Chapter 2
‘Beauty may Only Turn to Rust’

‘Dylan can’t sing.’

90% of the Western population

‘That boy’s got a voice. Maybe he won’t make it with his writing, but he can sing it. He can really sing it.’

Woody Guthrie

It’s a pleasure to be able to begin an article about Bob Dylan with one of the most widespread clichés about him: that he can’t sing. No matter what standard response one has whenever the topic arises (‘Well, then Picasso can’t paint either’, ‘Since so many people like him, there must be something there to like’, ‘To each his own; if you don’t like him, it’s your problem’, etc.) there is something about the question that goes beyond the urge to defend. That is what this article is about: where the question stems from and in what it consists, and it will bring us back to classical Antiquity, through medieval and Renaissance aesthetics, and up to a modern interpretation of Dylan’s song-making, against this background.

What does it mean, ‘Dylan can’t sing’? What does it mean to sing? Not just to utter sounds; singing belongs to the sphere of music, and although we all ‘know’ what music is, it is still useful to remind ourselves of what we mean by it. A fairly wide definition, which covers everything from Gregorian Chant to John Cage, goes: Music is organized sound, or slightly more precise: Music is sound organized according to some generally accepted system of criteria for production and reception of such sounds, or shorter: Music is aestheticised sound. There are books to be written about this; at the moment it may suffice to say that to most people aesthetics has something to do with beauty, and to most people who disapprove of Dylan’s vocal capacities, this is the reason: he can’t sing beautifully, and no matter how many other criteria for singing he fulfills – a certain vocal dexterity, a sense of rhythm and harmony, etc. – all this doesn’t help: Dylan can’t sing.

Thus, it would seem that for a broader appreciation of Dylan, a more thoroughgoing study of beauty would be useful – his concept of beauty, and ours, we who judge him. This is at the heart of the question of what it means to be able to sing, and the reason why the verdict may differ is that there is no one concept of beauty.

The Beautiful world of Bob Dylan

Dylan touches upon beauty in a number of songs, but in two songs only is it a genuinely good thing: in the exuberant, I’m-such-a-happy-family-man-who-loves-my-beautiful-wife anthem ‘Never Say Goodbye’ (‘You’re beautiful beyond words, You’re beautiful to me’), where it becomes such a huge word that it almost tears the song apart; and in the endearing ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’, where the beauty of it actually works: ‘There’s beauty in the silver, singin’ river / There’s beauty in the sunrise in the sky | But none of these and nothing else can touch the beauty | That I remember in my true love’s eyes.’

But in the majority of cases it is rather the negative aspects of beauty that are emphasised. Either its deceptiveness – most explicitly expressed in ‘Long Time Gone’: ‘So you can have your beauty, It’s skin deep and it only lies,’ and in ‘Trust Yourself’: ‘Don’t trust me to show you beauty | When beauty may only turn to rust. | If you need somebody you can trust, | Trust yourself’ – or its fickleness: the saddening inevitability of its decay in ‘Cold Irons Bound’ (‘It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay’); the despairing inaccessibility of its fading away in ‘Where Are You Tonight?’ (‘As her beauty fades and I watch her undrape [. . . ] Oh, if I could just find you tonight!’); the ridiculed vanity of it, when the beauty parlours on ‘Desolation Row’ are filled up with unshaven, unwashed and generally rude, filthy, smelly, abusive, and ugly sailors. And the world-weary realization that ‘behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain’ (‘Not Dark Yet’).1

Then there is a group of songs which treat the subject in a more ambiguous, ambivalent way. In ‘Dark Eyes’, beauty becomes an expression for the real, which is left unrecognised in a (sadly human) world hanging between discretion and lust for revenge, where life is a game and nothing is taken seriously (‘I feel nothing for their game where beauty goes unrecognised’). We find the same utopian view on beauty in ‘Shelter from the Storm’ (‘Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine’). This is clearly a different kind of beauty than in the other group of songs: a more intimate concept, not directed at (or emanating from) things, but a way of taking in the world, be it good or bad, pretty or foul; closer to ‘Song to Woody’ (I’m seeing your world of places and things | of paupers and peasants and princes and kings’) than to ‘Sugar Baby’ (‘I can see what everybody in the world is up against’).

