Once more, like a detective haunted by an abiding mystery, America’s first great rock critic has returned his focus to our most enigmatic songwriter.
In “Folk Music,” his fourth book about Bob Dylan, Oakland’s Greil Marcus deduces a crucial link among obscure recordings, timeless standards and new classics. What quality does Dylan’s 1992 version of the 19th century ballad “Jim Jones” share with the topical folk songs he performed in the early 1960s and the epic laments on his 2020 album “Rough and Rowdy Ways”? The answer, Marcus writes, “is empathy.” It’s “the engine of his songs.”
As always, Marcus’ analysis roams untrammeled, invoking Greek tragedy, the civil rights movement and crime fiction. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a 1964 song about a Black woman killed by a privileged white man, shows Dylan’s “ambition to write a history that will last as long as ‘Antigone.’” The 17-minute “Murder Most Foul,” released in 2020, is a “film noir” that begins with the John F. Kennedy assassination, pays tribute to numerous popular singers and features Dylan’s “weathered, beaten down” vocals sounding like a “Mickey Spillane exegesis of a particularly resistant passage in Revelation.”
When I interviewed Marcus for The Chronicle earlier this year, he joked that maybe he’d devoted too much time to one artist. But his approach is exemplary. He marshals idiosyncratic arguments in a way that makes us hear old songs anew, defying the ever-quickening pace of life.
Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs
(Yale University Press; 288 pages; $27.50)
Review: Read a review of Bob Dylan’s “The Philosophy of Modern Song.”