The Dylan Episode with Author Stephen Arnoff

by Corey O'Flanagan

Talking Dylan with Stephen Arnoff, author of About Man & God & Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan.

Finally, the Songfacts Podcast is here to talk about Dylan! There is no better person to guide us through this episode than Dr. Stephen Arnoff, who is the author of the new book About Man & God & Law, available via ebook now and hard copy on May 3, 2022.

Dr. Arnoff, who also hosts a podcast by the same name, takes a unique look at Dylan and his works. We discuss how one line from "Maggie's Farm" led to so much more, and also get into the deeper meaning of songs like "Blind Willie McTell" and "Like A Rolling Stone."

As a longtime Dylan fan I'm very excited to present this conversation.

Getting Into Dylan

Once upon a time, there was a guy from Cleveland - that was me - and I fell in love with music from the beginning. That was a family trait - my father has always been a big fan of music. This was a period when the hallmark radio station of the Midwest and sort of nationally was WMMS, so my musical education was at the feet of Kid Leo and Len "Boom Boom" Goldberg, and Jeff and Flash - those were the DJs of the day.

I got into music but my introduction to Dylan came late in my musical education. It was reading Greil Marcus' book, which was called The Invisible Republic at the time and is now called The Old Weird America, which turned me on to the idea that you could combine an academic approach with a traditions-history of America and American music with a real personal point of view. So, though some complain about Greil Marcus, to me he is a real mentor and hero, and that's what turned me on to starting to teach about Bob Dylan at the various avenues and locations and institutions where I was affiliated, and just started to write some articles and all of that eventually led to writing the book.

Turning A Line From "Maggie's Farm" Into A Book And Podcast

The title of Arnoff's book comes from a line in Dylan's song "Maggie's Farm":

Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law
Everybody says
She's the brains behind Pa

It revolves around the way I think and what my patterns of learning have been. There's no such thing really as an original text when you keep peeling the onion and you ask yourself, "where does a song come from?", "where does an image come from?" This idea of interpretation of text being what makes texts what they are, to me is a lot of how Dylan works, so it felt natural to write a book like that.

From my academic training and the kind of teacher that I am, I work in a field called Midrash, which is Hebrew for interpretation. It's a really old art of interpreting sacred text, and essentially what you're doing is trying to fill in the gaps that the text doesn't tell you once you're drawn into that text. So in a lot of ways, I was drawn into writing this book. I was looking for a hook to hang it on and I understood that based on my interests, what I wanted to say about Dylan, that was the perfect line to use as a sacred text essentially to interpret, and that's how the book rolled out from that text.

"Like A Rolling Stone"

When we talk about "Like A Rolling Stone," we are talking about versions of that image that go back decades, if not hundreds of years. Dylan is interpreting that and putting a new valence on it and giving it a new window and a new lens into it, and that's interpretation. But it's also the art of creativity. So, it's hard to tell sometimes whether it's creativity or interpretation or both.

"Like A Rolling Stone" starts the way that many great stories start: "Once upon a time." You can hear it in that lyric, it's taking you to a place which is amorphous, it's kind of beyond time, and a lot of what "Like A Rolling Stone" is trying to do is to locate a very specific feeling and a very specific experience that comes out of some chaos, some confusion.

Dylan described "Like a Rolling Stone" as being 17 pages of vomit that he had to bring together into one epic speech. And, with the characters that show up in "Like A Rolling Stone" and the wonderful melody and the happenstance of how that song came together in the studio, the chorus of "how does it feel?" is to me a question that signifies the age. The question that musicians are asking is the same as the audience is asking: Who am I? Where am I? How does it feel? I want to make sense of my experience in the world at a time when the authority structures are breaking down. This is during a time of civil unrest in between assassinations of great Americans. This is at the cusp of the real explosion of the Vietnam War and all the different places where this song is at an intersection. The thing that is most wanted and most left out of all these shifts in power and identity is, Who am I? How does it feel? How are we going to feel together? That matters more than all the BS that people are talking about on the news and all the different ways that power and authority are working to try to shut down people from being who they want to be.

Dylan's Intuition

He does seem to be incredibly intuitive. He's also incredibly confident and he's not at all risk-averse. So it's a combination of traits that maybe, if one could contextually duplicate them all in one place intentionally it'd be too much work to try to create a character like that, but he's incredibly intuitive. He seems to be fearless creatively. He's got an incredible capacity to take in content, assemble it and spit it back out. He doesn't mind changing course time and time again. And he has a real nose for trend lines in society.

