the elusive magical mysteries of john wesley harding; remarks for the “at work in the archive” panel at the virtual conference, bob dylan@80, saturday, 22 May 2021.
In 2018, esteemed co-panelist and fearless Bob Dylan Institute leader Sean Latham and historian Brian Hosmer, then at the University of Tulsa, now at Oklahoma State University, invited me to contribute an essay about Bob Dylan and the counterculture for the new book The World of Bob Dylan. This was an interesting but also challenging task. After all, Bob Dylan is at once deeply associated with the 1960s counterculture and yet also has said repeatedly that he wants nothing to do with it.
Trying to sum up the complex, fraught relationship between these two already slippery topics—Dylan, the counterculture—would be no easy thing. Dylan doesn’t stay in place. We all know that. Neither, the more you study it, does the counterculture, that magic swirling ship of social energies formed by people who sought to imagine and enter into a new kind of modern life, different from what was on offer in the mainstream during the decades after World War II.
I decided one way—not the only way of course, but one way—in to the relationship of Dylan and the counterculture might be to focus on the album John Wesley Harding and the pivot Dylan made in 1967 from the high-hipster, going electric, howling “how does it feel?” phase of his career to his post-motorcycle accident, backwoods mystic, allegorical preacher, domestic country-squire, Basement Tapes period. The John Wesley Harding moment, always shrouded in mystery, struck me as one way to get a view on where Dylan and the counterculture met in the 1960s. Did the archive have anything new to tell us about this time period?
It did. But other questions emerged too from being able to work in the Bob Dylan Archive. I’d like to line three of them out today, ever so briefly, in the time I have left. The first is a critic’s question and has to do with Dylan as artist. The second is a historian’s question and has to do with what Dylan’s art can tell us about the larger times in which he lived. And the third is a theoretical question: what do we learn about archives from all this Dylanology? What are archives, how do they work, why they matter?
Question one: what do we learn about Bob Dylan and his art when we can now access his official archive?
Going into the Bob Dylan Archive to investigate John Wesley Harding, all I could hear in my head was that warning from “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”: “One should never be where one does not belong.” It is “the moral of the story / The moral of this song,” after all. There is something forbidden, improper, even sullying about seeking to access the man behind the shades, to rifle through his papers and notebooks, to peek into his private archive. Dylan has always requested, even insisted, that we not go there, that we respect his privacy.
What one discovers looking through Dylan’s notebooks and scraps of paper, listening to the outtakes of John Wesley Harding, leafing through other ephemera is that the artist behind the shades is the artist in front of them, under the spotlight. Dylan as artist is porous, open, a filter, a diaphragm. His process absorbs the world, registers it, and refashions it. That’s his artistic brilliance. And it shows in the official Bob Dylan Archive. You glimpse Dylan doing just what we think he would be doing. He sifts and considers, sorts and collects, observes and mutates, rearranges and revises. During the time around John Wesley Harding, his notebooks show him slowly rethinking the kind of song style he wanted to create, and doing so partly in response to the changing times of psychedelia and counterculture, rock music and its excesses, the Vietnam War and antiwar resistance, an America and a world seemingly coming apart at the seams yet also, as the poet Gary Snyder has written, at a juncture in time “when it seemed the world might head a new way.”
This leads to my second question: not just what does the archive tell us about Dylan as artist, but also what light does Dylan’s art shine on the larger times in which he lived?
Dylan, we know, increasingly wanted nothing to do with the counterculture by late 1967, if not before that. As he wrote years later in Chronicles, noting the annoyance of people constantly invading his private life in Woodstock, “Whatever the counterculture was, I’d seen enough of it.” Or as he wrote on a scrap of paper some time in the late 1960s: “I’d hate to think I was speaking for a generation, I’d like to think I was speaking for myself too.”
His new style may not have spoken for a generation; but it did speak to a generation. Much as Dylan seemed to be backing away from the counterculture as it roared around him, retreating into a private world, he also, as an artist, joined the ongoing cultural and musical debate about what the counterculture was exactly and what it should or might be. Should hippies zoom into a druggy, psychedelic fantasia with the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper, for instance? Dylan didn’t like that sound and style much and sought out a different quest, a more pastoral one that sought not to reject the past, but draw upon it, that sought not to abandon history so much as try to get back to the past, reconnect with it, see what it had to offer for present conundrums and dilemmas.
He wanted to breathe the air around Tom Paine. He pitied the poor immigrant. He wanted to go back to the Bible, which he was reading intently at the time (there are long lists of biblical citations in his notebooks). He was curious about what St. Augustine had to say as much as Sgt Pepper. He wanted to know what the story was with Judas Priest, and how the outlaw John Wesley Harding had handled things, or how, somewhere on a medieval watchtower, a joker and a thief debated their next move as a mysterious rider approached and the winds began to howl.
Listeners, critics, fans, the public received Dylan’s John Wesley Harding as drawing upon reconfigured fragments of the past to try to make sense of the present. As future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau put it in a 1968 review, John Wesley Harding expressed “a profound awareness of the [Vietnam] war and how it is affecting all of us.” This was the case even as, to quote the music critic Robert Christgau in a review from the time, “instead of plunging forward, Dylan looked back. Instead of grafting, he pruned.” Many responders to John Wesley Harding—Ellen Willis, Jean Strouse, Gregg Campbell—grew particularly interested in this turning back to attempt to move forward, with an interest in how Dylan combined pastoralism, pop, and an apocalyptic strand into the album’s expressive power.
With its fresh renewal of his long-running interest in what ancient, mystic, and historical folk culture could bring to the contemporary moment, Dylan’s John Wesley Harding joined debates of the time about what the counterculture might be, what it might become. It helped, in this way to constitute the counterculture itself, to make the counterculture not just a party zone of sex, drugs, and rock and roll—though it was that too—but also to make it a medium for contemplating, wondering, questioning, and considering what the options were, where the dangers lurked, in the effort to turn the self and the world in better directions.
To close, then, with my theoretical question: what do we learn about archives—what they are, how they work, why they matter—from all this Dylanology?
The Official Bob Dylan Archive, capital A, might seem like a thing apart from the long history of archiving Dylan. I’d argue the opposite. It might best be understood in continuity with the long history of tracking, preserving, tracing, and studying Dylan’s art. In this way the Official Bob Dylan Archive even raises the issue of what an official archive is exactly, where it ends and other modes of memory and memorialization begin, and how an archive relates to the person it ostensibly archives.
My Official Dylan Archive visit, for instance, quickly led to connections with a world of collectors—unofficial archivists really—who graciously shared items, ideas, and more. This got me to thinking about what, who we mean when we say “Bob Dylan.” To be sure it’s the artist himself, but it’s also the larger phenomena his art constitutes. The World of Bob Dylan, indeed.
What is official, anyway? What is bootlegged? What is inside? What is out? When are we at the Official Bob Dylan Archive and when are we inching toward the AJ Weberman Society for Garbology, sifting through the man’s trash cans? In short, where are we exactly when we conduct research in the Bob Dylan Archive?
We might sometimes find ourselves where one does not belong, it’s true. Maybe that’s a time to look away. But maybe the official archive is not just a tawdry affair. Instead of fetishizing the Dylan Archive as a secret lair, what if instead we think of it as a springboard for community, maybe even as a constituter of counterculture. At the very least, the Bob Dylan Archive allows us to try to climb up atop the stuff of a lifetime to get a glimpse at the past and the future—how it all connects, what our fates might be. The archive can be less a vault, more a watchtower.