Ho! Ho! Ho! – A response to Andrew Ferguson’s slam of Bob Dylan in The Weekly Standard

In The Weekly Standard of 11/09/2009, Andrew Ferguson uses the release of Christmas In the Heart as a jumping off point to mock Bob Dylan as an artist generally, to mock those who hold his work in high regard, and, more broadly, to deride baby boomers and baby boomer culture. Now, I don’t much mind knocks against the self-importance of baby boomers (perhaps selfishly, since I’m not one myself) but I feel somewhat obliged to respond to his mockery of Dylan and those who enjoy his work. My sense of obligation might come from the fact that I generally like The Weekly Standard. It’s also a little embarrassing to me when conservatives come across as mean-spirited, uptight and snarky. No doubt that was not Ferguson’s intention, but just the unfortunate consequence of his inability to appreciate certain things; things like words, music, and their effect in combination.

I don’t make a habit of writing retorts to people who just plain don’t like Dylan’s music, because that is, after all, a matter of taste. If they don’t like how the stuff sounds then they are unlikely to be persuaded by my words on a page, and life, as the saying goes, is just too short. When it comes to Dylan, what I usually choose to respond to instead are fallacies with regard to him which often appear in the media and common distortions of the nature of his work. But I’m making an exception in this case for the reasons stated above.

Firstly, an issue of fact, or where a fact is at the very least blurred by the article in question. As said, the genesis of the piece is Dylan’s new album Christmas In The Heart, and Andrew Ferguson’s intense dislike of it. Noting that many Dylan fans actually do claim to enjoy it, Ferguson develops his theme that they are “the battered wives of the music industry,” taking whatever garbage and abuse Dylan offers them and assuring the world that it feels good. The issue of fact on which Ferguson’s piece misleads is Bob’s motivation for releasing this album. Following a paragraph in which he knocks Dylan for co-opting traditional melodies in his own work and cashing the royalty checks, he then derides Dylan fans for giving him “big sales” on Christmas In The Heart as well. He seems to want the reader to take from this that the Christmas album is just another way in which Dylan is fleecing his gullible sheep and redecorating his Malibu house with the proceeds. What he fails to acknowledge, of-course, is the fact that all of Dylan’s royalties on this album are earmarked for charities that provide food to the needy, and that Dylan in fact made large personal contributions upfront to those same charities, before the album was released. This is one area where I would have thought an editor or a fact-checker might have intervened, but it wasn’t to be.

That noted, let’s proceed to Ferguson’s favorite way of mocking Dylan’s work and those who like it (since he does this on no less than four occasions in the piece) and that is by quoting lyrics that he believes are ridiculous. He kicks off the piece by quoting, without comment from him, some lines from Dylan’s 1990 song Wiggle Wiggle:

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup, Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a rolling hoop, Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a ton of lead, Wiggle, you can raise the dead

Placing this quote right after other quotes from people praising Dylan as a great artist, Ferguson’s implied point is less than subtle: How can you call someone who could write such lines a great artist?

It’s honestly hard to know how to even address an attack so specious — a shot so cheap. Does the mere existence of these lines discredit all of Dylan’s work? Is Ferguson really so humorless as to believe this? And does he believe that the readers of The Weekly Standard are so humorless as to agree with him? Think the very worst of Wiggle Wiggle if you will: all it then amounts to is a throwaway song on a minor album (Under The Red Sky). It was written around the time that Dylan was working with the Traveling Wilburys (and there’s a bunch more silly songs from which Ferguson can go dig some quotes). Listen to Wiggle Wiggle and you’ll hear a brash little rock and roll tune, a stomper. So what? Tutti Frutti was a less than stunning piece of poetry too. Wiggle Wiggle is no Tutti Frutti, but again, so what? Who is actually taking Dylan too seriously here — those of us who are proud to say we enjoy his music, or Andrew Ferguson? Dylan himself didn’t seem to take the tune too seriously, introducing it on several occasions during concert tours back then as “my ecology song.”

This humorlessness appears again in Ferguson’s critique when he quotes another one of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, this time Visions of Johanna.