There are certainly other artists who have that almost ethereal knowing where the next thing's going to be - think about David Bowie, think about Prince. There are certain artists who just seem to be able to hop to where places are going. But, in this respect, I wouldn't call it prophecy per se, but it's something like deep intuition that reflects beyond the self. He is able to say, "how does it feel?" because listening to Dylan not only reflects back how huge amounts of people - the audience – feel, but it also helps people feel things they didn't even know they were going to feel. And that's part of the magic.

Dylan's Christian Period

We can't know, and we probably shouldn't know what's going on inside Bob Dylan as a person, what are his needs - emotionally, spiritually, culturally. Nobody knows except him, and I would bet that he's not even really sure because he would seem to be someone who's constantly asking questions at the same time he's behind the shade. So, we're not going to ever really get a glimpse inside.

Dylan's Battles With Addiction and Alcoholism

You've got a really painful divorce preceding that. You've got a return to the stage, which definitely involved a lot of cocaine.

This is the mid-70s and things are really moving in that direction for anyone who's on the stage at that level. There could certainly be elements of exhaustion and personal crisis and seeking, and a need to find a respite of some kind, but also because he is someone who is steeped in American music, he is not going to ever be able to avoid the fact that a lot of these great songs that are his heritage come right out of the Bible. They come out of Christian mythology. They come out of different kinds of mythologies that run parallel to a traditional music of faith or spirituality.

His fascination with the blues and his obsession with issues of race and purpose and American schism, all would naturally lead a person towards Christianity. It's almost like he was imbibing the raw material of Christianity that whole time. Even though he was born to a Jewish family and over time identified with being Jewish in many different ways, it's hard to avoid that fascination and draw to Christianity if you're dealing with so much raw material that comes right out of that tradition. It doesn't surprise me that he would feel at home for a time going in, and when he goes in, he goes all the way in. So he went all the way in.

Changing Name From Robert Zimmerman

Even in the early '60s, it was not considered wise to try to crack into show business with a Jewish last name, whether you were Jerry Lewis or Woody Allen or Bob Dylan. Dylan talked about how changing the name from Zimmerman to Dylan or to any other name was something that he had to do in order to avoid any form of discrimination or antisemitism or what have you. We maybe forget how revolutionary certain changes in culture and cultural identity were in the period where Dylan was really starting to work. It was not the America then that we think we knew. We see over the past few years what's happened in America, a lot of those harsh edges of discrimination and bigotry and hate of the other, they're still alive and well, very, very, very sadly in America despite the Dylan revolution and what it brought.

"Blind Willie McTell"

One of most-studied Dylan songs is "Blind Willie McTell," which he recorded during sessions for his 1983 album, Infidels, but left off the setlist. It didn't appear until 1991 on his compilation The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased).

There's so much that was left on the cutting room floor that has re-emerged over the years, and it's a mystery why. Sometimes we talk about Dylan and the mask, Dylan and the artist who hides himself and changes in order to avoid being discovered for who he may really be. This particular song goes so deep into the identity of a white singer singing music generated by Black culture, Black suffering, and it is one of the great bittersweet, unresolved riddles of popular music.

One of the elements of Dylan that's so amazing is that he does not seem to care when he discovers something. The next day he's onto the next thing. I've heard stories about how he'll be in the studio, he'll finish recording or he'll finish a show or he'll finish a project, then he drops the mic and moves on. He's not interested in staying in that same place. This place is really deep, though, so I wonder if it was too much to share.

Stephen ArnoffStephen Arnoff

Dylan As Maker

I think Dylan is ultimately a performer, and I don't mean performer in the sense that he's faking it. He's a doer, he's a maker.

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to the Frost Museum in Miami to see the Retrospectrum, which is the largest collection of his art. So it's paintings, drawings, writings, and sculpture. There were a lot of beautiful moments in there, and there's a lot of stuff where you see a guy who's really teaching himself to paint. But what's most beautiful to me, and I really mean beautiful, is here's a guy who has all the time and money in the world. He is esteemed wherever he would go. He can do whatever he wants with his life, and that's been the case for decades. And you can see that unless he had someone doing the painting for him and doing the metalwork for him, that guy was in the studio every spare minute he had working. And I love that. I think that is one of the keys to what makes Bob Dylan great and such a great model for any kind of artist: He has to work. He's got to perform. He's got to do.

We see from his touring regimen. Dylan's doing 100 dates a year at the age of 81, but I think he feels most at home when he's making something but he isn't staying in the same place. It's dynamic.

Never Performing A Song The Same Way

Which would be a tough place to be as a band, and it's been even tougher for a lot of fans. It's been many a time at a Dylan show where you'll hear someone turn and say, "I can't wait till he plays 'Like A Rolling Stone,'" and then it's like, "Well he just played it." "Oh, I couldn't tell."

Is It Time to Call Bob Dylan the American Shakespeare?

