The conspiracy
to kill the free and romantic

by Patrick J. Webster


What follows is a draft, a very cursory and first draft of a paper submitted to an academic journal there is no need to specify here. 

The paper was not - in the end - chosen for publication, and, as it was based on a piece I originally wrote for Freewheelin' as long ago as June 1988, I thought it might be appropriate to place it back in Freewheelin' - some sixteen years on. 

The paper is somewhat longer than a normal contribution to Freewheelin' and pitched at a slightly different level. Nonetheless, I am confident our readership will be able to deal with it. 

Bob Dylan's work has, as far as I can ascertain, rarely been approached from an ecocritical point of view (ecocritical simply meaning an approach to literature via its relationship with the physical environment), but it is one that, I think, is worth the effort. 

An Ecocritical Interpretation of Gender Issues
in Bob Dylan's 'License to Kill'

Part One

In the songs of Bob Dylan we find relatively few examples wherein he exhibits a concern for the environment. The environment is constantly present, but it is invariably a mere backdrop to the main thematic pattern of the songs in question. For example, in the first song Dylan offers us, ‘Talkin' New York’ (1962), the song opens with the narrator:

Ramblin’ outa the wild West,
Leavin’ the towns I love the best.
Thought I’d seen some ups and downs,

Til, I come into New York town.

                         (Dylan 1985, 3)

Thus the narrator appears to us ‘ramblin’ outa the wild West’ but the wildness of the wild West is scarcely an issue in his work. Dylan is an urban songwriter, the great majority of his work takes place within the city, within a conurbation of some kind. The vast landscape of America is constantly alluded to in Dylan’s work, but it is rarely of significance. Whilst it is true we find a consistent desire to travel in Dylan’s work, a relentless sense of movement from one place to another, the countryside in between seldom seems of particular interest. 

He does at times consider the natural world, but it is rarely more than a stereotypical bucolic idyll. For example, in such a song as, ‘Let Me Die in My Footsteps’ (1963) we find the song’s narrator declaring:

Let me drink from the waters where the mountains streams flood
Let the smell of wildflowers flow free through my blood
Let me sleep in your meadow with the green grassy leaves.

But he follows this up with the line:

Let me walk down the highway with my brother in peace
(Dylan 1985, 21)

Dylan’s songs are more concerned with the highway running through the environment, and not with the environment itself. The pathways that take men from place to place through the environment is Dylan’s concern; with the highway acting as a common trope throughout his work. The highway acts as something much larger, as Ellen Willis once put it: 

For Guthrie, the road was habitat; for Dylan, metaphor.
(McGregor, 1972, 227) 

There is insufficient space available to offer a comprehensive perspective of those Dylan songs that do deal with the environment, but a few other selected examples might be pertinent. One could look, for example, to ‘Girl from the North Country’ (1962) wherein we find a superficial concern for the countryside:

Well, if you're travelling in the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline ...
                                              (Dylan 1985, 54)

Dylan is probably talking about his home state of Minnesota, using ‘fair in a Shakespearian sense, as beautiful and attractive. He alludes to the winds ‘hitting heavy on the border, presumably the border between the USA and Canada. Hence there is some sense in which the land, the north country fair, is of some significance. Yet in reality it is really the addressee in the song (almost certainly male) and the need to tell ‘him about the concern the narrator still possesses for his ‘true love of mine’ that is the song’s real concern. 

In contrast to the generally held belief that Dylan is the great writer of love songs, Dylan’s songs are most often about men, about men and the way homosocial relationships intrude upon sexual relationships with women. In such a way this exactly corresponds to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idea that men were really interested in women insomuch as they could then invest intense emotions between each other. In this sense a consideration of the way the environment intrudes into Dylan’s supposed love songs is of interest. It turns out that the environment is as insignificant as the love object in question.(1) This issue of gender specific relationships within Dylan’s work is significant, and it has significance to the song under consideration in this essay, as will later be discussed. 

In this light one might note how, in one of Dylan’s rare songs of genuine heterosexual love, ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time (1963), his narrator expresses love for his beloved at the expense of a comparison of her and natures beauty:

Theres beauty in that silver, singin’ river.
There s beauty in the sunrise in the sky,
But none of these and nothing else can touch the beauty

That I remember in my true love's eyes.
(Dylan 1985, 42)

Whilst in one of Dylan’s most famous songs, ‘Blowin in the Wind (1963) we find lines filled with poetic images from the natural world. The song asks:

How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?


How many years can a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?


How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

However, the actual focus of the song is arguably that of racial segregation, it was a song asking:

... how many years must some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
(Dylan 1985, 53)

The ‘some people  have generally been interpreted as representing African-Americans striving for civil rights in the racist society of 1960s America. This was the ideological intent of the song, and the poetic imagery of sand and sea and sky seemed merely to provide a backdrop in front of which such a discourse of race could be unveiled. Thus once again the concern for the environment seemed secondary. 

In one of Dylan’s other great songs of social protest of the time: 'A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall’ (1963), a dialogue with an ecological discourse was perhaps more clearly delineated. This was a song that portrayed a vivid vision of an apocalyptic future, with pessimistic ecological images such as: ‘seven sad forests’ and ‘a dozen dead oceans’ of hearing ‘a roar that could drown the whole world, and the idea that ‘the pellets of poison are flooding their waters.’ Thus the chorus of the song: ‘And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard/ It’s a hard rain’s a gonna-fall,’ (Dylan 1985, 59-60) cannot help but put one in mind of the fall of acid rain or some other pollution driven ecological disaster. At the time Dylan denied this interpretation, but the inference remains within his text. It is one of the key early songs in which Dylan expressed anything like a concern for issues of pollution and the environment in general. 

To be continued.


(1)Note how the homosocial elements within ‘Girl of the North Country’ is more fully delineated in Dylan’s duet with Johnny Cash on the recording included on the Nashville Skyline album (1969). The original song was concerned with a narrator addressing what was probably a male addressee about his feelings for a lost love. In the duet between Dylan and Cash this literally becomes the case, through the actual performance of the song.