Late 20th-century American culture held few spectacles more painful than hearing a professor of Elizabethan literature go all exegetical over a “masterpiece” such as “Visions of Johanna,” with lines like these: “When the jelly-faced women all sneeze / Hear the one with the mustache say, ‘Jeeze / I can’t find my knees.’ ”

Without a doubt it would be wasted on Ferguson, but, since I’ve taken this task upon myself, let me briefly endeavor to explain why these lines work in the context of the song, rather than making the whole thing worthless, as he believes (and apparently expects us to believe). Visions of Johanna is a reflection on themes of existence, isolation and chaos (although I don’t believe it’s a meditation bereft of hope). These are themes which show up quite a bit in Dylan’s work, but rarely as exquisitely crystallized as they are here. The opening lines resonate strongly enough to carry their feeling through the entire song:

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

The song conveys a particularly urban sense of being lost while simultaneously being surrounded, although I think it also has reach beyond that context. In any case, it is an intense and quite a lengthy song, and in performance it has always had a hypnotic effect. Hypnotizing one’s audience can be an impressive feat, but it always flirts with the closely-related danger of putting them to sleep. Important to understand when considering any of Dylan’s lyrics is that they are written to be performed. They are songs. Songs possess and indeed demand lyrical dynamics that poetry on the printed page does not necessarily need, and that may indeed seem incongruous or gratuitous on the page (and most especially when quoted out of context in a piece of polemic). These lines in question — When the jelly-faced women all sneeze / Hear the one with the mustache say, ‘Jeeze / I can’t find my knees — interrupt the march of the song when they appear. Both the funny rhyming and the colloquialism “jeeze” effectively bring the listener up short; the spell is broken to an important degree. The music rises climactically at the same time. A listener possessing a sense of humor may even smile at the image here and at the language. Yet, it’s humor with a glimpse of darkness too (and this is one of the aspects that makes Visions of Johanna such an impressive and much-loved work). “Jeeze, I can’t find my knees” — well, why can’t you find your knees? Perhaps because your legs have been amputated? (That would be another way of being stranded, after all.)

So the lines held up as discrediting the song, its enthusiastic critics, and possibly Dylan’s entire body of work are not truly ridiculous, although they do invite the listener to be amused. Andrew Ferguson, as we know by now, is definitely not amused.

To buttress his case, he invokes someone else, a fellow named Joe Queenan, who in an essay once apparently failed to find anything amusing in the following lines of Dylan’s song Gotta Serve Somebody (from Slow Train Coming):

You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy / You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy.

Again, I’ll explain, although fans don’t really need the explanation and such as Queenan and Ferguson have proudly declared themselves deaf to it in perpetuity. But Gotta Serve Somebody is a list song, in the same way as Let’s Do It or At Long Last Love are list songs. In list songs, the songwriter gives us example after example of a certain thing, with the aim always being to bring one back to the refrain, where the operating statement of the song really resides. Cole Porter tells us time and again, that birds to it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it and on and on through the animal and human kingdoms, but the point is always to return to his all-important imperative: LET’S do it, let’s fall in love. The list of others who do it could go on forever. In Gotta Serve Somebody, the message is simple and biblical, albeit always quite radical to the human world when truly digested: It may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.. Whoever you are, you’re going to have to serve either the devil or the Lord. The verses simply provide a long and indeed potentially infinite list of who or what you may be. A state trooper, a young Turk, the head of a TV network; someone who likes to wear cotton, someone who likes to wear silk, someone who drinks whiskey, someone who drinks milk — you get the idea. The criticized lines in question are merely a self-referential joke, from someone who hardly ever inserts a directly autobiographical reference in a song. Dylan was born with the last name “Zimmerman.” Writers and critics, feigning familiarity or contempt, have on occasion referred to him as “Zimmy.” It might be thought that something like that would offend him, but here he is throwing it right back, using the term himself, and adding it to his list, effectively saying, “Whatever you want to call me, you’re still going to have to serve either the devil or the Lord.” It’s really such a simple, innocent and self-evidently jocular thing that it’s astounding to find myself here outlining it. Clearly, it’s not at all funny to Queenan and to Ferguson. These lines may be “Dylan’s worst lyrics.” What can I say? Among other things, that’s an amazing pass to give to Ballad in Plain D.

[Update: Thanks to reader Rich who points out that those lines above of Dylan’s are also in reference to a shtick by comedian Bill Saluga, which was well known in the U.S.A in the late 1970s as it was being featured in beer commercials. Yours Truly was rather young and not living in the U.S.A at that time. You learn somethin’ new … ]

Another lyric that Ferguson zooms in on is from the opening track of Self Portrait.

From the hamper of his own work he produced songs of surpassing idiocy–“All the Tired Horses,” for example, which featured a choir repeating its only lyric: “All the tired horses in the sun / How’m I gonna get any riding done, hmmm?”

At first, in the pop music world, there was dismay. Then the chin-pulling began. What was Dylan up to? With the honorable exception of the unillusioned Greil Marcus, who opened his review with a reasonable question (“What is this s–?”), critics tried to puzzle it out. Deep thinking reviewers from Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone began toying with what has since become famous, to me at least, as the Dylan roots theory. It has proved remarkably durable and elastic. Whenever Dylan did something artistically egregious, in poor taste, inept, schlocky, or otherwise incompatible with his reputation for genius, the reviewers would explain that he was a kind of musicologist, plumbing the roots of Americana, absorbing within himself the variegated traditions of our native music and transmuting them into art uniquely his own. Hence “All the Tired Horses.” Stupid? The work of a tapped-out songwriter who doesn’t know when to quit? Think again. Dylan was simply wandering in realms of the spirit the rest of us hadn’t yet reached. As his audience has been saying ever since, he’s always one step ahead of his audience. The fact of his genius became unfalsifiable. Nothing he did could contradict it.