Finally, there is the beauty of divine justice in ‘I and I’ (‘Took a stranger to teach me to look into justice’s beautiful face’), which is not at all concerned with the appearances of the world, but with moral ideals in the widest sense – far removed, perhaps, from the other examples, but nevertheless important.

In an interview from 1981, the question of beauty came up during a discussion of the value of art:

Herman: Well, if it expresses truth and beauty then it’s leading you to God?

Dylan: Yeah? (laughs)

Herman: Well, wouldn’t you say?

Dylan: If it’s expressing truth I’d say it’s leading you to God and beauty also.

Herman: I’ve always thought that those were the only two absolutes that there were.

Dylan: Well, beauty can be very, very deceiving. It’s not always of God.

Herman: The beauty of a sunset?

Dylan: Now, that’s a very special kind of beauty.

Herman: Well, how about the beauty of the natural world?

Dylan: Like the flowers?

Herman: Yes, and the beasts . . . and the rain . . .

Dylan: All that is beautiful, That’s God-given. I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with the man-made beauty, so that sometimes the beauty of God’s world has evaded me.

Here, all the different categories that I’ve pointed to in the songs are gathered: the vain beauty, the god-given, natural beauty, and beauty as a general concept, almost equated with God.

Before I go on with the exegesis of relating Dylan’s concept of beauty, as expressed in this handful of songs, with ‘our’ concept – that is: with the various concepts that we find in the traditions of thinking around these things, and that are still relevant, directly or indirectly, for how each one of us forms our perception of the world around us (for no less a perspective than this is at stake here) – I must bring up the most important text of them all from Dylan’s hand concerning beauty: the liner notes to Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2.2

Beauty and the Beast

The historical background of the text sets an interesting frame for the interpretation of it: the Beast’s story about his journey to appreciating the Beauty. On the surface level it can be read as a story about how Dylan overcame his resistance towards this voice of hers, that to him represented an untrue beauty – untrue because it was unreal. The voyeuristically inclined might see it as the closest we will ever get to an account of Dylan’s feelings about her. But it is not only a story about Joan Baez – it is in fact a manifesto about beauty, reality, ugliness, buffoonery, kingship. It begins:

In my youngest years I used t’ kneel

By my aunt’s house on a railroad field

An’ yank the grass outa the ground

An’ rip savagely at its roots

An’ pass the hours countin’ strands

An’ stains a green grew on my hands

As I waited till I heard the sound

A the iron ore cars rollin’ down

The tracks’d hum an’ I’d bite my lip

An’ hold my grip as the whistle whined

Crouchin’ low as the engine growled

I’d shyly wave t’ the throttle man

An’ count the cars as they rolled past

But when the echo faded in the day

An’ I understood the train was gone

It’s then that my eyes’d turn

Back t’ my hands with stains a green

That lined my palms like blood that tells

I’d taken an’ not given in return

But glancin’ back t’ the empty patch

Where the ground was turned upside down

An’ the roots lay dead beside the tree

I’d say ‘how can this bother me’

. . .

An’ I asked myself t’ be my friend

An’ I walked my road like a frightened fox

An’ I sung my song like a demon child

With a kick an’ a curse

From inside my mother’s womb –

To be slightly pompous about it, one might say that these lines introduce the theme of the individual between physical reality (represented by the grass on the railroad field) and surrounding humanity (the train and the throttle man). They both leave him, one way or another, and the only option is isolation. The realization of a something beyond the I sparks a desire to reach this other, and to leave the vegetative level behind.