I think it's already evident in all kinds of ways that Dylan is a Shakespearean figure. He's also a Shakespearean character, I think. But he's a creator who works with the raw materials of inherited texts and with the bells and whistles of contemporary culture but is able to attract an audience at the same time that is considered truly high-brow, high-culture. But rock and roll is "low culture," so what's the difference? In Shakespeare's day, he had to put butts in seats just like Dylan needs to put butts in seats at his shows. So yes, I think it is time to think of Dylan as our Shakespeare. I think that it will be hard to call our age anything because things move so fast, but Dylan is a part of the cultural religious shifts around him. This is the age of Dylan.

The ways that we think about the power of popular culture are in a large part catalyzed by Dylan moving popular culture to the same place of import in how we think about the world as Shakespeare is sort of how we think about the world - we think about the world of Shakespeare through his lens, through his eyes. So there's a lot of parallels there and some really cool books have been written about that and people who teach it and explain it, and I would tune in to them as well for sure.

"Murder Most Foul"

"Some of that droney piano in the background, it's said that Fiona Apple was lending a hand on some of the musicianship behind the scenes there, which is really interesting. I'm a big, big fan of Fiona Apple - I think she's kind of a genius.

You know, we're talking about stories, right? What's the stories within these songs? What's the stories behind them? And this one, like "Rolling Stone," begins, "Twas a dark day in Dallas, November 63." So this is going to be an epic. This is an, "It was a dark and stormy night." This is a classic green light for telling an epic story, and I think it's an example of how Dylan does something to pin a whole universe of feeling and experience on a particular event in history that really drives the story forward.

He can remember where he was when JFK was assassinated. I can't remember where I was and you can't either, because we weren't even around, and yet there are certain events in history which have this profound shaping effect on everything that comes after it. Talk about biting off more than you might be able to chew, right? It's one of the landmark events of the 20th century, certainly in America. It is ultimately a song about trying to make sense of a life, and making sense of things in a world which is corrupt, which is foul, which is turned and focused by murder, but what's being echoed here is ways that we try to make sense of ourselves and history through poetry, through song.

We can cut to the moral of the story, which I think essentially is, despite the assassinations, despite the corruption, despite a lot of death, which is described in the story, is sing while you can still sing, and if you can't sing, listen to music and let the music be sung through you. And that's it. All the rest, as we say, is commentary.

This song is about what it means to be alive at a time when things don't make sense. When Kennedy was assassinated, it was like the head was cut off of society. This was a guillotine to what a lot of people saw as hope. Hope for civil society, hope on the geopolitical level, and hope for youth. The way to make sense of all that confusion, that mixed up confusion-blues, is putting it all into the landscape of music, and he just does a litany of listing the singers and certain figures of song and music that have helped him make sense.

It is a very humble song for such a grand topic. When the song was released, he wrote, "Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back, that you might find interesting. Stay safe, observant, and may God be with you, Bob Dylan."

That's about as personal and beautiful a message as I would expect to hear from a friend of mine, let alone from our friend Bob who doesn't know us. I think it's an amazing epic statement that keeps things really simple. Stay safe, listen, and you're not alone. I think it's beautiful.

The Line In The Song, "Go Listen To This"

It really is like the letter that the next president finds in the drawer from the preceding president like, here's what you need to know about the job. This is how to make sense of the world, how to survive. It's a curriculum, and a weird one too, because Stevie Nicks is in there with Charlie Parker. You've got Dickey Betts on one side and Ray Charles on the other - it's kind of counterintuitive.

In thinking about this song, I thought about two songs on opposite sides of the spectrum. One of them is "American Pie" because it also is circulating around the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. It's "the day the music died," and also the day when something in the culture died and could never be returned. But another one I thought of was Bowie's "Life On Mars?" - "It's a God-awful small affair to the girl with the mousy hair." So, on the one hand, you could talk about the assassination of a president or Buddy Holly dying in the crash and all the lost promise. But on the other hand, rock and roll is about finding ways to identify that we feel lonely and feeling that we're not alone.

I think Hunky Dory is one of the great rock albums of all time, and I think that "Life On Mars?" is one of the great songs of all time, because I don't think it gets any bigger than outer space and life on Mars. But the only reason we're talking about life on Mars is because this poor kid is offended by her parents or whatever happens with this girl with the mousy hair. Who has not felt that way? She's like, "Well, this planet didn't work out, but maybe there's another planet out there that people like me can live on." That's like the prize in the Cracker Jack box of culture. There's this space alien called David Bowie who's handing me a curriculum, handing me a ticket, and saying, "You know what, there's a way out of here and it's through your imagination and it's through listening to music." I think Dylan's doing the same thing in "Murder Most Foul."

April 8, 2022

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Thanks to Christian Swain at the Rock N Roll Archaeology podcast for his help with this episode
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