Dylan Deserves What He Hasn’t — Legitimacy Theories and the American Poet

This article is the fifth piece of a weekly series on Bob Dylan.  The previous one is here: Songs are Channels Transmitting Finite-Sized Information

In political philosophy, we make the distinction between he who is in power and he who should be in power.  For Realists like M Weber, the fact that one is really in power is the most crucial part of the story; but the tradition of Wester political philosophy has always been careful to distinguish the attainment of power and the attainment of justification for that power. This distinction shows, for instance, that one may be very eager to be representatives of the people, but feel indifferent in obtaining the moral desert or jurisprudential justification needed to rightfully represent them.  They are called political entrepreneurs.

The Representatives of the People             —         The Voice of a Generation

|                                                                        |

The Rightful Representatives of People     —                  The American Artist 

Figure. 1

The analogy to this distinction in political philosophy is helpful in understanding Dylan, but here the relationship is flipped — as an academic issue, the question of whether Dylan is indeed an American artist or the American artist has not provoked the interest of many; as a cultural issue whose discourse structure is inherently populist, the question of whether Dylan may be called the Voice of a Generation has attracted the attention of many.

The former is a question on Americanism.  Pertaining to the case of Dylan, we should investigate the presence of American myths, symbols, and imagery from different periods and traditions of American culture.  In this sense, Dylan is very American.  Dylan’s songs, in Wilentz’s words, are characterised by his ability to write and sing in more than one era at once.  This paradoxical and unstable combination of tradition and defiance are seen in the minstrels of the streams of influences that grew Dylan.  In particular, his songs are not mere reponses to songs or characters in the past; they are in conversation with them.

For instance, the black freighter of K Weill’s Pirate Jenny may be the same ship in Dylan’s When the Ship Comes In; the scenery along Highway 61 reminds one of the sentiments of riding down This Train (Bound for Glory); Rising Sun Blues (the House of Rising Sun), one of the classical American myths whose origin has shifted to New Orleans the time Dylan sang it; and It’s Alright, Ma (released in 1965) and Masters of War (released in 1963) would be familiar tunes for the restive political climate they were written in, the period when, for example, N Chomsky began to rise in status as the public intellectual for his involvement in anti-Vietnam protests.

Listening to an album is like talking to a group of collectors of characters, and indeed some of these collectors have common tastes.  Listening to Dylan’s curated edition of characters and imagery, one notices how thoroughly American he was.  

However, just as the rightful rulers may not be interested in acting as politicians — When G Washington retired, he still possessed the mandate of rule, for example — Dylan may be strongly averse to being politically owned as the Voice of the Generation, even though he was not artistically against continuing as an American poet.  The breakout he had at Newport 1965, was more about politics and personality and less about music and art, irrespective of whether he intentionally planned to provoke the folks crowd and alienate himself, or inadvertently took the audience reaction to a stage disaster as a personal rejection.

The political event of 1965 Newport Breakout, however, has nothing to do with Dylan’s relationship with American influences. This relation between artistic outputs and their predecessors and contemporaries exists in the form of an objective underlying structure.  In studying Dylan and America, one must distinguish the two questions involved.



  1. I wonder if he would want to be identified as that then. At the risk of him sounding unpatriotic, if they go on to ask what is American. Whether he is the definition or fits into the definition, both are not ideal?


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