The River Boat Captain, He Knows My Fate

by Mark Chmiel

My mother was chagrined when I went from listening to the Beatles at age 13 to Bob Dylan at 14. “At least the Beatles can sing; how can your ears stand that?”

Neither she nor I could have conceived that four decades later Bob Dylan would be a Nobel laureate of literature.

Some of his songs that have put me in a trance over the years: Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Brownsville Girl, Series of Dreams, Highlands, Like a Rolling Stone, Not Dark Yet, Absolutely Sweet Marie, Thunder on the Mountain, Blind Willie McTell, When the Levee Breaks. And the Japanese cover of My Back Pages by the Magokoro Brothers. Oh, and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.

I recently went back to Jonathan Cott’s collection of Essential Interviews with Dylan over the years. (I must have given that book as a graduation present to two or three SLU students. For some reason, “Girl from the North Country” comes to my mind.) What follows—first, what some of the interviewers said about Dylan; second, some classic Dylan musings; third, a list of singers he cites, worth getting (re)acquainted with.

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Elusive, oblique, mercurial, and always in motion, he has resisted in both his life and his work being categorized, encapsulated, finalized, conventionalized, canonized, and deified. Xii

He has a superb ear for speech rhythms, a generally astute sense of selective detail, and a natural storyteller’s command of narrative pacing. 22

He has more presence that anyone I’ve ever met. 340

He brought the linguistic beauty of Shakespeare, Byron, and Dylan Thomas, and the expansiveness and beat experimentation of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti, to the folk poetry of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. 368

During a recording career that now spans 35 years, Dylan has been a cornucopia of inconsistency. Visionary and crank, innovator and conservator, irritant and stimulant, skeptic and proselytizer, rebel and sellout, pathfinder and lost patrol: Dylan has been all of those things, and many more. 392

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Yes, training. You have to have some. I can remember traveling through towns, and if somebody played the guitar, that’s who you went to see. You didn’t necessarily go to meet  them, you just went necessarily to watch them, listen to them, and if possible, learn how to do the same thing. 115

I have my point of view and my vision, and nothing tampers with it because it’s all I’ve got. I don’t have anything to sell out. 190

Five million years is nothing—it’s a drop in the bucket. 195

Art is the perpetual motion of illusion. The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them? 196

I’m sure of my dream self. I live in my dreams, I don’t really live in the actual world. 197

The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. 208

I’m the first person who’ll put it to you and the last person who’ll explain it to you. 258-9

It took me a long time to get to do consciously what I used to be able to do unconsciously. 260

“Changing of the Guards” is a thousand years old. Woody Guthrie said he just picked songs out of the air. That means that they were already there and that he was tuned into them. 263

I might hire two girls and an elephant—but it doesn’t matter how big the sound gets as long as it’s behind me emphasizing the song. 266

Sometimes your parents don’t even know who you are. No one knows but you. Lord, if your own parents don’t know who you are, who else in the world is there who would know you except you? 269

I don’t know, you’ve just got to try, try to do some good for somebody. The world is full of nonsupporters and backbiters—people who chew on wet rags. But it’s also filled with people who love you. 270

Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up. 276

I don’t want to go see a movie just to kill time, or to have it just show me something I’m not aware of. I want to be moved, because that’s what art is supposed to do, according to all the great theologians. Art is supposed to take you out of your chair. It’s supposed to take you from one space to another. 220

I don’t know if I’ve ever been happy if we’re talking straight. I don’t know … I mean … happy? I don’t consider myself happy and I don’t consider myself unhappy, I’ve just never thought of life in terms of happiness and unhappiness. It just never occurred to me. 318

I’m opposed to whatever oppresses people’s intelligence. 341

To me, America means the Indians. 342

Well, for me, there is no right and no left. There’s truth and there’s untruth, you know? 344

Folk music is where it all starts and in many ways ends. If you don’t have that foundation, or if you’re not as knowledgeable about it and you don’t know how to control that, and you don’t feel historically tied to it, then what you’re doing is not going to be as strong as it could be. 423

A song is just a mood that an artist is attempting to convey. 426

But you can’t just copy somebody. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years. I go back to Stephen Foster. 429

Popular culture usually comes to an end very quickly. It gets thrown into the grave. I wanted to do something that stood alongside Rembrandt’s paintings. 430

I’m not good at defining things. Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn’t. It’s up to the listener to figure out what it means to him. 432

Well, you have to understand that I’m not a melodist. My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form. 437

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Joan Baez
Harry Belafonte
Chuck Berry
Scrapper Blackwell
Byrds
Carter Family
Johnny Cash
Bo Diddley
Woody Guthrie
Françoise Hardy
Emmylou Harris
Slim Harpo
John Lee Hooker
Lightnin Hopkins
Cisco Houston
Skip James
Robert Johnson
Leadbelly
Little Anthony and the Imperials
Martha and the Vandellas
Memphis Jug Band
Jelly Roll Morton
Nana Mouskouri
Smokey and the Miracles
Odetta
Carl Perkins
Jimmy Reed
Porter Wagoner
Muddy Waters
Big Joe Williams
Hank Williams
Howlin Wolf