Dylan at 80

Constantine Sandis
15 min readOct 25, 2021

It used to go like that, and now it goes like this

Gary Browning & Constantine Sandis

Bob Dylan did not die young. That still seems a surprise.

Dylan himself has reflected a number of times about his cheating of death, toying with concepts of transfiguration and rebirth. From early on, biographers have recorded Dylan’s thoughts on his own death, speculating what it might mean for him to grow old. At the close of his landmark 1986 biography, No Direction Home – The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, Robert Shelton wondered what Dylan’s future career might be like. Would his creativity come to an abrupt end like that of Rimbaud, or would it flourish in late age, like that of Yeats?

If once an open question, the answer has been clear since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Dylan at 80, reflects on the evolving creativity across various stages of Dylan’s life and career, from a youthful Guthrie jukebox to elderly statesman with the blood of the land in his voice. On his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, the Blakean song ‘I Contain Multitudes’ serves as a piece of retrospective self-reflection upon Dylan’s own many-sidedness, in turn refracted into the many songs on the album. Heartfelt love songs, rowdy blues, mournful reflections on the political past and present, and ruminations on the end of things represent and deepen Dylan’s repertoire ever since Another Side of Bob Dylan.

2021 marks Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday and his 60th year in the music world. It invites us to look back on his career and the multitudes that it contains. Is he a song and dance man? A political hero? A protest singer? A self-portrait artist who has yet to paint his masterpiece? Is he Shakespeare in the alley? The greatest living exponent of American music? An ironsmith? Internet radio DJ? Poet (who knows it)? Is he a spiritual and religious parking meter? Judas? The voice of a generation or a false prophet, jokerman, and thief? Dylan is all these and none. We can now consider what it means for Dylan to be entering his seventh decade as a recording artist. If this book is about anything, it is about reflecting on Dylan at 80. How is he? How is his art? Does he still embody the themes and styles of his younger self, or has he developed a late style that won’t look back? The essays in this book explore the Nobel laureate’s masks, collectively reflecting upon their meaning through time, change, movement, and age.

Dylan’s capacity to exert an influence on a multiplicity of spheres and artistic styles explains the diversity of contributors to this volume. They are written by wonderful and diverse set of contributors: celebrated Dylanologists (James Adams, Michael Gray, KG Miles, & Laura Tenschert); musical artists(Alexander Douglas, Robyn Hitchcock, Barb Jungr, Lou Majaw, Nana Mouskouri, Amy Rigby, & Emma Swift); journalists and filmakers (Jessica Hundley, Mick Gold, & Tim Shorrock ); writers (Lucy Boucher, Harrison Hewitt); café owners (Emma-Rose Sears); lawyers (Stephen Sedley); educationalists (Natalie Ferris, Roger Dalrymple); theologians (Anupama Ranawana); linguists (Jean-Charles Khalifa); actors (Lucas Hare),political and social theorists (David Boucher, Gary Browning); philosophers (Sophie Grace Chappell, Keith Frankish, Maximilian de Gaynesford, Garry L. Hagberg, Fleur Jongepier, Ray Monk, Constantine Sandis, & Galen Strawson);the literature professors who all like his looks (Nicholas Birns, Katharine A. Craik, Anne Margaret Daniel); and Ray Foulk, the legendary promoter who nearly fell off the floor signing Bob Dylan for the second Isle of White festival.

The Dylan who sings about the death of Kennedy in 2020 appears very different from the Dylan who, in 1963, when giving a speech at the Tom Paine Award shortly after JFK’s assassination, claimed to despise the old people in the audience. Yet in 2020, as in 1963, Dylan widens responsibilities for political developments. In his recent ‘Murder Most Foul’, Dylan traces the legacy of the Kennedy assassination in a succession of cultural developments, just as responsibility for the wrongs that he diagnosed in society in the early 1960s pointed to many people, including the singer himself and his audience (a question addressed in the essays by Monk and Browning).

This theme of widening responsibility is the focus of ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ which was recorded in 1963 but only officially released in the Bootleg Series in 1991. In this song that is designated a masterpiece in Stephen Sedley’s essay, Dylan adapts the nursery rhyme, Who Killed Cock Robin? The song asks one insistent question about who was responsible for the death of the boxer, Davey Moore, who died after a world title bout with Sugar Ramos. It poses the question to a series of people who are implicated in the death; the referee, boxing writers, gamblers, the crowd and the other boxer in the ring, Sugar Ramos. There is no definitive answer to the insistent question, but responsibility emerges as shared between all of these people. Dylan’s finger pointing songs are to the point precisely because they demand that all of us consider wider notions of political causation, including our own role in the public world. Hence, ‘Murder Most Foul’ widens rather than narrows responsibility for what has happened to public life in the USA after the Kennedy assassination, going beyond Oswald and the conspirators in the murder.

