“You can manufacture faith out of nothing”–Bob Dylan

Worried Blues is often where I go when I want to feel a landsmann connection with Bob Dylan. The very first time I listened to it, I heard a man who truly understood my world and my life: “I’m depressed about being worried.” I don’t much care that the song traces to a sweet-faced woman named Hally Wood, and maybe further back to Leadbelly. “I got the worried blues, lord.”  Fretting out loud about  anxiety piled upon melancholy is the existential verity of a happy Jewish life, and Worried Blues is where I can reach through a song and say, “Hail, friend,” to Bob Dylan.

Luckily, we can do better up at the 92nd St Y than my impertinence, and last night we enjoyed the company of Seth Rogovoy, author of the book, Bob Dylan: Prophet/Mystic/Poet, now available in hardcover from Scribner’s. I had tracked down Seth through his active and engaging blog, and he very generously agreed to make a trip into the city to discuss his work with our class. I did read the book prior to meeting him –and to comply with what I believe is now a law governing bloggers and electronic commerce, I reveal that I bought the book myself at the Barnes and Noble on Lexington Avenue and 86th Street.

I confess that I feared the book would make uncompromising and suffocating claims for Dylan’s essential Jewishness, and I am happy to be proven wrong. The book tells the story of Dylan’s career as a story of the demands of  being called to prophecy. In one person may coexist a certain vision of life’s conditions, a certain gift of articulating the vision, and a goading conscience that fights vagaries of one’s own energy and will and the attention span of one’s audience to persist in yoking the gift to the vision. The work of the yoking, and not just the privilege of the gift, becomes the arc of a life. Prophecy may be described this way. If  Jewish history,  scripture,  and ritual have provided one prevailing vessel for lives that play out these characteristics, then Seth Rogovoy does a fine and sane job of showing how Bob Dylan’s work can pilot this vessel of prophecy, and make room for Dylan to pilot other vessels.

Rogovoy’s talk began engagingly, way down on earth, in high school where he found Bob Dylan only after enjoying the spiritual sustenance of John Denver and Seals and Crofts. And *found* Dylan in that very big way that demonstrates what I had heard Christopher Ricks say a few weeks ago: “You don’t discover Dylan, Dylan discovers you.” It was Planet Waves that did it. And since I am eager to start a crusade that yanks this album into  center stage as a thing of greater beauty and depth than it’s generally granted, I was delighted to hear that Planet Waves was the door for Seth Rogovoy on which was written  Say Friend and Enter. My delight turned to bitter vindictive envy when Rogovoy told us that he saw Renaldo and Clara in the actual movie theater. Twice.

Back to Planet Waves. Rogovoy noticed that Dylan’s publishing company was newly named Ram’s Horn Music. The ram’s horn is the ancient instrument,  called the Shofar, used to call Jews to repentance on different holy days. “The call to repentance,” Rogovoy said, channeling the energy of his original epiphany into our little room on 92nd St. “How much was apparent to me,”  he said, that Dylan’s music is itself a call to repentance. What do prophets do? They call to repentance, as a universal and communal act.   They “wake people up.”  Wake them up to their own accountability for the fallen state of the world. The Ram’s Horn called Rogovoy to a possible field of meaning for his relation to Dylan’s songs.

When Rogovoy’s personal life, as an adult, took him into intense and intimate study of the teachings and beliefs of his Jewish heritage, he could not hold back the fecundity of this field of meaning. “The texts I memorized as a schoolboy were the lyrics of Bob Dylan.” And as an adult, he is startled and, in a way, awoken by the sounds of these phrases in the Jewish scripture and teaching. What happens then is the growing desire to tell a story with the harvest he’s reaping of all these connections: Ezekiel and The Wicked Messenger.  Amos and Long Time Gone (which I had the great pleasure of playing for him upon learning he’d never heard Bob’s actual performance). Priestly blessings and Forever Young. Judges and Tombstone Blues. He talked about these connections with a spiritedness that was never proprietary–he relived the pleasure of discovering these echoes. I asked him if he was able to recall the early emotions he had as this field of meaning grew with the new discoveries. Did he feel a new intimacy with the artist who already spoke so powerfully to him? Or did Dylan’s art now have a new authority to it imputed by the seeding of the scriptural matter? Rogovoy answered,”Both.”

