Bob Dylan’s most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is a sustained meditation on these themes. Released in June 2020, the album is among the most critically acclaimed in Dylan’s nearly 60-year career. Dylan is not Catholic, but as in intellectual descendent of Brownson, his music resonates with the opposites of which Catholicism is the reconciler.
Catholic faith is the reconciler of all opposites – Orestes Brownson
In November 2021, after a long Covid-induced pause, Dylan recommenced his Never-Ending Tour, playing to sold-out concert halls and showcasing eight of the ten songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways. I attended a stop on the tour in Cincinnati, 40 years after my first Dylan show in November 1981. Both the new album and renewed tour illustrate why Dylan is the most important artist in the history of American popular music, and one to whom Catholics, especially, should attend.
Dylan’s genius cannot be isolated to any single aspect of his art: the lyrics, musical compositions, or performances. Rather, the depth of his abiding importance to American music is the combination of these three elements. Just as his lyrics require the music to be understood, it’s in the performance that the songs can be most deeply appreciated. Other artists may make admirable recordings of Dylan’s songs; but only Dylan can perform them. This is in large part because only Dylan understands them. Thus, only he can explain them through performance.
Literary critic Christopher Ricks (author of the book, Dylan’s Visions of Sin) has recently described Dylan’s genius as lying “in the creation and performance of these songs”; it is manifest in “the extraordinary balance and reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities”. Dylan, Ricks continues, “goes through a whole series of things that would be very, very hard to bring together in the ordinary way. It’s genius to be able to put these things together in balance and reconcile them.” This is precisely what Dylan does in the performance of the songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Dylan’s new song, I Contain Multitudes—an homage to Walt Whitman—substantiates the point. He takes the title from Whitman’s poem, Song of Myself, which contains the lines,
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then….I contradict myself;
I am large….I contain multitudes.
Dylan’s overt use of the of the poem may be a jab at some critics who have accused him of too heavily borrowing from the tradition of American poesy. By expressly invoking “America’s poet,” Dylan both acknowledges his artistic debt to Whitman (and the broader English-speaking catalogue) and places himself squarely in the tradition his song invokes.
For example, the narrator of I Contain Multitudes will lose his mind if we do not follow him, with Irish poet Anthony Raftery, to Bally-Na-Lee. He has “a tell-tale heart like Mr. Poe”, and sings the “songs of experience like William Blake”. He’s just like “them British bad boys the Rolling Stones”; and with David Bowie, he “rollick[s] and frolic[s] with all the young dudes”.
But I Contain Multitudes is not just a catalogue of poetic and musical allusions. Like others from Rough and Rowdy Ways, it probes the depths of the rich varieties of human experience, including the tensions that often press upon us in the hurly burly of everyday existence. “I’m just like Anne Frank; like Indiana Jones”, he sings, in what initially sounds almost profane, but which in fact expresses the narrative exigencies that make claims on us. In negotiating the moral vagaries that confront our moral lives, we veer from the grave moral seriousness of the Holocaust to the whimsical pop iconography of Hollywood. “What more can I tell you?”, asks the narrator. “I sleep with life and death in the same bed”.
It probes the depths of the rich varieties of human experience, including the tensions that often press upon us in the hurly burly of everyday existence
Similarly, in Mother of Muses, Dylan celebrates the heroism of “Sherman, Montgomery, and Scott; and of Zhukov and Patton and the battles they fought/Who cleared the path for Presley to sing; Who carved the path for Martin Luther King”. The profane and sacred meet in the song in the same way that they meet in our own conflicted lives. The narrator is us and we are the narrator.
And 80-year-old Dylan confronts the reality of ageing and inevitability of dying. In My Own Version of You, the Frankenstein-like narrator searches “morgues and monasteries” for “the necessary body parts” to “bring someone to life” so that he can “be saved by the creature that I create”. Dylan’s own age is evident as he performs these songs on stage, conceding his physical decline but not his spiritual vitality. In what might be described as a cross between a hobble and a strut, he lurks about on a dim stage, stooped with the transient body of a man, but alive with the eternal spirit of the artist.
Dylan concludes My Own Version of You with the lyric, “I want to bring someone to life/Turn back the years/Do it with laughter/Do it with tears”. Dylan’s “vision of sin” contains at least a glimpse of the grace by which God reconciles all things through His Church.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law.
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