Dylan urges us to not look back while constantly using the past to create something for the present. Time is central to him. It moves too fast and is an enemy. Yet it also passes slowly and frustrates our moves. It allows for creation and self-creation, with which Dylan has worked since he created himself as Bob Dylan (see David Boucher’s essay). Maximilian de Gaynesford concentrates upon ‘Pledging My Time’, where the demanding sense of pledging one’s time is explored for what it might mean, and where the richness of its possibilities of commitment are pondered. Time is a jet plane and there’s no time to think. Bob Dylan said that. Inside you the time moves. Robyn Hitchcock said that. Dylan’s younger self was busy being born, yet his first album sees him rehearsing the end-of-the-line songs of the Delta blues, such as ‘In My Time of Dyin’’. He doesn’t sing such songs any more, but (as Keith Frankish points out in his essay) when he ponders mortality in his own late songs, he seems to mean it. So much for these long and wasted years. Time is relative to space, yet every distance is not near. We are born in time and it’s been such a long, long time. Dylan wants to turn back the clock, or even have it pushed back for him (see Hare’s essay). Yet he was ahead of his time when he sang the names of Emmett Till, Davey Moore, Medgar Evers, Hattie Carroll, Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, George Jackson and others, long before ‘say their names’ became a thing. It looks like he’s moving, but he’s standing still. Time yields no stability. We said that.

Throughout the years, there is a yearning to create an aesthetic world that defies limit and time. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ echoes Dylan’s desire to inhabit a world beyond today and tomorrow. ‘Johanna’ appears to be unreal, though the song itself tells of the mystery and beauty of the White Goddess of poetry. ‘Blind Willie McTell’ is a song about the impossibility of singing the blues like Blind Willie McTell, and yet its lamentation for the past and present of America is of a piece with the work of the great Delta bluesmen. Likewise, ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ at the tail end of Dylan’s seventies is somehow unreal and yet aesthetically true (a point brought home by Daniel in her essay). The ruefulness of his reflection on ageing animates and troubles Time Out of Mind. It might not be dark yet, but it is getting there, as Mose Alison not only might have said but did, in fact, remind one of us that he really did say when we spoke to him about Dylan towards the end of his life. Saying Goodbye to Jimmy Reed, for Dylan, becomes a way of saying goodbye to himself, and goodbye is no longer too good a word to say.

The urgency of the quest to leave behind past selves is still with Dylan at 80, even if he reflects upon the mother of muses (see Tenschert’s essay) that takes in American generals, who paved the way for Martin Luther King (see the essay by Douglas). Moving on is a paradox, as its very celebration brings with it a remembrance of things past that are never simply left behind (as the older Dylan looks back on a self that was younger rather than so much older, then, after all). There is a negativity even within a positive resolution. When Dylan was urging his girlfriend to not think twice about their relationship because he was moving on, he was in that very song thinking twice, just as his later confidence in not thinking about his lost love most of the time betrays moments of concern. If he’s just walkin’ then how is it that he spends eight verses and another eight choruses telling us that he ain’t talkin’?

The later Dylan is forever revisiting past landscapes where he pledges to remember a love who made him lonesome when she went, and recalls a world in which he might have held on to the girl from the red river shore had he not thrown it all away. But he was looking back right from the start, in his teenage dream of an idyllic time with friends who seem to have already disappeared a lifetime ago. Lost time that is not found again occupies a mystical landscape in Dylan songs, where he keeps on keepin’ on. You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.

Dylan has traversed many musical styles, from crooning to grouchy blues, by way of traditional folk, rock, country, woogie boogie, gospel and more. Moreover, music is only one of the many art forms that he has explored. He paints, sculpts and has directed and appeared in polarising films. He brings to the role of the DJ a dry humour and a philosophy of musical language. In his Theme Time Radio Hour, Dylan explores our every-day concepts through a deep and palpable love of the byways of popular musical history.

His prose, on the back of albums, in Tarantula and in his idiosyncratic 2003 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, stays with you despite its initial throwaway appearance. Again, while he might seem diffident when speaking in public, his speeches (from the Tom Paine Award to Grammy ceremonies and Live Aid) pack a powerful punch.