The end of the quotation is the first of a series of ‘An’ I walked my road . . .’ phrases which are the backbone of the poem and which map the development of the I-character. The first stage is that of the ‘frightened fox’: the savage, the beast, the complete egoistic innocence, innocent because it is lawless, but only to a point – is a kicking child innocent of the pain it inflicts at birth? Is a frightened fox innocent just because it doesn’t mean any harm?

This is followed by a rejection of words and symbols (‘An’ I locked myself an’ lost the key | An let the symbols take their shape | An’ form a foe for me t’ fight | . . . | An’ my first symbol was the word ‘beautiful’). Why precisely beauty should be the first target is explained in the following lines:

For the railroad lines were not beautiful

They were smoky black an’ gutter-colored

An’ filled with stink an’ soot an’ dust

An’ I’d judge beauty with these rules

An’ accept it only ‘f it was ugly

An’ ‘f I could touch it with my hand

For it’s only then I’d understand

An’ say ‘yeah this’s real’

The ugly and the tangible as all that is of value, opposed with beauty. It is not the ugliness itself that matters, though. Rather, ugliness is a representative of reality, or, more precisely: that part of reality which has not (had not, in the early ‘60s) traditionally been allowed into the beautiful world of high-flying ideas about the world: art. The lines are a rebellion against that branch of the late-Romanticist concept of art which overflows with elves and the superhuman, hyper-real part of reality, be it expressed as beauty, power, or any other fascist ideal.

This is not the only way to react, but the Dylan in the poem doesn’t know that yet. For him, the reaction was to conflate the real with the ugly, the opposite of the only version he knew of the first symbol in his crusade against (and quest towards) the outside world: beauty.

The next few ‘An’ I walked my road’ lines are a merciless series of steps into the deep isolation that the fundamental questioning of concepts must lead to. First he is ‘Like a saddened clown | In the circus a my own world’, the clown being the ridiculous character who doesn’t know the appropriate way to react and act in a given situation, who like the child hasn’t yet learned the ways of life (or, as Graham Greene so exquisitely put it: the clown is the one who doesn’t learn from his mistakes).

Then he is ‘Like an arch criminal who’d done no wrong . . . screamin’ through the bars | a someone else’s prison’, and still ‘isolation’ is the key word: the confinement of having to live in a world where the concepts through which the world becomes meaningful are not your own. This may be the most concise image ever carved of the terrors of adolescence on the verge (but not yet there) of growing up. At the climax of this series, he is ‘Like a lonesome king . . . Starin’ into / A shallow grave’. He is now the supreme ruler of his own world, but it’s a lonely world, and when he tries to look beyond it the step forward also seems to lead six feet down: to give up his isolated kingdom is also the ultimate liminality of death.

The last step in this journey of the sensitive mind towards the world is the ‘scared poet | Walkin’ on the shore . . . Afraid a the sea’. The poet is a madman, but a madman who communicates, who transcends the limits of his own world, despite the fear, either of the open grave in front, or of the infinity of the ocean of people and words and voices out there. The image of the poet on the shore, frightened of the sea, wonderfully captures the notion of the sublime: the awe before the frightening immensity of the infinite, which during the age of Romanticism became the most important correlative to beauty. The sublime is terrifying, but necessary for the poet (and, by extension, the human being), because in a wider sense it represents the awakening to the world outside. And, significantly, unlike the previous ‘walked my road’ lines, this is not only a metaphor: the person in the poem is physically placed somewhere in the real world (perhaps on the same beach to which the Tambourine man led him and where he danced with one hand waving free a few years later?).

This not only brings us full circle back from symbols to reality again, but also to the topic of the text: Joan Baez and her voice. The next section of the poem brings the peripeteia, the transformation of the protagonist after the preceding crisis. During a car drive he hears Baez tell the story of how, during a childhood spent in an Arab country,3 she watched dogs being beaten to death in the street, to the general amusement of the onlookers, and how she tried to save one of these dogs, but failed. This becomes the realization that that voice, which to him so far has only represented vanity, may be founded in the ugly reality after all – even more so since, at the same time as he was killing grass in Minnesota, she was actually trying to save life.

