Don't look back

By Allen Barra

Published May 18, 2001 7:16PM (EDT)

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After reading Allen Barra's story on the two new books about Dylan's Greenwich Village years, it's pretty obvious that he considers rock music to be superior to folk music, and it's also pretty obvious (to me) that he has an underdeveloped notion of his own subjective personal taste in music.

I will say this: Mr. Barra posits Pete Seeger as the leader of the musical dark side that Dylan turned from in the '60s. But besides being a great musician and scholar of music, Pete Seeger brought much more light and goodness to the world than Allen Barra ever will.

-- Stephen Buckalew

In reading Allen Barra's review of the Bob Dylan biographies, I was left with the same impression as when I read stories about the Beatles. In both cases, the stories of the lives of these cultural icons are not as interesting as the music they created.

Having done my undergraduate work in Minnesota, I heard rumors about Dylan that were not very flattering. It matters not. What matters is that he wrote incredibly powerful songs, and those songs became the catalysts and the theme music for an entire generation.

As with the Beatles, I feel I know Dylan, but only in the sense that the music speaks to me on some mythical level. I once asked an artist what his painting meant, and he answered, "Whatever it means to you, man." It is one of my all-time favorite answers. The important thing about Bob Dylan, and the Beatles as well, is what they meant and still mean to us. I don't need a biography for that.

-- John Hamilton

Allen Barra finishes his article "Don't Look Back" with this paragraph:

The rest of the story, as we all know, is history. But history can sometimes be pretty boring, so if you haven't been enthralled by Dylan since the Jimmy Carter era, you should stick with Hajdu's book, which leaves Bob Dylan where we want to remember him -- stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again. For God's sake, and for Bob's and ours, let's leave him there.

This -- carefully ambiguous though it is -- seems to be the sum and gist of Barra's piece, and as such I'd like to ask a few questions about it, because the article was, on the whole, rather slippery.

Why do we care about people who haven't been enthralled with Dylan since the Jimmy Carter era? They've already lost credibility. They're probably not even reading this article.

Why do we want to remember Dylan as stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again? This statement is wrong in so many ways. I'm not sure it is even understandable.

Why would God or Bob or any of us want to leave him there? By writing this piece, Allen Barra is not leaving him there. I know I don't want to leave him there, nor could I if I wanted to. It is impossibile both figuratively and literally.

I could go on. My basic comment is this: If you're going to write something, be clear about it. The purpose, after all, is to communicate, right? (As the reader, I've tried to do my part.) As a Bob Dylan fan, I'm agitated by what seems to be negative criticism hiding within vague, ambiguous, indirect and "poetic" language.

-- Nels Hefty

Allen Barra's review of two new Dylan books was pure tripe!

So Dylan didn't really like the old-time folk music? If he was just using it to launch his career, why did he make two nuanced, haunting albums in the early '90s that reinterpreted old folk and blues tunes? "Good as I Been to You" won a Grammy or two.

Where does Barra's self-righteous contempt for Joan Baez et al. come from? Maybe sportswriters have to compensate for the triviality of their subject matter by trashing everyone else.

Who knows? Here in the real world, we'll continue enjoying Dylan's old stuff, new stuff and everything in between. Keep on creating, Bob.

-- Todd Ojala

Allen Barra's boneheaded rant serves only to underscore the point that if you hate folk music, you shouldn't be writing about Bob Dylan, for whom traditional music is an enduring -- indeed, the deepest -- of all influences (as, for one, Greil Marcus documents in the brilliant "Invisible Republic"). No great artist has plumbed the dark soul of traditional music to such profound effect as Dylan has. To dismiss this central fact of his creative life, in favor of the grotesque view that he's only a kind of failed Elvis, is to suggest that it's time Barra checked in for an overdue ear and brain examination.

-- Jerome Clark

Thank you, Allen Barra, for your piece of consumer reporting on the Bob Dylan biographies. Too often these tomes are reviewed as they are written, by hagiographic hacks. Your ear for rock 'n' roll and impatience with pretension mirrors those of savvy Dylan heads everywhere who have had little patience for the Seeger-Baez dogma.

I would have expected the better of these books to come from David Hajdu, considering the masterful job he did with "Lush Life," on Billy Strayhorn.

Thanks for saving my nickel on the Sounes book. Life's too short to read twaddle from somebody whose soul can't oo-mow-mow.

-- Chris DuPre

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