Bob Dylan Introduces American Gothic To Folk Rock


by Larry Fyffe

There are English Romantic stories that idealise real or fabled characters from past history, like Robin Hood, who stands up for equity and justice in a society controlled by an aristocracy. Romantic Transcendentalists look back to the rural English countryside for solace from a rising materialistic and capitalistic order.

A troupe of Gothic writers, atop decaying castle walls, react to this Romantic optimism due to the horrors of imperial conquest, and it’s justification by the pseudo-science of Social Darwinism; they peer into mankind’s heart of darkness.

In the United States, American nature poets and writers are confronted with the Anti-Transcendentalist Gothic stories and poems of Edgar Allen Poe. Therein are depicted deranged high-born kinsmen from a supposedly idyllic society that is controlled by a slave-holding aristocracy.

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan brings the genre onto the stage of American folkrock. Exemplifying the American Gothic Revival is Grant Wood’s ambiguous-meaning painted picture of a Puritan-looking farmer, a self-sufficient individualist, holding a three-pronged pitchfork, standing beside his obedient wife.

Though there be no ruined castles of yore in the United States, there are lots of places housing gamblers, guns, and greed, inhabited by strange-looking and strange-acting characters.

It’s not always easy to discern how serious singer/songwriter Bob Dylan is when presenting the American Dream transformed to Gothic nightmare:

Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I’ll plant and I’ll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer’s on the table, the pitchfork’s on the shelf
(Bob Dylan: Thunder On The Mountain)

In “Summer Days”, Dylan runs through American history from the days of Pocahontas, to the Roaring ‘2O’s, to Elvis Presley, and the terror at Waco, Texas – a storyline that features a declining society falling into depravity.

Playing with cards of irony is a game Bob Dylan is good at. Real-life anti-heroes, Dylan transforms into fantasy heroes. For example, the Southern gunslinger, cattle rustler, and killer John Hardin becomes a Robin Hood of the Old West:

John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor
He travelled with a gun in every hand
All along the countryside, he opened many a door
But he was never known to hurt an honest man
(Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding)

Though not Dylan’s lyrics, in the following song, New York crime boss Joey Gallo is portrayed as a loving family man:

They called Joe ‘Crazy’, the baby they called
‘Kid Blast’
Some say they lived off gambling and runnin’
numbers too
It always seemed they got caught between the mob
and the men in blue
(Bob Dylan: Joey)

‘Lucky’ Zimmy himself takes on the persona of a gangster who is not only upset with the print media, but with his moll:

Someone’s got it in for me
They planting stories in the press
Whoever it is, I wish they’d cut it out quick
But when they will I can only guess
They say I shot a man named Gray
And took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks
And when she died, it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky
(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)

The Civil War drives Old Dixie down, but the Confederate-supporting Jesse James, the leader of a gang of bank robbers associated with horse thief Belle Starr, is placed by Bob Dylan on the same stage as slave-freeing Abraham Lincoln in a play about the broken American Dream:

From a cheerless room in a curtained gloom
I saw a star from heaven fall
I turned and looked again but it was gone
All I have and all I know
Is this dream of you
Which keeps me living on
(Bob Dylan: This Dream Of You)

The optimistic poetic ship of Romantic Transcendentalism hits the blood-red reefs of reality:

For you they call, the swaying mass, their
eager faces turning
Here Captain! dear father!
It is some dream that on the deck
You’ve fallen cold and dead
(Walt Whitman: O Captain, My Captain)

And the same ship of state smashes against the black rocks of American Gothic humour in Bob Dylan’s folk music:

As in the following lyrics:

The ghost of Belle Starr, she hands down her wits
To Jezebel the nun, who violently knits
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper, who sits
At the head of the Chamber of Commerce
(Bob Dylan: Tombstone Blues)

And again in these lyrics – in real life history, gang member Ford shoots Jesse for the reward money:

Ain’t gonna hang no picture
Ain’t gonna hang no picture frame
Well, I might look like Robert Ford
But I feel like Jesse James
(Bob Dylan: Outlaw Blues)

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.


One comment

  1. …………. dear father!
    The arm beneath your head!
    It is some dream that on the deck……

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