Conversation With Seth Rogovoy: Writer delves into Bob Dylan's Jewish roots

Seth Rogovoy

By Stacey Dresner ~

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. – In this new book “BOB DYLAN: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” (Scribner, due out in early December) Great Barrington writer Seth Rogovoy looks at how Jewish themes influnced the legendary rock star.

Rogovoy is editor-in-chief of BERKSHIRE LIVING and several of its publications, and is the author of THE ESSENTIAL KLEZMER: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music. For nearly 20 years, Seth was a rock and jazz critic and he is a singer-guitarist and leader of several bands. He is a graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, where he taught courses on Dylan and klezmer. He recently talked with the Ledger about his new book about Bob Dylan.

How and why did you become such a scholar of Bob Dylan?
A: First of all, I don’t call myself a “scholar of Bob Dylan.” But I have been listening to his music, seeing him perform, playing and performing his music, reading about him, thinking about his music, and writing about it, since I was fourteen years old and bought my first Dylan album, “Planet Waves,” in 1974.

As it turned out, that album in particular was one of his most Jewish albums – he referenced “Hebrew letters on the wall” in the liner notes; he changed the name of his publishing company to “Ram’s Horn Music” for the songs on that and subsequent albums – an obvious reference to the shofar; he wrote about angels and Jacob’s ladder; and he gave us the song that’s now one of his standards, “Forever Young,” based on the blessing that parents say to their children on Friday nights (the song begins, “May G-d bless and keep you always….”).

That album – which, incidentally, was very easy to play along to on guitar for some reason – grabbed me in such a way and never let go. And in the next two years, Dylan released a slew of his greatest work – the “Basement Tapes,” originally recorded in the late 1960s, were finally released; a live album called “Before the Flood,” recorded with the Band and presenting his greatest hits in new arrangements, was released; and two of his career-topping studio albums, “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire,” came out. It was a great time to be a Bob Dylan fan, especially at the impressionable ages of 14 to 16.

Some of my first published writings were reviews of these albums for my high school paper. I sang these new songs at summer camp. It seems like my destiny was written at this time, and it was inextricably linked with writing about Bob Dylan, and, by extension, popular music, and Jewish music in particular.
Oh, and the other answer to your question is, because Bob Dylan repays such scrutiny.

Dylan was born and raised a Jew, but after a couple of gospel albums years ago,it was rumored he had become a born-again Christian. Is that true? How does he classify himself religiously now?
A: I deal with this episode in his life and career extensively in my book, “BOB DYLAN: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” (Scribner, due out in early December) – it’s probably the longest and most in-depth chapter, in fact.

There were really only two so-called gospel albums in a year-and-a-half period, in 1979-80, of a career that now spans nearly 50 years. And one of the albums hardly even mentions Jesus at all. In fact, on going back and listening to these albums again closely, I found that for one, while Dylan was obviously inspired by the story of Jesus at this time, he defined himself as a Jew in several of the songs.

In the overall context of his life and career, the significance of his gospel period is both minor and totally logical, perhaps even inevitable – Dylan has explored a wealth of musical traditions throughout his career. And in the thirty years since then, his work is strewn with Jewish themes, concepts, and references.

As for how Dylan classifies himself religiously, only he can answer that, and he’s not saying. It’s also not the domain of my book – what I’m mostly interested in is exploring how Dylan has been inspired by Jewish texts and the Jewish prophetic tradition. And in the course of the 300 pages, I think I demonstrate that he’s been profoundly influenced by Judaism, and speaks from a Jewish place, in the tradition of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

You say that he uses Jewish texts in many of his songs. Can you give some examples?
A: Most obviously, the song “Highway 61 Revisited” begins, “G-d said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’ Abe said, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on,'” a sort of hipster retelling of the Akeidah. Interestingly, Dylan’s father was named Abram, and he grew up near US Highway 61.

I found examples of this sort of midrashic reference throughout Dylan’s work.
The central imagery of perhaps his best-known song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” is lifted right from Ezekiel and Isaiah. Dylan sings, “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky? And how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?” In Ezekiel 12:1-2, G-d says to Ezekiel, “Son of Man, you dwell in the midst of the rebellious house, who have eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear…” There is similar imagery found in Isaiah 11:3 and 43:8, and Jeremiah 5:21.

“All Along the Watchtower” is a midrashic retelling of Isaiah 21. Isaiah says “My mind is confused, I shudder in panic.” Dylan sings, “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.” Isaiah says, “Like windstorms sweeping through a desert….Setting the table to let the watchmen watch, eating and drinking….Go, station the lookout … He will see a pair of horsemen …and he will call out like a lion.”” Dylan sings, “Businessmen they drink my wine … all along the watchtower, princes kept the view … Outside in the distance, a wildcat did growl, two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.”

More recently, in his song “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan sings, “I was born here and I’ll die here/Against my will.” That’s a direct lift from the Pirkei Avot 4:29: “Against your will you were born. Against your will you will die.”
A few examples don’t really suffice to demonstrate how remarkably well-versed Dylan is in Torah, and how much he draws upon it for inspiration or literal usage. But trust me, after reading three hundred pages of this sort of thing, it’s pretty convincing.

Comments? email staceyd@jewishledger.com

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