Songwriters, like philosophers, have traditionally only interpreted the world, but times got strange and Dylan felt a change comin’ on. Harrison Hewitt sees Dylan as a vehicle of metamorphosis. Times change but Dylan doesn’t necessarily change with them (see the essay by Khalifa); when something’s not right, he is prepared to say it’s wrong in songs that go against the grain, such as ‘Union Sundown’, ‘License to Kill’ and ‘Unbelievable’, all of which share a scepticism about “progress”: ‘they said it was the land of milk and honey / Now they say it’s the land of money / Who ever thought they could ever make that stick.’ Things have changed and change evidently moves within the song, ‘Changing of the Guards’ (as witnessed by Chappell). All its stanzas are powerful expressions of changing fortunes and yet the song as a whole resists definitive deter- mination of a meaning that might delimit its spirit of creativity. Transformation is present in every Dylan album; the winds of change blow wild and free even as he croons ‘Why Try to Change Me Now’ on Shadows in the Night. KG Miles writes as a fan who remains struck by the power of ‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’. Dylan’s Christian songs receive a more critical reading from Anupama Ranawana, who sees Dylan as continuously engaged with religious themes, and shines her light on Dylan’s religious thought by observing its relevance to a number of world religions. Everything passes, everything changes and all things become new as old things slip away.

If there is an essential core to the multiplicity of Dylan’s art (and perhaps there isn’t), it resides in a restless creativity and determination to stick to its truth. This encompasses his musical respect for others: Woody Guthrie, Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Earl Scruggs, Blind Willie McTell, Odetta, Charlie Patton, Victoria Spivey, Jimmy Reed, Dion, Mavis Staples, Nana Mouskouri, John Lennon, Gordon Lightfoot, Elvis Presley, Umm Kulthum, Cisco Houston, Bobby Vee, Sonny Terry and Leadbelly too… even Alice Cooper. Dylan presses on and, even when he does look back, he tends to reflect on the point of not doing so. In Chronicles he takes time to reflect on working with Daniel Lanois on the album Oh Mercy. It was an uneven experience, but Dylan is not minded to express any regret. He was focused upon creating, and his creativity in song is not to be side- lined by undue reflection that obstructs or kills the inspiration (see Sandis’ essay). ‘Sometimes’, Dylan observes, ‘you say things in songs even if there’s a small chance of them being true. And sometimes you say things that have nothing to do with the truth of what you want to say, and sometimes you say things that everyone knows to be true. Then again, at the same time, you’re thinking that the only truth on this earth is that there is no truth in it. Whatever you are saying, you’re saying it in a ricky-tick way. There’s never time to reflect. You stitched and pressed and packed and drove, is what you did.

How can Dylan’s creativity be analysed, given its protean character and Dylan’s own reluctance to disturb its magic? The cast assembled for this book does justice to the mystery of creativity and follows Dylan’s example in forbearing to reduce collective imagination to the aridity of analysis. They find ways of reflecting upon his artistry and to consider its meandering and sometimes accelerating course in the light of a career that spans a number of forms and stretches across six decades and counting. They deal with how it has endured over time and changed shape with changing times (see Birns’ essay). Some of them bring their own creativity to bear upon Dylan’s own sustained creativity.

Robyn Hitchcock revisits Highway 61 in remembering how he survived the regimentation of school to express a surreal imagination, and Galen Strawson captures the spirit of the sixties in his recollections of his own fragile teenage identity and the atmosphere of the age that inhabits the style of his essay; other sides of the same eternal spirit are evoked by Tim Shorrock, who sees the troubadour as a teacher in the schools of life and death and Lou Majaw in the book’s Afterword. You can feel it, you can hear it. Amy Rigby details how Dylan’s lyrics can inspire by showcasing an attitude that doesn’t hide from the truth, and Barb Jungr recognises how singing a Dylan song can open up a new world of darkness and light.

Emma Swift celebrates how Rough and Rowdy Ways revived her spirits during the pandemic. She speaks for a lot of people, including the Dylan Twitter community that drew together through life in the time of Covid-19. Is there anything much in a name? Well, there is, when it is invented by an artist who lives with the name that he has imagined. David Boucher devotes his essay to how and why Robert Zimmerman came up with the name ‘Bob Dylan’. Creating your own name (‘Elston Gunn’, ‘Blind Boy Grunt’, ‘Lucky Wilbury’, ‘Jack Frost’) is a commitment to your own imagination, and Dylan’s initial surge of creativity in the early 1960s is traced in a number of essays that circle around his early so-called ‘protest’ songs (better characterised by Tim Shorrock as empathy songs), exploring them from the plurality of perspectives that they entertain. Alexander Douglas focuses on how Dylan’s songs, both early and late, draw upon black music in countering racial oppression.

Ray Monk and Gary Browning look closely at early songs, making opposing judgments on their value while both recognising Dylan’s imaginative and disconcerting way of pointing the finger in unexpected and unsettling directions. Stephen Sedley, a historian of folk music who is also an Appeal Court Judge, recalls meeting Dylan in 1962 in The Troubadour on Old Brompton Road, when Dylan made an early trip to the UK. It is now home to The Dylan Room, co-curated by KG Miles, co-author of Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales.

