Bob Dylan has always been a bit of an enigma.
Like a lot of artists, he has “periods” where fans can identify certain emphases in his music and lyricism. For example, in the 60s he was thought of as a generational prophet. Then there was the “Christian” period of the late 70s and early 80s during which believers bought albums such as “Slow Train Coming.”
However, Ben Sisario of the New York Times has written of how Dylan resists study.
“Over the decades he has frustrated many an interviewer who wanted to penetrate his mind and method,” he says.
‘Dylan has never been at all revealing about those kinds of issues,’ the music critic and author Anthony DeCurtis said in an interview.
‘He has always been dismissive,’ Mr. DeCurtis said. ‘He has certainly said things that have minimized his lyrics in the attempt to fend off or downplay any attempt to see him as a prophet.’ So he’ll say, “Oh, I just wrote what came to my mind.”
Whatever kind of offhand thing you could say to try to deflate someone who is trying to inflate your lyrics with meaning.”
A 1991 interview with Paul Zollo further illustrates Dylan’s reluctance to be pigeonholed. He asked Zollo,”Songwriting? What do I know about Songwriting?” Though Dylan said this with laughter, the grain of truth, i.e., he is just your average Joe, is there.
Despite his reticence to be acknowledged, Zollo points out one of the reasons Dylan is a landmark artist. He says,“He broke all the rules of songwriting without abandoning the craft and care that holds songs together.”
I would admire Dylan without this desire for excellence with language. But for this writer, an English teacher by trade, Dylan’s care for his use of the written word makes me revere him even more. Zollo compares the beauty of his poetry to Shakespeare, Byron, as well as modern greats.
Even though Dylan’s reference for his writings is hard to determine, Zollo’s piece hints at it. He writes, “There’s an unmistakable elegance in Dylan’s words, an almost biblical beauty that has sustained in his songs throughout the years.”
The artist once known as Robert Zimmerman influenced the soul of other musicians in this regard. According to Zollo, John Lennon was inspired by the depth of Dylan’s music to write songs that concerned life and the soul and not just “empty pop songs”.
Dylan’s approach to his vocation is not of the secular, lunch bucket, 9 to 5 variety. It has a more spiritual bent. He told Zollo that His songwriting has “never really been seriously a profession…It’s been more confessional than professional.”
Bishop Robert Barron, a Catholic prelate based in Los Angeles, is stronger in his assessment of the supernatural aspects of Dylan’s work.
“You have to read him as a spiritual poet,” says Barron. “You can read him politically. You can read him as a cultural commentator. All that is right, but I think ultimately the best way to read him is as a spiritual teacher.”
Barron notes that Dylan is like most artists in that they will be elusive in terms of explaining the meaning of their lyrics. “But I think you can see patterns in any great artist,” he says. “You see them clearly in Bob Dylan.”
“You know in the 80s he became explicitly biblical, explicitly Christian. But all throughout his career, from beginning to right now, the Bible has been the dominant influence.”
Dylan’s epoch song “Blowing in the Wind” exemplifies this effect of Scripture on his work. The hit tells the listener that the answers to our most abiding questions come only through the intervention of God, according to the bishop.
God’s influence on Bob Dylan is nothing new. Author Julia Cameron explains that channeling spiritual information has been a means of creating great works for hundreds of years. In her book “The Right to Write”, she quotes some other noted artists (past and present) who attribute their genius to God.
“Although we rarely talk about it in these terms, writing is a means of prayer,” she says. “It connects us to the invisible world. It gives us a gate or conduit for the other world to talk to us whether we call it the subconscious, the unconscious, the superconscious, the imagination or the Muse.”
While we may not seek to contact God as we write, as we actually engage in the process of putting ideas down we come into contact with the divine.
Cameron says, “Writing gives us a place to welcome more than the rational. It opens the door to inspiration.
“We are an open channel.”
One critic on the public forum Quora calls Cameron’s work “creepy”, presumably because of her spiritual approach to writing. In “The Right to Write” she addresses those who feel that her thoughts about inspiration are too “New Age” or “airy-fairy”.
“Channeling? Julia, that word is so…
“I know. I know and I do not care because the word is artistically accurate,” she responds.
The author as a channel of the thoughts of God has an impact on how we go about writing. It also has some surprise consequences on the lives of those who are willing to accept this concept of divine inspiration at face value and apply it to their work.
I will explain these effects in a future post.