By Dave Read, Lenox, MA, Sept. 2023 – It is the job of literature to produce a fabric broad and deep enough to hold a people together. It must provide the flag a nation’s people rally around, with or without saluting. To keep from sticking out like sore thumbs, the best writers only borrow enough from their elders and ancestors so that they blend in, yet remain fresh and distinct voices.
If Philip Nolan is The Man Without a Country, then perhaps America’s principle man of letters, Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, is a man without a generation? That would be because he was born a member of the last cohort to escape the naming-clutch of the consumer economy, which didn’t exist when he was born in May 1941, seven months before America was lured back into the wars of the old world.
If born a mere five years later, he’d have been branded a Baby Boomer, a term useful to people and companies with something to sell. The consumer economy was dreamt up to succeed the manufacturing economy that had sprung to the old world’s rescue twice in the span of 25 years.
Even an obscure reference such as Philip Nolan has relevance in an article on Bob Dylan, because there’s no aspect of the American story that he hasn’t woven into the tapestry of his own mythography.
Confederate poet Henry Timrod became the most famous advocate of slavery’s Lost Cause when Dylan quoted him in his song When the Deal Goes Down, on Modern Times (2006). For all we know, it was Timrod who had inspired Philip Nolan to enlist in Aaron Burr’s treasonous conspiracy?
But we digress – the question is whether Bob Dylan is a man without a generation? As soon as I write that, I wonder if I may have gotten off on the wrong foot? Given his “never-ending tour,” maybe the Thomas More story, A Man for All Seasons, would’ve been more apt?
No, that couldn’t work, because there are only four seasons, and it would be senseless to imagine Dylan as being divisible by four. What may make sense, however, is a literary mashup, such as declaring him to be “The Man for All Generations.”
Embarked as he is today on tour in support of Rough and Rowdy Ways, his 39th studio album, Bob Dylan has attracted paying customers from every generation named by the great American marketing machine. Now it makes sense.
Being pre-generational, Bob Dylan makes music that appeals to people of any and all generations!
And, as he told us in his memoir-adjacent book, Chronicles, Vol. 1 (2004), not only is he not a Baby Boomer, but it was the avant-garde of that cohort who impelled him to buy a rifle so he could protect his family from their rude and rowdy ways.
Perhaps you can see, now, how absurd is the label stamped on him by the popular media, and repeated by succeeding generations of the laziest writers in history – pop culture journalists. Bob Dylan is no more the spokesman for the Baby Boomers than he is for GenZ, iGen, or Centennials.
As he has been telling us since, at least, the 1965 San Francisco press conference, Bob Dylan is a song and dance man (more song than dance). He writes songs, then creates musical settings for them, then sells them. There is nothing easy about it, but it is that simple.