Juvenile Instructor » Bob Dylan and the Mormons…?
 


Bob Dylan and the Mormons…?

By: Cristine - December 08, 2012

I am not a Bob Dylan fan. But I happen to live with one, and I’ve learned a lot about Dylan by osmosis. I suppose it’s only fair that some of my husband’s knowledge about music that isn’t to my taste has rubbed off on me. In the last several years, he’s become something of a scholar of representations of the Latter-day Saints in American history without any significant interest in the subject – a hazard of living with someone who’s working on their PhD. [1] He has also become a valuable scout of sources for me, and can spot a pop culture reference to Mormonism at twenty paces. Imagine our mutual surprise when he recently starting putting things in front of me in which Bob Dylan makes explicit – and sometimes admiring – reference to the Mormons.

The first such reference that caught my husband’s eye was in the September 27 issue of Rolling Stone, in which Mikal Gilmore (who is, coincidentally, a former Mormon and the brother of executed murderer Gary Gilmore) interviewed Dylan about his latest album. My husband stopped halfway through the article to push this under my nose:

“So when you ask some of your questions you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person who doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I’ve lived through a lot. Have your ever heard of a book called No Man Knows My History? It’s about Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. That title could refer to me.” [2]

Huh?

Well, okay – Dylan wasn’t especially admiring in this quote, but it’s certainly interesting that he made a point of explaining the subject of the book (Fawn M. Brodie’s classic biography of Smith, first published in 1945). Why not just appropriate the title without saying who it’s about? Perhaps he knew something about the interviewer’s background? In any case, it seemed like an interesting one-time occurrence.

But then I shared this quote with my fellow JIers, and Steve Taysom pointed out that Dylan also made reference to Joseph Smith in his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Volume One. With the help of my husband’s battered copy of the book and the eminently useful search function in Google Books, I discovered that early in the book Dylan described his reading habits when he was in New York at an early point in his life (as anyone knows who’s read or listened to anything by Dylan, chronology can be awfully hard to pin down): “I usually opened up some book to the middle, read a few pages and if I liked it went back to the beginning.” He went on to list some of the books he actually read all the way through, including a history of Alexander the Great’s march into Persia (“Alexander knew how to get absolute control”), Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (“didn’t quite get it, but Faulkner was powerful”), something by Albertus Magnus (“the guy who mixed up scientific theories with theology”), poetry (“I memorized Poe’s poem ‘The Bells’”), and… “There was a book there on Joseph Smith, the authentic American prophet who identifies himself with Enoch in the Bible and says that Adam was the first man-god.” [3]

The proverbial light bulb flashed on above my head. For a man who has dedicated his life and artistic career to creating and re-creating a myth of himself and who was lauded in the early ‘60s as the voice of his generation, the story of a self-made American prophet would have natural appeal.

But it’s not just Smith who tickles Dylan’s fancy. In 2010, historian Sean Wilentz took a break from his award-winning scholarship on early nationalism and Jacksonian America to write about Dylan. [4] According to Wilentz, at a 1975 show during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour Dylan stepped to the mic and told the crowd: “I want to dedicate this to Brigham Young.” He then performed the song “Oh, Sister,” which was later released on the album Desire. [5]

Oh, sister, when I come to lie in your arms
You should not treat me like a stranger
Our Father would not like the way that you act
And you must realize the danger

Oh, sister, am I not a brother to you
And one deserving of affection?
And is our purpose not the same on this earth
To love and follow His direction?

We grew up together
From the cradle to the grave
We died and were reborn
And then mysteriously saved

Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your door
Don’t turn away, you’ll create sorrow
Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore
You may not see me tomorrow [6]

Where Dylan’s references to Joseph Smith’s mythmaking are admiring, this introduction to “Oh, Sister” is clearly critical of Young. Dylan called Smith “authentic” and implicitly compared himself to the first Mormon prophet when he said the title of Brodie’s book described him, too. But “Oh, Sister” is a song in which a man uses religion – including a warning of “danger,” presumably of damnation – to coerce a woman into bed. Dylan admires Smith’s self-creation. He does not appreciate the sexual uses to which he apparently views Smith’s religion as having been put by Brigham Young.

So what of Smith and Young’s followers? These references were enough to set us to Googling, and once again my husband came through.  In an interview posted on The Jewish Angle, a blog by Washington Jewish Week writer David Holzel, Holzel noted that in Chronicles, Dylan spent a great deal of time talking about “how [he] tried to escape, or really destroy the image the public had of [him] as a prophet or a cultural icon.” He then asked, “So how did you decide what to do?” Dylan responded:

“Well my wife and kids an[d] me would sit around after supper on a Saturday night, and we’d all put ideas into a hat. I picked a slip of paper out of the hat, and that would be the week’s activity. One time it might be to get myself photographed at the Western Wall so people would think I was a Zionist. Another time it might be to get a job pumpin’ gas in Paramus, New Jersey, so the press would report I was crazy, or a sicko, or a Mormon.” [7]

What does this tell us about Dylan’s personal opinion of the Saints? Not much. But it does indicate that Dylan understands that Mormons are still suspect in contemporary America. After all, to be a Mormon here is akin to being “crazy, or a sicko.” They are also referenced in close proximity to Zionists – another group often categorized as religious zealots. But does Dylan feel sympathy for the Mormons, or disdain? Or, perhaps more likely, he doesn’t care one way or the other, and is only interested in using the public image of other individuals or groups in ways that suit his own self-image building needs?

