues. In his recent tours Dylan’s singing is clear and luminous. In 2006 in “Ain’t Talkin” in “Modern Times” he sings,
All my loyal and much-loved companions They approve of me and share my code I practice a faith that's been long abandoned Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road.
Dylan’s code and faith are non-explicit, enigmatic, but also never-ending, including communal concerns as well as poetic genius.
Murder Most Foul and Rough and Rowdy Ways
In March 2020 Dylan released the album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” amid a global pandemic in which all the people of the world were inextricably united in a life-and-death struggle with the Corona virus. Many people around the world sheltered in place seeking shelter from the storm of Covid. As a preview of the album the song “Murder Most Foul” was released early on bobdylan.com, the first original Dylan song released since the album “Tempest” in 2012. At almost seventeen minutes, it is the longest song Dylan has ever recorded, surpassing “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands” from 1966, “Brownsville Girl” from 1986, and even (by less than a minute) “Highlands” from 1997.
“Murder Most Foul” is an elegy for John F. Kennedy and his assassination, discussed previously in this article as an occasion for Dylan’s response to the aged militarists promoting war for the young, also referencing the information about the assassination in JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass, including JFK’s late opposition to war. The title of Dylan’s song echoes the “murder most foul” of Hamlet’s father the king.
Dylan includes many specific references and questions about the day of the assassination. These include the “long black Lincoln limousine ridin’ in the back seat, next to my wife” to “the grassy knoll,” which has been considered the site of the shot that actually killed Kennedy, perhaps from one of the “three bums comin’ all dressed in rags” as a disguise. He refers to the untenable, ludicrous “magic bullet” official theory of the assassination. Dylan includes the botched and buried autopsy where “they mutilated his body and took out his brain. What more could they do, they piled on the pain.” Dylan even quotes the ironic last sentence John Kennedy ever heard, from the wife of Governor John Connelly who was also in the car, “Don’t say Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President.” Dylan mentions “merchants of death,” directly recalling the masters of war. This song is quite explicit, a departure from the Theme Time Radio approach of masking subversive songs, though the many cultural references perhaps serve to hide this somewhat.
Much of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” recalls “Desolation Row,” with arrays of challenged characters reacting to an often brutal world. Among multitudes of themes, most of the songs have an ambience of violence and weapons or at least images of aggression. For brief examples, in “Black Rider” we hear “My soul is distressed my mind is at war. … I’ll take out a sword and hack off your arm.” The context of ancient Rome reappears. In “My Own Version of You” Dylan sings, “I ask myself what would Julius Caesar do.” Later in the song he sings, “I can see through the history of the whole human race. It’s all right there.” In his treatment of empire and wars Dylan indeed reaches overall patterns of human history. Later that verse adds, “Where the Trojan women and children were sold into slavery, Long ago before the First Crusade. Way back before England or America were made.” Here Dylan returns to Homer’s war, its patterns prefiguring all imperial conquest since.
“Mother of Muses” celebrates inspiration, love, and beauty. Yet also, “Sing of the Heroes who stood alone, Whose names are engraved on tablets of stone. Who struggled with pain so the world could go free.” Then Dylan celebrates generals who were positive, constructive masters of war rather than war profiteers.
Sing of Sherman - Montgomery and Scott Sing of Zhukov and Patton and the battles they fought Who cleared the path for Presley to sing Who carved out the path for Martin Luther King
Sherman fought against Confederate slavery. Zhukov and Patton defeated Hitler, allowing the worthy in modern America. In the song “Crossing the Rubicon” Dylan sings as Julius Caesar proceeding from Rome across the Rubicon River to his conquest of Gaul. “The Rubicon is the Red River, going gently as she flows. Redder than your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose.” Here is foreboding, and the red blood will flow, including from Caesar himself upon his return and his own assassination. Caesar’s and President McKinley’s assassination in “Key West” precede JFK’s murder most foul.
Returning to the song “Murder Most Foul,” along with references to the actual Kennedy assassination, Dylan focuses on the reverberations of this murder in the decades since. In the 2017 Bill Flanagan interview Dylan speaks of the past fifty years as “a wall of time that separates the old from the new and a lot can get lost in this kind of time.” In the song Dylan refers to some historical consequences of the event, such as “your brothers are comin’ … we’ll get them as well.” Mostly Dylan recalls the intervening years to the present via cultural references, mainly through music and naming many specific songs and musicians, from Charlie Parker to Stevie Nicks. “Murder Most Foul” clearly evokes the lasting consequences of Kennedy’s murder, and with elements of other songs on “Rough and Rowdy Ways” confirms that Dylan’s ongoing response to injustice and masters of war have continued up to the present, along with all of his many other concerns.
Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton PhD, Sōtō Zen Buddhist teacher, leads the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate congregation in Chicago. He is online professor at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Leighton’s ten books of Buddhist commentaries and translations include numerous references to Bob Dylan. Leighton’s Zen Questions includes an essay interpreting “Visions of Johanna” as a song about Zen Mind. Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness features discussions of “I’m Not There” and other Dylan songs.
 The lecture was actually given in June, 2017. See comments in Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, pp. 311-319.