An’ that guilty feelin’ sprang again

Not over the roots I’d pulled

But over she who saw the dogs get killed

An’ I said it softly underneath my breath

‘Yuh oughta listen t’ her voice . . .

Maybe somethin’s in the sound . . .’

. . .

An’ at the time I had no song t’ sing.

Silence replaces the struggle. The song he has so painstakingly won for himself is no more real than hers. And if that which at first glance appears as vain beauty proves to hide within it the most brutal reality, the whole system of oppositions that he has constructed for himself must fall. His tired nerves succumb to her singing, in something which may not be a wholehearted acceptance of it and its beauty (but rather a surrender to its force), but the immediate consequence is liberation, both from the rationality of concept formation, and from these very concepts.

This is again madness, of course, ‘An’ I laughed almost an insane laugh’. The laughter is directed both at himself and at the foolishness of his previous creed, that ‘beauty was | Only ugliness an’ muck’. And after finding his new truth in ‘the breeze I heard in a young girl’s breath’ which ‘proved true as sex an’ womanhood’, he finds himself, at the end of the poem, going back to the railroad track in his mind. Again he is suspended between raw reality and society, but this time it contains no threat, no danger, but also no desire:

An’ I’ll walk my road somewhere between

The unseen green an’ the jet-black train

An’ I’ll sing my song like a rebel wild

For it’s that I am an’ can’t deny

But at least I’ll know not t’ hurt

Not t’ push

Not t’ ache

An’ God knows . . . not t’ try –

This is not really resignation, but a realization that neither beauty nor ugliness nor any other symbols need to be opposed; they are not more dangerous to the ‘frightened fox’ than the poet is to the ocean (or vice versa?).

The consequence that runs parallel to this freedom is a reshaping of the concept of beauty which has been so central to the development up to this point. The journey to the appreciation of the beauty in Joan Baez’s voice is also about personal maturation and growth. What started out as the assimilation of reality and the ugly, and the opposition of this to beauty, has given way to the insight that there are several concepts of beauty, and that at least in some of them there is a place for reality.

This can be taken yet another step: ultimately, it may not be reality itself that matters, but the ability to perceive this reality and to express that perception to someone else. Thus, the initial opposition can be rephrased as that between beauty and expression, and the insight gained is that this does not necessarily have to be an opposition: even the beautiful can contain the expressive.

And with that, we are ready to step back into the history of aesthetics.

Proportion and expression

The two stances in Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2 can easily be followed through the entire history of art. One is the idea that beauty lies in an orderly and proportionate relationship between parts of a whole and between the parts and the whole. This idea forms the backbone of any concept of beauty up until the eighteenth century. Pythagoras discovered that the sounds that we find pleasing are based on simple proportions, while ugly sounds have more complex proportions. Plato considered this kind of mathematical harmony to be the fundamental property of the world. In his creation myth Timaios, the creator-god shapes the world beginning with unity, then extending it with ‘the other’ and ‘the intermediary’, and along the corresponding number series 1, 2, 4, 8 and 1, 3, 9, 27. This specifically Greek idea found its way into the Bible through the Wisdom of Solomon 11: 21: ‘thou hast ordered all things in measure and number and weight’.

This is not to say that beauty was perceived as a purely intellectual, rational matter of weights and measures. Behind the dry façade of beauty as numbers lies the notion that numbers and numerical relations are reflections of the divine principles governing the universe; that we find the same relations in the universe as a whole, in human beings, in musical sounds, and in visible beauty.

The belief that the harmonious is a reflection of the divine may (together with the neatness of the system) explain why such a concept could rule supreme for two millennia. But it was never entirely unchallenged, and all the other perspectives on beauty that we have encountered above are recognisable in the history of aesthetics: the sublime, the beauty of the law, natural beauty, and the ethics of beauty. These could all be seen as extensions of the basic concept of beauty, as concessions to the assaults from reality (or truth) on the neatness of mental constructions.