Instead of applying whatever skills of lyrical exegesis I possess in this case, I’m just going to quote “the unillusioned Greil Marcus,” whose writing Ferguson apparently admires despite everything, and say “What is this shit?” (It’s my blog, so I can cuss without censorship, although I do prefer only to do so when quoting.) Who in the world cares about Self Portrait other than Andrew Ferguson? Who is out there making a case for it being a great album? Dylan himself has long since stated directly — if it wasn’t clear enough at the time — that he made the album precisely in order to embarrass, disillusion and dismay those who continued to demand that he be some kind of political or counter-cultural leader. These days, no one cares about it except perhaps those very “baby boomers” who had their illusions shattered by its appearance. But Ferguson whines on. He tells us that on this album “Dylan embraced every musical convention that the revolution he helped lead a few years before was meant to destroy.” Really? Again, Ferguson is buying into a myth generated and propagated by the very “baby boomer” culture (and counter-culture) which he means us to believe that he holds in contempt. Do any serious people really think that Dylan “meant to destroy” the musical conventions that had come before him? His music is as resonant as it is because it comprehends those conventions, utilizes them at will, stretches them as needed and transcends them without dismissing them. If, on Self Portrait, he sang some pretty tunes with no apparent irony, and stunk up the place on some bizarre tracks like The Boxer, then so bloody what? Again, we find that the person not getting the joke and insisting that we also should not get it is Andrew Ferguson.

Let’s move on from Ferguson’s charge of silly lyrics to the subject of plagiarism. Now, had he chosen to make this issue his chief plank, he could have ended up with a far more respectable and coherent essay. He could have assumed the position that no one who takes lines and phrases from the work of others without explicit credit should ever be taken seriously as an artist. He could maintain that Dylan’s habit of doing this was and is intolerable, and he could have cited a huge range of sources from which Dylan has filched over the years, from the traditional Lord Randall (Dylan’s song A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall) to Dolly Parton’s Jolene (Dylan’s song Jolene). He would be entitled to that point of view, and some would agree with him. But he betrays the fact that he himself does not not have confidence in this as a rock-solid disqualifier by devoting relatively little space to it in his piece.

As a pop music reviewer put it in the New York Times a few years ago, by way of exculpation, Dylan “dips into a shared cultural heritage” to write songs that “are like magpies’ nests, full of shiny fragments from parts unknown.” The problem is, we do know where some of those shiny fragments come from; most recently they’ve included lines and images taken from a modern Japanese novel and the mawkish poems of a 19th-century Southern versifier with the unlikely name of Henry Timrod. More to the point, in the folk tradition, performers didn’t copyright their works. Property rights would have complicated beyond recognition that gentle spirit of communal give-and-take.

Ferguson repeatedly seems upset that Dylan makes his living from his occupation, although he offers no examples of Dylan suing anyone to prevent them from using the odd line of his without credit or royalty. (Suffice it to say, Bob’s lawyers would be quite busy.) Again, if using phrases from the works of others in his songs is a disqualifier, then Dylan is utterly disqualified, and was a long time ago. If, however, it is not a disqualifier, then listeners and critics will have to make up their own minds as to where and whether some line is crossed in the practice. Dylan has talked some about this, but has not been asked about it in recent interviews, which is a pity, because the question certainly should be asked in the light of the many obscure discoveries that the age of Google-searching has enabled. However, in an interview in the mid-1980s he talked about carrying a notebook with him at all times and jotting down overheard lines and phrases which interested him and which he could later work into his songs. On his 1985 album Empire Burlesque several of the songs were eventually discovered to include lines from films, in particular ones starring Humphrey Bogart. From The Maltese Falcon we had You wanna talk to me / Go ahead and talk along with I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble. These lines were used in Tight Connection To My Heart and Seeing The Real You At Last, respectively. Yet, when these things were discovered, the reaction was one of interest and amusement, rather than outraged ejaculations of “Plagiarism!” No one felt that Dylan was creating his own imitation “Maltese Falcon” from these lines and absconding with the royalties. Rather, he was integrating these lines into works which stood by themselves and moved listeners in ways varied and genuine. Tight Connection To My Heart has been heard and can resonate strongly as one of the many examples of Dylan’s dialogue (post-gospel era) with the Lord. Seeing The Real You At Last could even be heard in a similar way, albeit from a more irreverent angle, or simply as a galvanizing and fun put-down of a deceptive human lover. (The way in which Dylan’s songs can maintain an integrity on multiple levels simultaneously is a large part of the reason that some of us hold his work in such high regard.) Taking phrases from a poet, Henry Timrod, cuts closer to the bone, of-course, as compared with phrases from a screenwriter’s work. Yet, in a song like When The Deal Goes Down (which also can be heard as a poignant poem to God) Dylan may have incorporated some turns of phrase from Timrod but still can’t be said to have recreated that Civil-War era poet’s work under his own name. The song stands as a distinct work, moving to listeners on its own terms. While the revelations of various kinds of cribbed phrases do disquiet fans — and Dylan shouldn’t have some kind of carte blanche for such practices — the bottom line for most tends to remain whether out of all of this he creates songs that do move listeners on their own terms. It was true of A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, and it is true of When The Deal Goes Down. Ferguson, we can take it, is completely unmoved, by any of it.