In Rogovoy’s book, the inventory is extensive and more often than not, the connections are unforced. I don’t think I’ll ever hear  Yom Kippur  in Not Dark Yet, and the connection between Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window and the life of David is highly provocative and will take a while to sink in. He works hard to place Slow Train Coming, Saved, and other gospel material in the context of Jewish theology, to support the argument that Dylan’s *conversion* had subtle but unmistakable ambiguities in his theological language. That Dylan’s work in 79-80 is  spiritually complex and not simplistic, I agree with. I would like to see more work done on this, to do deeper justice to Dylan’s addresses to Jesus, and  his experience of being revived because of a relation with the figure he conceives in Jesus, and the imagery of crucifixion in the songs and the sermons. This section of Rogovoy’s book invites more listening and thinking.

The chronological structure of the book sometimes locks Rogovoy into a summary and familiar listing of Dylan’s output and activities, and loses the momentum of the story of what contemporary prophecy may look like. The summary, though, is a reasonable overview, which takes into account other influences and sources.  I can see the book being a useful introductory text to less informed but curious and serious  listeners who wish to get an accessible comprehensive overview of Dylan’s career through this lens of Judaism. In this regard, the book makes a nice companion to Scott Marshall’s Restless Pilgrim, and although I fear this pairing may not please Seth Rogovoy, I mean it as praise to two worthwhile books on Dylan and spirituality.

Rogovoy’s talk of course could not cover the range of examples in the book, and Rogovoy also shared biographical information on Dylan and Jewish life, showing video clips. Who can ever get tired of those Chabad telethons?

Oops! Wrong photo!

Who can ever get tired of those Chabad telethons? Rogovoy used clips of these to illustrate Bob Dylan’s somewhat public presence in this community. This generally makes me feel uncomfortable because on the one hand, it’s got vestiges of *outing* to it,  which causes me  confused and inarticulable discomfort, and on the other hand, I just love Bob’s modest and awkward presence on these makeshift television sets, and his impeccable timing in responding to the rabbi’s excited spiel.

Most interesting was Rogovoy’s unearthing a source for the notorious Grammy speech, which is another unquenchably and bizarrely captivating performance piece. More Buster Keaton, I think, than Charlie Chaplin? Well, Rogovoy found the Orthodox text (commentary not scripture) in a book of blessings intended for newcomers to Orthodox observance in which appears “Even if I were so depraved my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways.” That Dylan was able to unreel this text, make small changes to suit that moment and the rhythm of his speech, and then to own that passage…remarkable. To find the Grammy speech flippant or just more enigmatic kookiness from the supreme enigmatic kook, is not something I can ever do. And I thank Seth Rogovoy for bringing this material to my attention.

Rogovoy used a phrase I intend to steal and use at every possible opportunity: he referred to the “unaccountable heft and profundity of Dylan’s work.” That is simply beautiful and true, and I believe Christopher Ricks himself would give the thumbs up to the felicity of the phrase. What Seth Rogovoy does best is not to prove that Bob Dylan is 83% Jewish in 1987 or 59% Jewish in 2002. What he does best is show us what it looks like for Seth Rogovoy himself to be grateful for the unaccountable heft and profundity.  Read the book as an affecting personal narrative as well as for the useful inventory of allusions, and if Seth Rogovoy is speaking in your area, I strongly recommend making the trip to hear him, he’s very much in-the-moment himself as a speaker, and instantly sympatico for other passionate and committed Dylan listeners.

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10 thoughts on ““You can manufacture faith out of nothing”–Bob Dylan

  1. Thanks again for the great summary of your enviably great course!

    I’ve always thought that Grammy speech was one of his greatest comic performances: I might be too besotted by Bob, but the long uncomfortable pause and then “…he said so many things”…just perfect; cracks me up every time.

    I’m encouraged here to look into Rogovoy’s book: I’m always unpersuaded by Dylan-and-prophecy arguments. That’s a big topic, but for now, I’ve a comment on this question of yours: “[did you find] a new authority to [Dylan’s work] imputed by the seeding of the scriptural matter?”

    Authority-scripture: I’m skeptical. For me, Dylan’s authority comes from his ability to dramatize the complexities of doubt–it’s a more earth-bound authority, a voicing of doubt that pierces me to my heart. For me, he’s our great poet of doubt.

