Seeking Jewish roots in Bob Dylan's music

Sunday, Dec. 06

To trace the influences of a living artist -- especially one as prolific and enigmatic as Bob Dylan -- is a daunting task to be sure.

But that is exactly what pop music writer Seth Rogovoy undertakes in his newest book, "Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet."

Rogovoy's intention is a novel one: To highlight how Dylan, the songwriter, was influenced by his Jewish heritage. He does so by making connections between Hebrew Scripture, Dylan's work, his Jewish upbringing and his life-long connection to Judaism.

To say he accomplishes this goal is to overstate the facts slightly.

Rogovoy does best at convincing the reader when he paints in broad strokes. He offers a rich description of Dylan's youth in a Jewish family in Minnesota. This early chapter of the icon's life -- when he was known as Robert Zimmerman -- tells of Jewish youth camps, study of Scripture and immigrant forebears who still spoke Yiddish and maintained traditional religious practices.

The background alone makes it easy to see how these early experiences would eventually find voice in the writings of the artist-to-come.

Add in Rogovoy's details of how Dylan appeared several times on telethons in the ‘80s for the Orthodox Jewish outreach movement, Chabad, and it becomes no logical jump to assert that his art has been influenced by his faith.

However, Rogovoy's argument wears thin when he attempts to make detailed connections between Dylan lyrics and specific passages from Scripture. While some of these comparisons are thought-provoking and seem accurate, others are tenuous at best.

For example, Rogovoy asserts that Dylan's 1997 song, "Love Sick" borrows its phrasing from the Song of Songs 2:7, in which the phrase, "sick with love" appears.

That may be so, but even if the roots of "love sick," are Scriptural, the phrase has become so common that there
is no telling for certain where Dylan encountered it for the first time or how it entered his vocabulary.

Rogovoy makes other similar connections between Scripture and Dylan's lyrics, but since Dylan is the only one who can say whether the claims are accurate, and Rogovoy did not interview him, the arguments are less than convincing.

As the book progresses, how-ever, Rogovoy's connections -- especially in the later years of Dylan's career -- begin to gain credence.

The author's most convincing analyses of the lyrics involve imagery from the stories of Noah, David and Moses, and allusions to Dylan's stance on Zionism and the history of Jewish persecution.

For example, he cites the following lines from Dylan's "Neighborhood Bully," that point clearly to the long history of persecution the Jewish people endured:

"The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land

He's wandered the earth an exiled man.

Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn,

He's always on trial for just being born"

Beyond this kind of textual analysis, Rogovoy does a remarkably thorough job of detailing Dylan's personal and professional life to support his claims that the artist's music is rooted in his Jewish heritage.

Yet because the connections Rogovoy makes are not always convincing, this reader was left wanting to know more about Dylan and the influences that may -- or may not -- have shaped his music. Ironically, to leave a reader with that desire to learn more is an achievement, even if unintended.

Similarly, Dylan fans, after reading this book, may not be able listen to him again with the same ears.

They too may want to re-examine the music, to listen more carefully for what Rogovoy suggests they might have missed. And that, too, for a writer, is no small accomplishment.

To reach Michael Foster:


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