We’re back in the old, weird America on this one.
Greil Marcus has been writing about Bob Dylan for more than forty years, and all those pieces were collected and published in the book Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. (He’s written more than a dozen other books, including Lipstick Traces and the classic Mystery Train.) I spoke with him recently on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles about Bob Dylan’s new album Tempest—it’s Dylan’s thirty-fifth studio album, released fifty years after his debut album in 1962.
Jon Wiener: How does Dylan sound to you on Tempest?
Greil Marcus: He sounds like himself. He sounds sly, as he’s always sounded. He sounds as if there’s a twinkle in his eye; as if there’s a joke he’s letting you in on, maybe halfway, and you’ll have to find your way to the end of the joke yourself. That’s pretty much been his mode all along. And he sounds utterly eager to keep exploring the unanswered questions of the music that has captivated him for a long time. Mostly that has been the old, old American folk music that first transformed him when he left behind Robert Zimmerman and became Bob Dylan in Minneapolis in the late fifties and very early sixties.
You’ve written about the music of what you call “the old, weird America,” the murder ballads and songs about disasters and floods. We’re back in the old, weird America on this one.
There are four or five songs on this album that don’t do anything for me, that seem very repetitious, songs with a kind of overblown emphasis that don’t give back what they pretend to contain. But there are more songs: there’s “Long and Wasted Years,” and “Scarlet Town,” and a hilarious song called “Early Roman Kings,” and “Tin Angel,” “Tempest,” and “Roll On John.” Most of these go back to old mountain ballads like “Gypsy Daisy,” “Mattie Groves,” “Barbara Allen” and also “The Titanic”—which is not a mountain ballad but a folk song that spread all over the country in 1912, that was sung and recorded by countless people in the 1920s, and today too. He’s looked at these songs, and said “these songs are unfinished. They’re all vague. They are all full of clues. That means there’s room to retell these stories, to burrow underneath the surface story that we know, and say, ‘Why did this happen? Why do people still care about it?’ ”