    BTW: the reading of “Up To Me” you posted a few entries ago…wow. *Great* stuff.

    • Hello Robert, thank you for another valuable comment and my apologies for taking so long to reply. I agree completely that the Grammy thing is a great piece of performance art: the clamorous song and then the hilarious and also sobering *speech*. He is truly mischievous when it comes to the time demands of television, the other examples of this that come to mind are his marvelous distracted wanderings on and off the stage during the first Letterman appearance, and stopping and starting Like a Rolling Stone on Unplugged.

      I think for myself I don’t ask to be persuaded by Dylan-and-prophecy arguments, mainly because any theological reading works through affinity rather than premise, if that makes sense. I did want to know if Seth Rogovoy himself felt a new authority in Dylan’s work one he began excavating the scriptural allusions.

      Doubt, absolutely, Dylan is the “great poet of doubt.” I’d go so far as to say he teaches what doubt is: it’s not the complacence or deferral or agnosticism, and it’s not the infantile resentment that follows the loss of consolation or authority. It’s an irresolvable condition in which kinds of incompatible knowledge are fully felt. High Water, Ain’t Talkin, Forgetful Heart–I hear true doubt and not disillusionment in these. I think I’m not close enough to the theology of prophecy to know whether or not a prophet is a voice of true doubt, rather than despair that the fallen world will never find its way to redemption.

      Regardless of perfectly realistic arguments you might have with Rogovoy’s project, he works from inquiry and wonder and not from dogma, and his inventory of allusions is something I’m very grateful for.

      Thanks for your comments on my bit on Up to Me–you could spend a lifetime just on the consonants of that song. No one will ever do it justice. All you can do is listen.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts about Dylan and faith. Larry Norman believed that Slow Train was the best Christian album ever and TJ Hawk wrote that half of his songs since 1981 contain Christian imagery http://www.hawkstories.com/christmas.html. Though I deeply appreciate the late Norman’s remark, I believe that the deepest, most profound spiritual songs of Dylan are not on the Slow Train album, and many have been released in the past twelve years.

    • Thank you so much for this link, and thank you infinitely more for directing our attention to Dylan’s recent work, which I agree wholesouledly is his “deepest and most profound[ly] spiritual.” What it is to feel shifts of conviction and despair in a moment, to feel transcendence affirmed and denied in a moment, this state of being is one of the great glories of what Dylan has been doing in his most recent work. All the attention to his *method* of composition, the loveandtheft methodology, we need to find a way to absorb this into the emotional and spiritual effects of the songs. Thanks for taking the time to write about this.

  3. Thanks Tom for the referral. I recently helped Frosty Jackson with a new website of Dylan videos, with comments about each song. Notice how many have Christian references: Make You Feel My Love, Shooting Star, Sweetheart Like You, Highlands, When the Deal Goes Down, Red River Shore, God Knows, Ring Them Bells, Every Grain of Sand, and others, including Dignity, where he sings about the spiritual that cannot be photographed. His writing is amazing, deep and significant. The videos and brief comments just highlights his brilliance. The new site is http://www.BestDylanVideos.com

  4. Dear TJ–I’ve just now had the chance to add your site to my list o’ links, and to thank you for this much-needed treasure trove (can it be a treasure and a necessity at the same time??). Well, thanks to Tom for calling our attention to you, and then to you for calling our attention to your site.

  5. I have that Rogovoy book and like it, but haven’t read all of it. I hadn’t read the bit about Dylan’s Grammy speech being based on an Orthodox commentary. (Nice detective work.) It adds another layer of meaning to that fairly remarkable moment. Since Dylan himself was making an allusion here, it seems appropriate to ask whether or not anybody has ever noticed the hilarious allusion to this speech found on the Tom Waits song “Lucky Day” on the Black Rider album.

    Incidentally, I entirely agree with you about the aptness of the phrase about the “unaccountable heft and profundity of Dylan’s work.” It only continues to deepen as time goes on, and I have been a fan for over 30 years.

  6. “All the attention to his *method* of composition, the loveandtheft methodology, we need to find a way to absorb this into the emotional and spiritual effects of the songs. Thanks for taking the time to write about this.”
    “the ‘unaccountable heft and profundity of Dylan’s work.'”
    Aye aye.

