A slim volume of essays adds more than a footnote to the long shelf of Dylan books.
After a recent spate of Dylan studies by prominent academics—Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks, in addition to the comprehensive Greil Marcus anthology—there would seem to be nothing left to say about this celebrated and frequently confounding artist. Yet music critic Yaffe (English/Syracuse Univ; Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing, 2005, etc.) sheds some fresh light, or at least offers a provocative perspective. His four thematic chapters “attempt to elucidate the difficult pleasure that is Dylan, with his nasal voice, oblique lyrics, complicated relation to race, and controversial appropriation of words and music.” Obviously passionate about his subject, on whom he teaches a course, Yaffe writes that “while he is perhaps miscategorized as a poet, he is underrated as a singer.” The author later makes the far more startling assertion that “Dylan’s relationship to race is unique,” and that “the story of how Dylan got his groove back by becoming his own soul sister is also a distinctly American narrative of racial appropriation and sexual exploitation, of selling out, getting saved, and owning up.” For Yaffe, Dylan’s controversial (and short-lived) “born again” phase is as much about race (and gospel music) and eros as it is about Christianity. Pretty much every page could launch a debate, though Yaffe is one of the few to swallow whole the assertion by Mavis Staples that the young Dylan would have married her if she had consented. More than any other recent Dylan book, this one frequently anticipates his death, the unthinkable prospect of no more Dylan (though there will be plenty more Dylan books).
Not for the neophyte, but fascinating for obsessives who think they know everything and want to know more.