Dylan is remembered as possessing an uncanny ability to master new songs and tunes, and to make them his own, a capacity that he continues to display with the use of various names, masks and hats. Lucy Boucher takes seriously how he has been donning masks, long before the expression ‘wear a mask’ took on a new meaning. Not unlike the dark glasses he wears to cover his eyes, these are worn by the man behind the shades to shield his creative identity from the glare of publicity. But, as his seemingly unmasked self remarks in Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue film (using Oscar Wilde’s words – an activity which forms part of a wider gag), only a person wearing a mask will tell the truth. Most of the time, Robert Zimmerman has his Bob Dylan mask on. He’s masquerading in the Shadow Kingdom.

Dylan’s break with the folk music revival and early fans was marked by the sound of an electric guitar, and Garry Hagberg devotes his essay to that guitar and everything it means. Emma-Rose Sears focuses on Dylan’s wonderful 1963 ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie’, which was written when he was moving on from an early hero that was still alive (though not in the condemnatory way that, say, Nietzsche moved on from Wagner). She notes how Guthrie’s presence is as elusive as Dylan’s in its haunting of the latter’s relentless exposure of lies and half-truths.

The prodigious nature of Dylan’s creativity is marked by the affinities that contributors in the volume perceive between Dylan and fellow artists as seemingly diverse as Shakespeare, Picasso and Iris Murdoch. Katharine Craik observes how the Bards of Stratford and Minnesota both get on with the practical work of art while framing poetry and song, which recognises and expresses experiential pain and disturbance. Both bodies of work have given rise to spurious authorship questions, put forward by pussies and wussies. Before Anonymous? there was Masked and Anonymous (a film whose plausibility has increased in a post-Trump world of false prophets that let it all hang out). And before that, Dylan was Alias (see Hundley’s essay), Burrough’s invisible hombre in search of his own Ithaca, thousands of years after that original Nobody, Odysseus.

Ray Foulk, who stole Dylan from Woodstock and brought him to the first Isle of Wight Festival, sees Picasso’s periodic shifts of style and fearless expression of his art as resembling Dylan’s own willingness to keep changing direction. And Iris Murdoch’s commitment to the value of attending to what is not the self, and to practise ‘unselfing’ so as to see and care for others, is seen by Fleur Jongepier as allowing us to recognise Dylan’s own way of delivering us from a preoccupation with the self by inventing a diverse array of selves with which he can engage. Natalie Ferris looks at all the gates Dylan refers to in early songs, such as the ‘Gates of Eden’, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ and ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’, and the actual wrought iron gates that he makes in later years. Mick Gold considers Dylan’s voices and Roger Dalrymple explores their echoes in live performances, such as his much-bootlegged duets with Patti Smith. James Adams considers the future of both the bootleg and its fans. He urges the case for the curation and accessibility of all Dylan’s performances, though the artist’s concern for the integrity and presentation of their own work remains a countervailing consideration.

The essays come to a close with Michael Gray’s analysis of the different forms of endings in Dylan’s songs. How do you end a track? How do you end an album? What words are appropriate? Is an ending signalled? Does Dylan respect conventions? All of these questions are addressed, and Dylan’s endings are worth reflecting on just as all the themes explored in this volume add to our understanding of Dylan’s ongoing creative energy. We could have rearranged the order of the essays that follow and given them all another name. But every ordering tells its own story and that of this book is as much chronological as it is thematic. Both skip back and forth. Little about Dylan is linear. His elusive identity, expressed yet also masked by a relentless creativity, is approached by attending to Dylan’s recognition of time, change, repetition, renewal, creation, life and death.

At eighty, Dylan reworks old songs, renewing them and thereby also himself in the process. In his sublime Shadow Kingdom streaming event, sparse, drumless arrangements with highly articulate vocals and a retro theatrical vibe capture our attention at every turn. The acapella-esque ‘Tombstone Blues’ is taken at a funereal pace, which allows regret and reverence to supervene upon disdain. New lyrics transform ‘To Be Alone with You’ from throwaway Jerry Lee Lewis to a renegade’s manifesto, while ‘Forever Young’ is revealed as never before to be a profound and tender prayer. He’s not what he was and things aren’t what they were. As we write this, the traveling man is one week away from embarking on the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour/ 2021–2024. As folk legend Carolyn Hester sang at the Dylan at 80 virtual release night, ‘Dylan just turned 80 but he’s not retired yet…not now and no other time’

Dylan did not die young. But may he stay forever so.

This essay is an alternate version of the editors’ Prologue to Dylan at 80.

Gary Browning is Professor of Political Thought at Oxford Brookes University. Constantine Sandis is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire and co-founder of Lex Academic.



Constantine Sandis

Co-founder of Lex Academic & Visiting Professor of Philosophy, University of Hertfordshire.