    …speaking of Buster Keaton, have you seen the book Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton by John Bengston? I guess it’s “discovering early Hollywood,” but what it seems really all about to me is placing Keaton’s art and acrobatics in our somewhat mundane real life. You feel you see it right in front of you. I’m one who’s read every book I could find on Keaton–awful or not–and this one stands out as making the work immediate and tangible. (Rudi Blesh’s “as told to” was good too in a similar but different way. Um, bad phrase maybe…?) But, Silent Echoes… chills. The detective work the author did is pretty fascinating, too. A lot of deduction that is simple after-the-fact and nice brain exercise.

    Guess I just wanted to share that with somebody. I guess you or someone who visits this site will appreciate it.

    • There’s a great intersection between Dylan fans/critics/etc and film fans/critics/etc and thank you for leading people to a book you’re excited about. There’s already so much done linking Dylan with Charlie Chaplin, maybe someone will be inspired to write about Dylan and Keaton, which I would be delighted to publish in Montague Street. I also want to give a plug here to film scholar Vincent Farinaccio, who has indeed written superb pieces for the journal as well as a book called Nothing to Turn Off that’s a terrific look at all Dylan’s movie work. Thanks for a worthwhile detour….

      • Thanks for the affirmation, I was afraid I got off on a real fangirl tangent there. Well, I did, but it wasn’t a bad thing. Good.

        I will definitely look up Nothing to Turn Off. I’m been watching his films lately, and just on immediate reaction the title of that for the subject is great.

        [This will come back to Dylan below] I did realize later that I forgot to mention what the Silent Echoes is actually made up of: a collection of frames from the films, sometimes put together in composites to show more fully the location where that film was made, sometimes with frames from other films that were shot in the same location. And these frames alongside contemporary, or somewhat later, or current-day (well, the book’s copyrighted 2000) photos of the locations. With explanatory text and sometimes maps.

        Some fascinating maps of LA from 1909 or thereabouts, and the author doesn’t fail to point out some of the social realities the layouts and labels on those maps reveal. Which brings to mind that people of color were very occasionally present in Buster’s films, but with no real consciousness/conscience-ness of racism, and with even a bit of exploitation of it. Which reminds me that people of color are definitely not absent from nor dehumanized in Dylan’s music or films (sad that this is a distinguishing feature in our culture)–he takes in and [insert verb here for whatever it is that he does–not sure how to define it] out America as a whole. Which is satisfying on a deep level.

        On otherwise relating Dylan and Keaton, that is an interesting thought… Keaton was embedded in vaudeville, literally grew up in it and was a star performer in it as a boy (and, in his twenties, in film) both critically and popularly. He sponged up the the traditional, weird, and unconventional expressive popular art and entertainment of the people, from before mass communication, and gave it back in clever and unique ways, and it seemed to always be the ground of his life and work as well as his background. He was an absolutely original filmmaker technically, stylistically, philosophically, and in content, working in a brand-new and popular art form. He let others take care of the business side of things. He had artistic integrity. He didn’t like to talk about the meaning of his work. His view of women on some (likely unconscious) personal and philosophical/spiritual level was a part of all his films, but probably manifested only in some complex and indirect way in his personal life. He “disappeared into a haze of substance abuse.” He “came back” with fame on a very different level (but unfortunately with much less creative freedom), but worked throughout his life in his art form in any form he could. He was seen after his initial stardom as a has-been and a relic. Oh, and the comic aspect (strangely enough) of his work has been overlooked by many.

        These parallels are interesting, and I don’t want to be discouraging to anybody, but I am having trouble coming up with meaningful comparisons about what might be called the essence or else the major themes of the art they made. Or maybe somebody will take it as a challenge.

        Well, broadly, related to the “You can manufacture faith out of nothing” theme, Buster (the character) does seem to be continually struggling to hold onto some simple meaning, perhaps by acceptance of fate and/or chance, whatever it may be at the moment, in a world that seems to operate unpredictably and with little regard for whatever effort he puts into his aims or understanding he tries to build. The duration of faith is often pretty short-lived, but he tries continually. Never any guarantee of success, and usually none achieved. Dylan did say something to the effect that if you think you’ve achieved success, you’re done for, you stop moving (and Buster is always moving); but you can always build success out of failure. Maybe that’s why when Buster finally does get the girl, it’s never really a happy ending. (And Keaton wanted it that way.)

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