45 Years, 45 Days: The Free-Floating Bob Dylan

For 45 days, we’ll be celebrating Reason’s 45th
anniversary by releasing a story a day from the archives—one for
each year of the magazine’s history. See the full
list here.

Writing in Reason’s November 2001 issue, Brian Doherty
examined the wonderfully inauthentic art of America’s most vital
singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan:

Over a career that spans five decades, Dylan has written a huge
body of wonderful songs with rich, fresh language, a vast emotional
range, and an appreciation for and understanding of the totality of
human experience. He has blended these with exhilarating melodies
and musical backings. He has been absurd, tender, vengeful, smart,
sexy, foolish, mystic, pious, nostalgic, journalistic, and
phantasmagorical. He’s a master of love songs (from “I Want You” to
“Precious Angel”), word-drunk ramblings (from “Desolation Row” to
“Idiot Wind”), and hymn-like anthems that sound ancient and
necessary right out of the box (from “I Shall Be Released” to
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”). It seems likely that Dylan will be
providing insight and pleasure to listeners for as long as digital
storage media last.

Yet one thing Dylan has never been is “authentic,” the prime
value of the late ’50s and early ’60s folk-music milieu from which
he arose. Both Down the Highway and Positively 4th Street provide
valuable insight into how Bob Dylan violated the codes of his
folk-scene background, which restricted performers to politically
and culturally imposed limits thought to be more “real” than the
“plastic” American culture exemplified not only by Eisenhower’s
America but by then-burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll. Dylan became the most
successful product of the folk movement precisely by daring to be
more than what its repressive version of identity politics allowed.
Every step of the way, his career throws into question the
usefulness of politicized restrictions on freewheeling cultural
production and identity formation. Though it is rarely
acknowledged, even or perhaps especially by his champions, Dylan’s
status as an American cultural icon is a reflection of his
brilliance at continuous self-fashioning, not his