Makes sense

It might seem like a popularizing move for the American Academy of Arts and Letters to nominate its first rock(ish) act, Bob Dylan. I think they made a great choice. You could spend years reading educated people go on about his storytelling but I’ll just throw out two things: Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts makes an excellent short story and Tangled up in Blue reads like a novel with a lot of unnecessary words cut out. I don’t mean this in the general sense that Jack of Hearts is a story that is short, but that the two match technical definitions that the Academy might recognize. The story in Blue is no more incoherent that an average Kerouac work and it has a catchier beat. That he wrote them for the same album might count as a wink.

25 replies
  1. 1
    Sad_Dem says:

    Bob Dylan is a great poet who happens to set his words to music. There’s a reason it’s called lyric poetry. Good for the academy for acknowledging his accomplishment. He can’t help it if he’s lucky.

  2. 2
    Linda Featheringill says:

    I like tangled up in blue. Never had a problem understanding it.

    There’s a line from Muddy Waters that fits, “I try to do what’s right but everything I do is wrong.”

  3. 3
    AliceBlue says:

    I hear these songs, and I’m back in my college dorm room, getting dressed for class and listening to the radio.

  4. 4
    PeakVT says:

    OT: An interesting take on Woodward and his book on Belushi. Worth a read even though it is at (gag) Slate.

  5. 5
    jayboat says:

    Someone kindly educate this lowly Dylan fan…

    is there a song anywhere, by anyone that has more story lines running simultaneously than Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts?

    I’ll wait. (taps foot) (not the larry craig kind of tapping)

  6. 6
    Cacti says:

    All due respect to Mr. Dylan’s songwriting prowess, but nominating a boomer era icon for an American institutional honor these days isn’t exactly a risky proposition.

  7. 7
    T.R. Donoghue says:

    @jayboat: Desolation Row

  8. 8
    Mike in NC says:

    Hopefully in 100 years, every American will know who Bob Dylan was, but have no clue who George W. Bush was.

  9. 9
    J.D. Rhoades says:


    is there a song anywhere, by anyone that has more story lines running simultaneously than Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts?

    Black Diamond Bay.

  10. 10
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    I think it might have been Charlie Pierce who said, a year or so ago, that Jack of Hearts and Pancho and Lefty were short works of literature about the American West

    @PeakVT: I’d say the percentage of Slate posts/stories worth reading might reach in to the low double digits.

  11. 11
    PeorgieTirebiter says:

    @jayboat: Try “I Want You” from Blonde On Blonde.”

  12. 12
    James Gary, Foolish Figurativist says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist: …Jack of Hearts and Pancho and Lefty were short works of literature about the American West…

    Hmf. I’m terrible at insightful criticicm, but the two “characters” in “Pancho and Lefty” seem cleverly symbolic and allusive to me. It’s a great song.

    “Lily, Rosemary…” on the other hand, is in my opinion (and I count myself a big Dylan fan) about the worst song Dylan ever wrote–just a terribly hacky piece of 1961-era Western TV writing. I have no idea why it’s so revered by Boomers…probably because the song takes them back to their bong-hit and hip-hugger college days of 1973.

  13. 13
    Eric U. says:

    @Mike in NC: GWB will hopefully live on as a warning to others. There are reasons to forget him, but hopefully not because a series of worse screwups get elected

  14. 14
    moderateindy says:

    Like a Rolling Stone actually came out of a piece of writing that was somewhere between 10-20 pages long. Although Dylan himself described the original long piece as “vomit”. Still I would love to read that original piece. As far as the longest tune, I think it is Jack of Hearts, but Chimes of Freedom is awful lengthy, and really has some of Dylan’s most “poetic” lyrics…..Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail,
    The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder…… good stuff

  15. 15
    rob! says:

    Just got tix for my 20th Bob show next month. If I may borrow one of his song titles, Can’t Wait.

  16. 16
    Hildebrand says:

    This likely makes me some form of heretic, but I really don’t like listening to Dylan. Reading Dylan? That I enjoy. His voice nearly destroys the poetry.

  17. 17
    danielx says:

    Actually, there’s a quote I read recently from Jakob Dylan to the effect that Blood On The Tracks (recorded while Dylan was breaking up with his wife) is his parents talking. Holidays at the Dylan household at that time must have been an absolute joy.

  18. 18
    angelfoot says:

    I love Bob Dylan as a songwriter and performer, but I don’t think his songs hold up as poems.

    For example “Visions of Johanna” is one of my favorites (especially the live version on “Biograph”) and it has some wonderfully evocative lines, but it just doesn’t work without the music and vocal delivery.

    Same goes for “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Lilly…” whole greater than sum, etc.

  19. 19
    Tim F. says:

    @danielx: Yes, it’s clearly a breakup album. Reflection, wistfulness and regret are some of Dylan’s best muses. Definitely more profound listening than the inch-dep folksiness of his most famous anthems. That said, Lily and Blue stand out as something different. They’re both hackneyed plays on a genre if you diagram their story out, but as arranged and written they’re genius.

  20. 20
    eldorado says:

    i purged my music collection of dylan, including (i think), all of the covers, about 6-7 years ago. it’s enormously satisfying. most over-rated poet evar.

  21. 21
    mvr says:

    There aren’t a lot of song-writers who can do more than a couple of forms well, and there surely aren’t any that can do as many forms well and who also invented a couple of them.

  22. 22
    tatateeta says:

    “The Ballad of Hattie Carroll” might not be a great poem on a page but it makes a fabulous performance poem.

  23. 23
    Paula says:


    Meh. I like Dylan but he isn’t the be all end all of songwriting. Will we ever see Ira Gershwin or Stevie Wonder getting lauded as poets even though IMO they are equally important?

    Separating lyrics from music tends to devalue the process and rarity of how difficult it is to create something where they really work well together.

  24. 24

    @James Gary, Foolish Figurativist:

    “Lily, Rosemary…” on the other hand, is in my opinion (and I count myself a big Dylan fan) about the worst song Dylan ever wrote

    Then you obviously haven’t sat through Slow Train Coming.

    No bong-related memories associated with it, I just fell in love with “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” when I first heard it four decades ago, and still love it now. Lily, Rosemary, and even Big Jim* are all very real characters (the Jack himself less so), as well-developed as a character can be in a song of that length, which makes for a good story-song. The plot’s meaningful by song standards, the minor characters add to the general fun, and what’s not to like?

    * “I know I’ve seen that face somewhere,” Big Jim was thinking to himself, “maybe down in Mexico, or a picture upon somebody’s shelf.” Big Jim isn’t just a cartoon villain in this song, one more reason why it’s good.

  25. 25
    Thomas F says:

    I’ve always believed that Visions of Johanna, Desolation Row, Chimes of Freedom, and Gates of Eden rank among the better American poems of the last century.

    Let’s not also forget Tambourine Man, which, while probably played too often, gave us this cadenza:

    Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
    With one hand waving free
    Silhouetted by the sea
    Circled by the circus sands
    With all memory and fate
    Driven deep beneath the waves
    Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

    …Beautiful – at least to me.

Comments are closed.