But the most persistent opponent has been the character that shows up at the turning point of Joan Baez in Concert, part 2: the madly laughing poet. Plato writes in the Phaedrus that one of the frenzies to which people are subject comes from the Muses. When these pour inspiration upon a man, it ‘inspires [the soul] to songs and other poetry. [. . . ] But he who without the divine madness comes to the doors of the Muses, confident that he will be a good poet by art, meets with no success, and the poetry of the sane man vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired madmen’. The relationship between art and beauty is a long and complex one, but we may condense it here to the opposition, in Plato’s account, between the craft which rests on knowledge of the divine principles, expressed as rules, and the expression – of an experience of reality, and for the benefit of the rest of us – which defies such rules.

This conflict between rule-based beauty and inspired expression pops up now and again through history. Josquin des Prez (d. 1521), whose music to modern ears is the epitome of soothing, Renaissance beauty, was chided by his greatest fan for occasionally not having ‘repressed the violent impulses of his unbridled temperament’.

The most famous occasion of such a conflict is probably the debate between the composer Monteverdi (d. 1643) and Artusi in the early seventeenth century. Artusi took it upon himself to represent the true art of music, and he had found a number of ‘errors’ in Monteverdi’s works. Monteverdi’s reply was that, yes, he had broken the rules, but he had done so for the benefit of expression. The words demanded it; in his practice, the words were no longer to be the servant of harmony, but its mistress.

Even though Monteverdi’s new style was in one sense a radical breach with the prevalence of beauty-as-harmony, the theoretical legitimisation that he gives of his new approach plays on the same field as the old. He can place words above harmony because ‘the words conform to the disposition of the soul; and the rhythm and the harmony follow the words’. It becomes another path to the divine principles: what appears as raw, ugly expression, nevertheless has something of beauty in it, because it, too, goes back to ‘the disposition of the soul’.

Sounds familiar? With some modification, this could have been incorporated into the discussion of Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2 – the apparent conflict between rational beauty and expressivity, and the tearing down of the boundaries between them.

Expression and style

One point appears more clearly in the Monteverdi controversy than in Dylan’s poem, but that at the same time is such a central point in Dylan’s whole work, that it can easily be added to the discussion: the influence of the word.

Have a look at the Guthrie quotation at the top again:

He can really sing it.

It. Not just ‘sing’, but ‘sing it’. That little extra word turns this short statement from the dying hobo-poet into the most precise description of Dylan’s art. Because to sing is not only about music, but, as Plato knew, and Josquin, and Monteverdi, and Dylan, it’s about words too. It’s about what you sing, what you project, what you express.

It is a commonplace among musicians to claim to be influenced by Dylan, but apart from a general desire to write meaningful lyrics, it is often difficult to see more precisely how this influence really comes through. And by taking only the style of writing, they miss half of the equation – perhaps the most important part, for a singer, anyway. What makes Dylan so special, I believe, is not only his ability to shape words according to the ‘disposition of the soul’, but also to let this disposition come to expression, through the words, in a style which is shaped precisely to fit this expression. As with Monteverdi, this style will go beyond the requirements of the beautiful, of criteria of melodiousness, because Dylan’s art is founded in a perfect symbiosis between lyrics and singing style.

And just as personal and individual as the perception that is expressed is the style: the symbiosis between lyrics and style includes the singer himself, in an identification between singer and song, so that when Dylan sings, we not only hear the song, we hear Dylan. This is most immediately evident in songs like ‘Sara’, where the singer is almost physically present in the song, but fundamentally it is just as true about ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, and just as irrelevant a perspective on a song like ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’.4 What we hear is one individual’s perspective on the world, and since it presumably is the same world we ourselves relate to, as we tear up grass somewhere else along the same train line, this perspective is potentially of vital importance – far more so than some divine principle, long forgotten and well hidden in the kind of beauty that will, inevitably, only turn to rust.