1336 words on


 by Patrick J. Webster


To continue: however, one has to be aware of other interpretations to account for the sense of continuing movement within the construct of masculinity I was building into ‘Isis’;  into Dylan’s work and - one might surmise - into a cultural space in general. It must be granted that there are alternative, and perhaps more commonplace reasons as to why men travel. 

One might think, for example, of the blues tradition, a tradition which Dylan has always been closely associated with, a tradition in which travel (and especially masculine travel) has been a dominant motif. Aside from this, there is the obvious idea that men travel in order to look for work, and one could cite the influence of Woody Guthrie at this point. 

In Guthrie’s work it is certainly true that economic factors led men to take to the road in search of employment. A number of Guthrie’s songs, for example ‘Tom Joad’ (drawn from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath [1939) portrayed the plight of men in such situations. 

However, I would argue that Dylan’s idolisation of Guthrie was connected more with the mythological and romantic notions in Guthrie’s life and work. Guthrie’s famous book, Bound for Glory (which greatly influenced Dylan early in his career) celebrated t he theme of the outcast, the drifter, the man fleeing from convention and conformity, the hobo who found freedom on the highways and railroads of the American landscape. In a sense Guthrie (or the persona of himself he created) was an outlaw, albeit a morally sanctioned outlaw. Guthrie tapped into the moral relevance of the outlaw in American culture, an idea that would be repeatedly displayed within Dylan’s work as well. As Wayne Hampton suggested: 

Bob Dylan’s politics, such as they are, involve the romanticisation of freedom, a concern for the social outcast ...sustained by images of hoboes, outlaws, prophets and saints on a slow train bound for glory.’

I would argue that the road for the men in Dylan’s work is primarily a place with a romantic, visionary and mythological ambition. Furthermore, the men most admired in Dylan’s work are often outlaws, outsiders - men who have moved beyond the constructed confines of society apparent in these songs. ‘I might look like Robert Ford,’ Dylan sang in ‘Outlaw Blues’, ‘But I feel just like Jesse James’. Hence we can see here an idea pointing towards the sense in which Dylan¹s texts embrace the romantic idea of a masculine self as outlaw, which in turn can be seen as being suggestive of artifice and play-acting. In other words of there being a paradoxical element to the construct of masculinity. 

Aside from Woody Guthrie, another obvious influence here were the Beat writers, and most specifically Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s seminal work, ‘On the Road’, obviously informs a similar pattern of male desire found within Dylan’s work, propounding a significantly gender-specific quest for self-discovery, via the road. Hence Kerouac’s work offers the idea of a male outsider escaping narrow-hearted consumerism in search of the lost frontier, making a celebratory escape from responsibility; and, in so doing, exerting a large influence in Dylan’s positioning romance and visionary experience on the road. The prerogative of which, I would argue, points again towards a sense of gender distinction and gender constructed-ness in Dylan’s work. 

In the reverentially titled  ‘On the Road Again’ (1965), Dylan’s male narrator wants to be on the road, wants to be in the wide open spaces, wants to be in the wilderness, wants, in fact, to be anywhere as long as he is not with the woman of the song - and the rest of her family: 

Well, I woke up in the morning
There¹s frogs inside my socks
Your mama, she¹s a-hiding
Inside the icebox
Your daddy walks in wearing
A Napoleon Bonaparte mask
Then you ask why I don¹t live here
Honey, do you have to ask?

This song is an apt example of a large number of songs Dylan wrote in the mid-1960s that positioned a male character desperately attempting to avoid the onset of familial constraints. Other examples include: ‘Motorpsycho Nitemare’ (1964),  ‘Maggie’s Farm’ (1965),  ‘Tombstone Blues’ (1965) and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965). These songs portray men who don’t want to settle down with the farmer’s daughter, who don’t want to work for brother’s or pa’s or ma’s, men who want to get away from Mama’s in the factory and Papa’s in the alley, and men who want nothing to do with fifth daughters and first fathers and seventh sons. All these songs portray male protagonists who need some means of escape, men who do not want to be constrained within the domestic environments in which they find themselves. 

In one of Dylan’s seminal works of the 1960s, ‘It Ain¹t Me Babe’ (1964), a similar intent can be more explicitly inferred. The famous refrain, with its thrice repeated denial of ‘No, no, no, It ain’t me babe’ has been read as both a political and a personal message. In the political sense the line can be read as a retreat from a world of social protest, but, in a different and more individual discourse, the line can be read simply as a repudiation of confinement within a feminine domain. Thus the refrain of the song, ‘It ain’t me babe, it ain’t me you ‘re looking for ... ‘  becomes a message from a man to a woman, or even from men to women, a message repudiating the idea of any kind of permanent commitment. 

In a later song,  ‘The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar’ (1981), Dylan again put forward the idea of a retreat away from commitment, but here included a possible reason why: 

Don’t know what I can say about Claudette,
That wouldn’t come back to haunt me.
Finally had to give her up,
About the time she began to want me ...

Here the male protagonist is compelled to give up the woman at the very moment she expresses a desire for him; and there is a sense that some part of the self must be kept inviolate from a feminine sphere of influence. In an earlier song, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ (1963), the reason for the break-up of the relationship is contiguous with this same concept: 

I’m thinkin’ and a wonderin’ all the way down the road,
I once loved a woman, a child I’m told.
I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul,
But don¹t think twice, it’s alright.

This is an idea that culminates in the song, ‘Sweetheart Like You’ (1983): 

You know, I once knew a woman who looked like you,
She wanted a whole man, not just a half,
She used to call me sweet daddy when I was only a child,
You kind of remind me of her when you laugh.

The male figure here will only offer half of himself, with the implied suggestion that he must retain some part of himself outside of the female domain. It would seem to me that the men in Dylan¹s songs repeatedly fail to live up to the expectations of the women they find themselves in relationships with, an idea perhaps personified by a line from  ‘One More Night’  (1969):

I just could not be what she wanted me to be.

The point at stake here revolves around the hollowness and fragility of the construct of masculinity that haunts the unconscious elements in Dylan¹s work, the vital discourse his work can never quite bring itself to wholly  confront.

To be continued ...

Joan Baez/Bob DylanJoan Baez/Bob Dylan