Following on from expressing his unhappiness with Self Portrait, as mentioned earlier, Ferguson offers a litany of other ways in which Bob Dylan has “battered” his “wives”:

So Dylan turned and hit ’em again. He became a born-again Christian. He performed in Kabuki make-up. He performed drunk. He wore funny hats. He veered from headbanger rock to Opryland cheese. He made boring, pretentious movies about himself. He played with the Grateful Dead. Nothing seemed to work; his admirers just dug in deeper, gaining confidence as their ranks grew even to include England’s poet laureate.

I’ll grant that that’s one of his more effective passages, in terms of pure mockery. Dylan’s done a lot of funny things, no doubt, and still does. However, it’s the inclusion of that line, “He became a born-again Christian” that ruins it for me. Let’s remind ourselves that The Weekly Standard is seen as a standard-bearer of conservatism in the U.S., after all. Is professing belief in Christ to be listed as just another way in which someone would perversely abuse his fans? Seeing this in The Nation wouldn’t make me bat an eyelid, but it surprised me here. Ferguson could instead have referred to the awful gospel music (I assume he must believe it’s awful) that Dylan has made, but no; it’s the actual act of becoming a Christian that he singles out. I’ll confess it also disappointed me to see Joe Carter at First Things glibly laud Ferguson’s put-down of Dylan, and quote this very passage, without picking up on the implication of the sentence in question. Both Ferguson and Carter seem oblivious to the ways in which Dylan’s work has been a consolation to many people of faith — in a pop-culture where belief in the biblical God is often dismissed as out-dated or unhip — and the ways in which it has consistently pointed listeners towards meaning rather than nihilism. Of-course that’s not part of the standard “voice-of-a-generation” baby boomer narrative upon which Ferguson at least seems to rely.

I should note that Dylan himself has never been a willing player in that narrative, and of-course has long since transcended the baby boomer audience, although Ferguson presents himself as someone unaware of this. Scanning the crowds at his shows or checking out the online community of Dylan fans will demonstrate that quite quickly. But then it’s not something that I would even have to wonder about, since, as said previously, I’m not a baby boomer. The idea that you have to be one to hold Dylan’s work in high regard is patently absurd.

Finally (can it be?), when it comes to Christmas In The Heart specifically, Ferguson makes clear that he doesn’t like Dylan’s singing voice. Of-course he could have saved us all a lot of time by simply saying this upfront, and leaving it at that. But then that wouldn’t have made for much of an essay, would it? I’m not so foolish as to make an argument about Dylan’s singing to someone who clearly doesn’t like it; after all, no one could persuade me with words on a page that I should enjoy Freddie Mercury’s singing. (Sorry, Freddie.) And contrary to Ferguson’s thesis here (that Bob’s fans will take anything and just say “thank you”) quite a few fans, including some readers of this website, have stated that they just don’t enjoy hearing Dylan’s voice applied to this kind of material. They can enjoy the Christmas classics sung by Der Bingle and such, but Bob’s vocal chords just don’t bring out these melodies in a pleasant way for them. Again, there’s no arguing anyone out of that — it’s just fine. Unfortunately, Andrew Ferguson heard that voice singing these songs (for charity) and decided that the time was right for an across-the-board put-down of Dylan as an artist and of those gullible and foolish enough to enjoy his work. He decided, in essence, that it was worth making an argument as to why people should not enjoy Dylan’s voice. It can’t help but strike me as being a rather vain mission, especially here in 2009, versus, say, back in 1962.

However it has not been a mission entirely without results: it did get me to write this (perhaps equally vain) response. It did rile a lot of other Dylan fans. And things being what they are, perhaps that’s sufficient reward.

Excuse me now while I go clear my head with a little music.

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