Regardless of Dylan’s personal feelings about Smith, Young, and the Saints, the uses to which he puts them are in line with larger trends in American culture. (Interestingly, Dylan’s uses of the Mormons particularly reflect the attitudes of his fellow Jewish American writers Harold Bloom and Tony Kushner, both of whom have devoted significant attention to Mormonism. [8]) In many narratives since World War II, contemporary Latter-day Saints, á la South Park and The Book of Mormon, are fools who believe in an implausible theology. Brigham Young, the great organizer, is the despot who succeeded in planting the Mormon community in the desert and making it bloom at the expense of the physical and intellectual independence of his followers.  And Joseph Smith is – as Fawn M. Brodie wrote – a charismatic genius with a talent for self-invention and mythmaking, and perhaps a brilliant conman as well.

Dylan isn’t blazing any trails here. As is often the case in his work, he is dipping into the well of American popular culture and reshaping what he finds there to suit his needs. Given the available popular representations of the Mormons it is easy to see why, as he mines America’s past to craft his own myths, Dylan keeps returning to the Saints and their “authentic American prophet.”

 

 

 

[1] My husband, Chris Hutchison-Jones, is an invaluable conversation partner and critic of my work. In addition to being a student and practitioner of American roots music, he holds a MSW and a MA in Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics. In point of fact, I should probably credit him as research assistant, if not a co-author, on this blog entry.

[2] Gilmore, “Bob Dylan: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone (September 27, 2012), 46.

[3] Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004), 36–37.

[4] Dylan has that effect on scholars. Christopher Ricks, the William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, is the author of books on Milton, Keats, Tennyson, and T.S. Eliot, as well as the editor of numerous volumes of the works of these poets. In 2003, he published Dylan’s Visions of Sin (New York: HarperCollins).

[5] Wilentz, Bob Dylan in America (New York: Doubleday, 2010), 151.

[6] Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy, “Oh, Sister,” Desire (Jul 1978). Transcription available at http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs.

[7] David Holzel, “Bob Dylan: Jokerman,” The Jewish Angle (2005). Online at http://www.mindspring.com/~dbholzel/1027.html.

[8] See Harold Bloom, The American Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), and Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995).

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9 Comments

  1. Great post, Crissy. Interesting to see that, as ground-breaking as Dylan was in many important ways, he still viewed/views Mormons (except JS) with clear disdain. Would be interesting to see if anyone can uncover personal encounters Dylan would have had with Mormons, and how those shaped his perception of the religion.

    Comment by Nate R. — December 8, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

  2. Very interesting.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — December 8, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

  3. Awesome, awesome, awesome. I love everything about this post, Crissy. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — December 8, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

  4. What Christopher said.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 8, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

  5. As a Dylan fan, I found this fascinating, thanks! A friend serving a mission in California recently told me about a member in a ward in Eureka who served his own mission in Texas in the late 60s. The LDS church took part in Hemisfair ’68 in San Antonio, and this man hung onto the slip of paper that Bob Dylan allegedly used to sign in at the “Mormon Pavilion.” No idea if it was really him (the name is “Robert Dylan,” the address is in Woodstock, NY, and the religion given is “Zen”), but my friend took a picture of the paper for me (link), so that’s another possible Dylan/Mormonism connection. If you’d like more details I’m sure I could try to get in contact with the guy.

    Comment by austin — December 8, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

  6. I third Chris and J. Fantastic.

    Comment by JJohnson — December 8, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

  7. Amazing. I love Dylan, and I love this connection you’ve made. Thanks!

    Comment by LAT — December 8, 2012 @ 8:21 pm

  8. Fascinating. Thanks so much for this post

    Comment by Bryan Kerr — December 9, 2012 @ 12:15 am

  9. Thanks, everyone, for your interest and your feedback! This post was more fun than I ever imagined having with Bob Dylan!

    @Nate R. – I agree it would be fascinating to uncover Dylan’s past experiences with the Mormons, if there are any. I actually spent a great deal of time when I wrote about Tony Kushner’s *Angels in America* reading every interview with him that I could find just to see what he’d read and how he’d encountered Mormonism — but he’s much freer with information about himself than Dylan is. If there’s anything I’m certain of with regard to Dylan it’s that he’s spent his life carefully crafting multiple myths of himself, and the likelihood of determining what his actual experiences with the Saints have been — beyond reading at least some part of Brodie’s Smith bio — is slim to none.

    Speaking of which, @austin I’d LOVE to hear/see more about this potential encounter between Dylan and the Saints in 1968. (If only there was a picture of Dylan at the entrance to the pavilion, or something like that!) If you can give me any additional information, I’d really appreciate it!

    Comment by Cristine — December 9, 2012 @ 2:44 pm