Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010

“Becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer," says Greil Marcus, introducing an anthology that charts the uneasy progress of his dual vocations. Being a fan has proved harder than writing - Marcus's career began just as Dylan's "heroic period" came to an end. He starts with the moment in 1963 when he was first "transfixed" by Dylan and his feeling in 1965 that Highway 61 Revisited had "changed the world". In 1968, though, it seemed as if "Dylan's adventure as an oracle on the run" was over.

Since then, more than 40 years of reviews, liner notes and essays have accumulated and, looking at them in chronological order, Marcus observes a clear narrative arc. It's a tale that starts in disappointment ("What is this shit?" began his landmark review of Self-Portrait in 1970) and ends in re-evaluation and renewed respect.

The ongoing "conversation in and around" Dylan's music allows Marcus to explore all sorts of other cultural and political occasions, from Bill Clinton's 2000 State of the Union address to HBO's psychotherapy drama In Treatment. The volume's longer (and best) pieces flow freely and unexpectedly between particular songs and films or books or paintings: "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and Michael Caine singing Roy Orbison; "Desolation Row" and James Ensor's Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889; Dylan's harmonica in "If Not For You" and a Hitchcock cameo. Marcus likes to "hopscotch" and he does it well.

Yet Dylan is not simply the "focal point" for Marcus's thought. He also acts as a synecdoche for his country's tribulations and triumphs over the past 40 years, beginning with the self-involved "neuroticism" of the Seventies and Eighties and ending with election night in 2008, when Dylan played "The Times They Are A-Changin'". His tale, Marcus acknowledges, is a familiar one of reversals, reinvention and redemption - of learning, yet again, how to tell the "country's story" in a new way.

Marcus proposes that Dylan was reborn not when he turned to Christian fundamentalism, but in 1992 when he recorded Good As I Been to You, a collection of traditional blues and folk songs. Rather like the hero of a folk tale, he managed to escape "the prison of his own career" by putting on some "old clothes". His revival "as a singer" and "as a philosopher" was assured. Nineteen years have passed since then, but Marcus believes that Dylan has continued to work with a "hunch that there is a body of American song, or an American ethos of expression that is constant". It is, naturally, his own hunch, too.

Marcus similarly has long been "fascinated" by the American vernacular tradition, in particular Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). In 1997, he published Invisible Republic, making a case for the importance of Smith's Anthology to the kaleidoscopic oddity of Dylan's Basement Tapes (1975). Never mind the poets and the professors, he argued: Dylan's surrealism owed less to the ghosts of Ezra Pound and T S Eliot than those of Dock Boggs and Mississippi John Hurt. All were products of an enduringly Gothic America, a place of "terror and deliverance" that had always existed within the "official America of anxiety and success".

Smith also appealed to Marcus in his war against the folk purists who chastised Dylan for inconsistency, inauthenticity and electricity. Marcus's Smith rejects every piety about "who the folk really are and who they are not, about whose work is respectful of the past and whose exploitive" (as does his Dylan). The Anthology "suggests to Americans that their culture is in fact theirs - which means they can do whatever they like with it".

Marcus celebrates an eclectic American song­book that starts with 1920s country music, 1930s blues and 1950s rock'n'roll, and goes on to embrace everything from Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love" to Hanson's "insidiously marvellous" "MMMBop". What makes a song like Rabbit Brown's "James Alley Blues" great, lasting and American (for Marcus, these qualities are all related) is an ability to be both beautiful and inevitable, epic and commonplace, plain and yet mysterious. It doesn't "give itself away with its first note". Another great American work in this tradition is Highway 61 Revisited; it "describes a nation defined by hysteria and redescribes it as an awful, somehow thrilling joke - without a punchline".

It's not surprising to learn that Marcus thinks Dylan is at his worst when he makes pron­ouncements about God or his navel, rather than asking questions about his nation, nor that he thinks the singer is at his best when he creates a "drama of freedom". He deplores the "self-referential" Dylan who doesn't care if anyone is listening and cheers the properly democratic bard who knows that you can only be "a step ahead of the times" if there's somebody else just one step behind. Empathy, he argues, has always been the "genie" of Dylan's work.

Yet empathy is not what drives these reviews and essays. Marcus does not want to "tame" or "translate" Dylan's version of Whitman's "barbaric yawp", but neither does he want to speculate what it must feel like to be Bob. Apart from a wonderful essay on Dylan's high school in Hibbing, Minnesota, the author concentrates on his own responses to the songs - or, rather, to particular performances and recordings that "expand the possibilities of a song" and introduce into it the "irreducible individualism of details". Much of the time his subject is the "way the voice enters a piece of music" on a particular day. Dylan's voice is gloriously "unpredictable" and Marcus revels in the "hesitations and elisions of his phrasing", the way he says "Delacroix" in "Tangled Up in Blue" and slips in an extra syllable ("insyyy-hide") in "Living the Blues". Bob Dylan, after all, is a singer. l

Kasia Boddy's most recent book is: “The American Short Story Since 1950" (Edinburgh University Press, £19.99)

Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010
Greil Marcus
Faber & Faber, 512pp, £15.99

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm