16 October 1997

Expecting Rain

Karl Erik Andersen
karlerik at monet.no

Date: Mon, 13 Oct 1997 13:40:15 +0200 (MET DST)
To: karlerik at monet.no
From: rollason at dialup.francenet.fr (CHRISTOPHER ROLLASON)
Subject: Review of Marcus, 'Invisible Republic' (text)

A Tree With Roots: Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic and Dylan's Basementville

Review article on: Greil Marcus, 'Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement
Tapes', New York: Henry Holt, 1997, hardback, xvi + 286 pp., ISBN
0-8050-3393-9, US$ 22.50

'Strap yourself to the tree with roots'
(Bob Dylan, 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere')

A long, long time ago, back in 1975, Greil Marcus paid tribute, in a set of elegant and articulate sleevenotes, to the legendary set of semi-secret recordings made in 1967 by Bob Dylan and the Band in the basement of a farmhouse in up-country New York State, a selection from which had just been officially issued by Columbia as 'The Basement Tapes'. This was music, Marcus wrote, that spoke of 'an old, old sense of mystery': 'the quiet terror of a man seeking salvation who stares into a void that stares back ... the awesome, impenetrable fatalism that drives the timeless ballads first recorded in the twenties'. In the tracks laid down in that basement, in the strange intensity of the Band's playing and Dylan's singing ('as knowing as the old man of the mountains'), the critic discovered - recast in an apparently rock-and-roll idiom - the pure spirit of American traditional music, as embodied in the work of such little-known performers of an earlier vintage as Dock Boggs, or Clarence Ashley, or Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

Dylan and his comrades-in-music went on to make, respectively, 'John Wesley Harding' and 'The Band', classic albums that summoned the Woodstock generation out of its substance-induced daydream to contemplate the strangeness of a far older America. Marcus went on to write a classic book, 'Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock'n'Roll Music' (N.Y., Dutton, 1975; London: Omnibus Press, 1977), in which he linked up such exponents of twentieth-century popular music as Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, Randy Newman and the Band themselves to broader and older trends in American culture - offering the connections he saw as 'a recognition of unities in the American imagination that already exist' ('Mystery Train', p. xii). Today, as the 1990s draw to a close, we have witnessed a fresh return to roots by Bob Dylan, in his recordings of venerable folk and blues material on 'Good As I Been To You' and 'World Gone Wrong'; and now 1997 has brought round Greil Marcus' own creative wheel full circle, with the appearance of his long-awaited opus, 'Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes'.

Marcus' new book may be seen, from one angle, as the belated fruit of those sleevenotes he wrote 22 years back, and of certain pages from his discussion of The Band in 'Mystery Train' (he admits himself to the latter, stating that 'in some ways this book is a sentence or a paragraph of that one, blown up' - 'Invisible Republic', p. 275). It has attracted its fair share of attention, not all of it sympathetic. First, the objection has been made that its title is misleading, as only about half of it is actually about Bob Dylan. Second, it has been dismissed as over-intellectual, pretentious, unreadable, etc. The press reviews that I am directly aware of have been largely, if not entirely, favourable (in the US, in the 'Washington Post' and the 'San Francisco Chronicle'; in the UK, in the 'Independent' and the 'New Statesman'); in Dylan circles, however, reactions, at least on the Usenet discussion group rec.music.dylan have quite often been vitriolic in their anti-intellectualism. Whether the music Marcus discusses stands up to the type of close comment and cultural connections he makes is, of course, a matter of opinion; I am one of those who believe it does, and rather than marshal abstract arguments against the anti-intellectuals I will simply express the hope that my own analysis will be strong enough to shore up that view through example.

As to the reproach that the book is 'only half about Dylan', I would point out that 'Invisible Republic' is the title and 'Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes' the subtitle; the subtitle appears in much smaller type than the main title on both dust-jacket and spine, suggesting that this if is a book about Dylan it is also, about other, wider concerns. Besides, anyone who owns the 1975 double LP/CD of the Basement Tapes and has taken the trouble to reread Marcus' sleevenotes should understand that, from the beginning, the critic's reflections on the music do not stop with Dylan.

I would go further than this and state that in 'Invisible Republic' the discussion of Dylan, fascinating though it is, is ultimately a sounding-board for Greil Marcus' explorations of American culture past and present, its highways and byways, its quirks and contradictions and its state at the moment of writing. To say this is not in any way to detract from the importance of Dylan himself for the study of American culture, or to poke holes in Marcus' analyses as such. It is, rather, to suggest that to engage with Dylan's work is also, and necessarily, to engage with the paradoxes of the country that produced him; the organization of Marcus' book, with the argument fanning out fern-like away from Dylan only to bend over itself and return to him, in a process repeated many times over, could even prove exemplary as a method of structuring _both_ Dylan studies and American studies.

What Marcus does have to say about Dylan is, in fact, valuable and concrete, though far from complete. The back of the book - something the reviewers have strangely failed to notice - provides a meticulously compiled, 40-page discography, including, inter alia, recording details and some analysis of every single song recorded at the basement sessions. One or two minor facts are missing (e.g. that Marcus forgets, when discussing 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere', to mention that when Dylan re-recorded the song in 1971, on 'More Greatest Hits', he also rewrote the lyrics - p. 263); otherwise, however, this discography is a highly useful contribution to Dylan studies, and seems not to have received quite its due appreciation. As to Marcus' actual discussion of Dylan songs and performances, the first chapter offers a kind of prologue to the Basement Tapes, re-treading familiar ground (the Newport Folk Festival and the so-called 'electric sellout'); otherwise, the main substance lies in his close analysis of just four of the basement songs: 'Lo and Behold!' (pp. 45-48), 'Clothes Line Saga' (pp. 143-148), 'Tears of Rage' (pp. 204-207) and 'I'm Not There' (pp. 198-204; this song is not on the official 1975 release). For this handful of songs, his interpretations of the lyrics and evocation of the music arrest and convince. He reads the musical mosaic of 'I'm Not There' with remarkable tellingness ('Garth Hudson continues decorating the circle of the tune ... the muscle Rick Danko's bass puts behind every wail and moan of the singing demands that you not leave' - p. 201); for 'Tears of Rage', he envisions an Independence Day beach procession ('a party of elders carrying a child on a beach, to a naming ceremony' - p. 204) with a clarity that, at least for this reader, brings a new visual coherence to the song. All in all, still, Marcus' book probably contains _less_ lyric analysis of the basement songs as a group than Michael Gray's early-70s study 'Song and Dance Man'; or, if new interpretations are what's required, Marcus has blazed the trail but left most of the work for others to do.

That said, much of the book's pith is, indeed, _not_ about Dylan. Instead, Marcus takes the reader on a tour of some of the obscurer and dustier backroads of American popular music. Those willing to follow the trail will discover, Tom Sawyer-like, a treasure-trove of obscure and fascinating information. We learn about Harry Smith's 1952 'Anthology of American Folk Music', an idiosyncratic but crucial five-LP set described as 'the founding document of the American folk revival' (p. 87), which, Marcus tells us (p. 267), is slated for re-release on three CDs in 1997; and about the chequered career of Dock Boggs, folk musician and sometime moonshiner and Pentecostalist, one of the performers featured in Smith's anthology, who 'made primitive-modernist music about death' (p. 153) and without whose 'presence in Bob Dylan's field of vision - less as a musical influence than a talisman' (p. 155), the profoundest of Dylan's basement recordings would have been impossible (it was also Boggs' tormented version of 'Pretty Polly' that gave Dylan the melody for his 'Ballad of Hollis Brown'). There is, conversely, a brief incursion into the world of the US charts, with an analysis of Bobbie Gentry's country/pop No 1 hit of 1967, 'Ode to Billie Joe', to which Dylan's 'Clothes Line Saga' (originally titled 'Answer to " Ode "') would appear to be a riposte. While all this material is not ostensibly or directly about Dylan, it is hardly irrelevant to him either, if one views his work as one more manifestation, however individual, of a deep-rooted, authentically popular tradition.


Even so, when Marcus talks about Dylan or his precursors in the tradition, he is, at the same time, talking about something else. In his preface, he asserts that in the alchemy of the basement laboratory there is 'an undiscovered country, like the purloined letter in plain sight' (p. xvi). The reference (uncredited in text or index) is to Edgar Allan Poe's tale 'The Purloined Letter', where the detective Dupin tracks down the stolen letter in the purloiner's house, on open display but turned inside-out - visible yet invisible at one and the same time. This idea is repeated in Marcus' text, more than once: 'it's not conspicuous, but it's _there_' (quoting Bruce Conner on the Harry Smith 'Anthology' - p. 95); 'they (i.e. the imaginary towns of the 'Anthology' and the basement recordings) match the unknown to the obvious' (p. 133). He is obviously talking about the 'invisible republic' - a presence at the very centre of America that is both there yet not there, ignored by the great majority yet beating at the deep heart's core. The purloined letter analogy suggests something which someone has stolen: I would guess that a vital word is absent, it may be deliberately, from Marcus' surface discourse, and I suggest that word is 'community' - a notion which may be uncovered, in multiple and contradictory manifestations, as we follow the twisting trail of his argument across the book's prairie.


Indeed, I would go further and argue that the presence of Bob Dylan in Marcus' book - on the inside or the outside ('come on, without/come on, within') - is central to the investigation of a quintessentially American question: what is the relationship between the individual and the community? That conundrum runs through US history and culture, through Walt Whitman and Mark Twain to today's conflicts over minority rights and campus free speech, and can scarcely be said to have been resolved today. Marcus quotes the famous address of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, made on shipboard in 1630 even before his voyaging contingent of Puritans had reached the New World. The community they would found, said Winthrop, would be 'as a City upon a Hill'; these words, says Marcus, laid the foundations of 'the wish and the need for utopia in the American story' (p. 209). But in an ideal community, how much elbow-room is there for the dissident individual?

Puritanism pushed American society in the direction of conformity to communal values; the frontier and the Wild West pulled in the opposite direction, towards the unchecked, anarchic individualism of the outlaw. The radical movements of the 1960s - the student revolt, the anti-war protest movement, the folk revival itself - were, for all their desire to stop history in its tracks and create the perfect society tomorrow, not immune from the strains of that two-way pressure. Nor was the early songwriting of that movement's temporary icon and standard-bearer, Bob Dylan.

Marcus charts certain key moments of Dylan's trajectory over the decade - his public role as protest apostle, his perceived apostasy into rock'n'roll at Newport '65, his post-accident retreat from the rostrum into the basement. He does not, however, ostensibly offer an analysis of the communal/individualist conflict in Dylan's work over this period. Nonetheless, out of Marcus' comments both on Dylan and on the older tradition behind him, I believe such an analysis can be constructed, and this I shall now attempt.


The folk-protest movement of the early 60s dreamt of a ideal liberated community, and saw itself as a community too - it was not _I_ or _you_, but _we_ that was going to overcome. This was the movement that for a time co-opted Bob Dylan as its spokesman-in-chief, and then turned away in horror when he went electric (Marcus relates the anecdote, true or not, of Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax at Newport trying to cut through the power-cables with an axe - p. 12). Three decades on, Marcus is less than tender with the folk purists; for all their undoubted utopianism, and despite the great and necessary achievements of the civil rights campaigns, he sees the movement's revolutionary vision as ultimately conformist, a blueprint for a imaginary free society of identical, identikit liberated citizens: 'in the face of the objective good that was the Grail of the folk movement, there could be no such thing as subjectivity ... at bottom, the folk revival did not believe in art at all. Rather, life ... equalled art, which ultimately meant that life replaced it' (p. 27). One may surmise that the 60s folk radicals, despite the libertarian aspects of their discourse, at bottom subscribed to a purified vision of the perfect society that bears at least a distant family resemblance to the rule-governed Salem of the Puritans or the repressively virtuous Boston captured by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 'The Scarlet Letter'; Marcus, indeed, at one point explicitly describes the self-styled guardians of folk as 'Puritans ... demanding purity before anything else' (p. 65).

Marcus believes that Dylan, in his avatar of folk troubadour, encapsulated those values more eloquently than anyone else - until he (quite soon) realized the limits of that vision, and moved on. He says of Dylan's early protest songs: 'they were pageants of righteousness ... there were armies and generations, heroes and villains ... there were almost no individuals ... these songs distilled the values of the folk revival better than any others' (p. 27). Marcus is, of course, talking about 'Blowin' in the Wind', 'The Times They Are A-Changin'', 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall', and the rest; he runs through the titles, but does not stop to analyze the songs in detail. A return to the texts will, though, serve to confirm his point. Dylan is here singing out for (progressive) youth against (reactionary) age, in lines like 'your sons and your daughters are beyond your command' ('The Times ...'), or 'there's one thing I know/Though I'm younger than you/Even Jesus would never/Forgive what you do' ('Masters of War'), or in the very structure of 'Hard Rain', with its dialogue between the 'darling young one' and the elder whom he strives to enlighten.

In these songs, the individual scarcely exists: 'I' is subsumed into the revolutionary mass of 'we'. Examination of the use of pronouns in the most famous songs confirms this. 'Blowin' in the Wind' has no 'I's at all, with the prophetic vision expressed in impersonal language; the addressee of the refrain is 'my friend', but we do not who 'I' is, other than a mouthpiece for the great change to come; 'The Times ...', similarly, avoids all first-person reference and targets various collective adversaries - politicians, parents - the system conceived as a plural 'you'. 'Masters of War' is in the first person, but the 'I' is throughout purely representative - as, again, the seeing, hearing and singing 'I' of 'Hard Rain' is little more than the mirror in which the visions of apocalypse are reflected. The most impersonal of all these songs, and perhaps therefore the one that best typifies the protest movement, is 'When The Ship Comes In': the enemy is 'they', the 'you' addressed is the listener, asked to engage imaginatively in the act of liberation, and there is no 'I' at all - the song concludes with the triumph of the radical masses, of 'we': 'we'll shout from the bow, " your days are numbered "/And like Pharaoh's tribe,/They'll be drownded in the tide/And like Goliath, they'll be conquered'. We may conclude that this group of songs does, indeed, also stand for the triumph of community over the individual.

This was a world where, to quote another song from this period, 'Bob Dylan's Dream', 'As easy it was to tell black from white,/It was all that easy to tell wrong from right'. That song itself, though, already sows the seeds of doubt, using the dream convention to challenge the durability of the folk-protest community: 'And our choices were few and the thought never hit/That the one road we ever travelled would ever shatter or split'. History offered more than one road, and more choices than the communitarian radicals imagined. According to Marcus, there was a truer, older American folk tradition, and the road back to it snaked through the bushes and briars of the untamed, anarchic, irreducible individualism of the pre-war likes of Dock Boggs.

Marcus, introducing this unsung singer-hero to a readership few of whom will have heard of him, places Boggs firmly under the banner of nonconformity. He quotes the man himself: 'I felt that I'm just as good as the other person. We's all borned equal. Came into this world with nothin', we go out with nothin'. We all supposed to have the same chance, under our Constitution, in this world. And God give us that, too. Because some person has got a big bank account, fine home, and a lot of the world's goods, it don't make him no better than me, nary a bit better'n me' (p. 166). Marcus sees this stance as 'locked into a strain of American individualism', by which 'to be a citizen, Boggs had to stand for himself' (pp. 166-167). Individuality also, however, means the sensation of difference; and difference can mean both defiance and danger in a country where - and here Marcus quotes D.H. Lawrence on America - the individual knows 'they are free to lynch him the moment he shows he is not one of them' (p. 168).

If that voice of Dock Boggs from the 30s sounds familiar, it may be because his words and attitudes are echoed, consciously or otherwise, by the better-known voice of the mid-60s Dylan. On 'Another Side of Bob Dylan' and 'Bringing It All Back Home', we may chart Dylan's shift from communitarian radicalism ('equality, I spoke the word as if a wedding vow' - 'My Back Pages') to an anarchic individualism - democratic dignity now means less the collective liberation of 'we' than the freedom of everyone - of 'I' and 'you' - to be himself or herself, free from all constraints to conform. In 'All I Really Want To Do', the speaker insists: 'I ain't lookin' for you to see like me/Feel like me or be like me'; conversely, he implies, his listener is free to be her own unique self. The comforter of 'To Ramona' declares to his friend: 'I've heard you say many times that you're better than no-one and no-one is better than you/If you really believe that you know you have nothing to win and nothing to lose'; the sense of individuality is the surest defence against the conformists who would 'hype you and type you' and push the idea that 'you've gotta be just like them'. The disgruntled worker of 'Maggie's Farm' proclaims much the same message: 'Well, I try my best to be just like I am/But everybody wants you to be just like them'; and in 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' we are told that 'it is not he or she or them or it/That you belong to': you belong, first of all, to yourself. Marcus does not say so explicitly, but this is, surely, the homespun philosophy of Dock Boggs - I am as good as you, but I am also free to be myself. It is also the voice of another irreducible individualist, Mark Twain's Huck Finn, who declares rebelliously at the end of 'Tom Sawyer': 'I ain't everybody', and repeats the gesture of revolt at the end of his own titular novel, in his flat rejection of Aunt Sally's wish to 'sivilize' him ('I been there before').

We inheritors of the 60s have been there too, and tried to escape: Dylan's individualist stand of 1964/65 marks a turning-away from community - a lighting-out for the territory, a making of tracks out towards the anarchic, frontier edge of the American tradition. As Marcus implies (p. 65), the Puritan made way for the pioneer. However, the story is not over yet - indeed, as far as Marcus' central argument is concerned it has scarcely begun. Come 1967, Dylan's retreat to the basement marked his return to what our author believes was the true American tradition, the wellspring fed by the likes of Dock Boggs and Rabbit Brown. This was, as we have seen, certainly far more individualist and less communitarian a tradition than that embodied by Pete Seeger. But - and here lies the paradox - down there in the basement, Dylan and the Band also remade themselves as a music-making community.


'Strap yourself to the tree with roots', Dylan advises in 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere'. A similar piece of folk wisdom appears in 'Open the Door, Richard': 'Take care of all of your memories'. Musical _roots_ and _memories_ are, precisely, what matters in the basement recordings: this is particularly clear if one listens to the complete sessions, where the songs covered range right across the American tradition, white and black, from a folk ballad like 'Young But Daily Growing', through Johnny Cash and the Carter Family to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Curtis Mayfield. The Dylan originals reveal themselves as rooted in a much older lineage. This cheek-by-jowl neighbourliness between the songs implies a musical continuity, or community, in time; and, more than this, Dylan and the Band create their own musicians' community in space, in the here and now. The give-and-take and blending between Dylan's vocals and the Band's back-up harmonies and playing (Garth Hudson's sinuous organ above all) point up an undeniable intimacy: the group are far more than backing musicians, they are Dylan's co-conspirators. Marcus has shown in 'Mystery Train' how in their subsequent work, above all on the two classic first albums, the Band went on to create work in which in which 'community was ... a projection of comradeship' (p. 72) - and which was, at the same time, 'committed to the very idea of America: complicated, dangerous and alive' (p. 43). Those elements - the community, and the danger - were already there in the basement.

If we turn to the lyrics of Dylan's basement originals, what we find is, precisely, a community that has turned dangerous - a small town, most likely in the South (we know there's been a crash on the levee), where the apparently placid and neighbourly surface of things fissures, as in William Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpaha County (think of the story 'A Rose for Emily'), to reveal dark and destructive fears, unhealed traumas and half-whispered secrets. On the nature of life in this town, I broadly agree with Marcus, though the lines that follow are mostly my own attempt at synthesis. Marcus calls it 'Union' or 'Kill Devil Hills' (both after really existing communities); I prefer to call it Basementville.

The Basementville community apparently lives on clichˇs which conveniently mask reality ('Clothes Line Saga') or on an inherited wisdom that may not be usable in practice ('Open the Door, Richard'); if the dust is disturbed, festering secrets emerge, tales of betrayal ('Tears of Rage') and resentment ('Down In The Flood'). As Marcus perceptively shows, the crimes that spatter the history of this town are never named, never defined with any precision: 'in the town made by the basement tapes, no crime comes sufficiently into focus for it to become more than a rumor - or for justice to be done' (p. 130): even the prisoner in 'I Shall Be Released' seems not to know, or to want to know, why they 'put me here'. One might quote Dylan's much later song 'Political World': 'men commit crimes/And crime don't have a face'. Anyone poking in the dust will discover that this community is fatally flawed, and might erupt at any moment into violence (it is not inconceivable that the speakers of both 'This Wheel's on Fire' and 'Nothing Was Delivered' are planning or fantasizing, not just the settling of old scores, but the actual murder of their antagonists).

This tension in Basementville, the dark yearnings towards violence or betrayal, recalls the Arkansas one-horse towns through which Jim and Huck Finn pass, accompanied by the arch-tricksters the King and Duke. In one such town, a certain Colonel Sherburn shoots dead a drunk named - of all things - Boggs, who has challenged him: 'Come out and meet the man you've swindled!'. The mob try to lynch Sherburn, but he faces them down: 'Now the thing for _you_ to do, is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole ... Now _leave_ - and take your half-a-man with you' (chapters 21 and 22). The language of Mark Twain's characters would not be out of place in Basementville; the Sherburn/Boggs episode is the kind of conflict that is implied, but only half-stated, in a song like 'Nothing Was Delivered' ('it's up to you to say/Just what you had in mind/When you made everybody pay') or 'Too Much of Nothing' ('when there's too much of nothing/It just makes a fella mean'). Through Dylan's town too, there may stalk the arch-deceiver of Herman Melville's 'The Confidence-Man' - a novel mentioned in passing by Marcus (p. 47) - vendor of patent locks, quack medicines or salvation ('there's a certain way we all must swim/If we expect to live off the fat of the land' - 'Open the Door, Richard'). Dylan's basement world ain't goin' nowhere, and in this it replicates the darker visions of America's greatest writers. The only way out of Basementville may be individual defiance, the jaunty whimsicality of the comic songs like 'Million Dollar Bash', 'Quinn the Eskimo' or 'Lo And Behold!' ('get me out of here, my dear man'!).


If we put together, and expand on, Marcus' examination of the individual vs. community tension in Dylan's work - in the collectivist stance of the protest phase, the unbridled individualism of 1964-65, or the flawed and dangerous community of Basementville - we may conclude that what he finds in Dylan is not the resolution of that tension but an continuous, ever-shifting exploration of it. That is, surely, historically inevitable; no writer can do more when confronted with the contradictions of the nation as it is. In his epic 'Song of Myself', Walt Whitman, revelled in his unique individuality ('I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious' - section 24), yet offered himself to the nation as an indissoluble part of it ('If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles' - section 52); had he tried solemnly to resolve the contradiction, he would not have become the quintessential poet of the New World. It fell to a lesser writer, Edward Bellamy, in his utopian novel of 1888, 'Looking Backward', to imagine a millennial America of the year 2000, a purified society of garden cities and universal credit cards where perfect equality had been reconciled with the development of the talents of all, thanks to 'the rise of the race to a new plane of existence with an illimitable vista of progress' (Penguin edition, p. 128). Bellamy's chosen route to utopia was, however, a form of socialism based on the nationalization of industry which, as the year 2000 actually approaches, is, as things stand, unlikely to win many followers.

At the end of 'Invisible Republic', Marcus gives himself over to a series of reflections (pp. 212-216) on community, or the lack of it, in today's America. Starting out from Dylan's 'Tears of Rage' and its drama of post-Independence Day betrayal, he scrutinizes the United States of 1997 and finds no abiding city, no sense of an authentic national community. Marcus does not actually mention the dread term 'political correctness', but it is clear that what he finds is only an agglomeration of discrete sectional communities that add up to neither a nation nor the dream of one. He quotes a professor from the University of North Carolina, who believes the idea of 'national experience' has been 'long since rendered useless by careful analyses of regional, gender, racial, class and occupational differences within the body politic' (p. 213); and, more disturbingly, Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court, who in a dissenting opinion of 1995 ('US Term Limits v. Thornton') - defeated by only one vote - not only argued in favour of states' rights over federal law, but effectively claimed that the federal entity does not exist: 'The ultimate source of the Constitution's authority is the consent of the people of each individual state, not the consent of the undifferentiated people of the nation as a whole' (ibid.). If this defence of states' rights seems at first sight innocuous, history might remind us that it was those rights that the Confederacy evoked against Lincoln; in Bellamy's utopia, curiously enough, the presidency remains but the states have been abolished altogether ('Looking Backward', p. 155). If there is no 'undifferentiated people', then all that exists is differentiation; there is no national community, only a set of separate communities. Marcus finds Thomas' view echoed on the left, in the discourse of 'ethnic activists and multiculturalist academics' (p. 212), but also, and even more disturbingly, on the extreme right: 'Thomas's language', he says, 'was not altogether different from that spoken by white supremacist groups' such as the Freemen of Montana (pp. 213-214), who believe that all non-white groups are the spawn of Satan. In the decade of political correctness, it takes courage to equate the self-styled radicals and the forces of reaction: Marcus is unlikely to receive death-threats, but there is a note of desperation in his lament that 'if there is no national experience there can be no such thing as a national voice' (p. 213) - no such voice, then, as the one that Bob Dylan assumed in the basement back in 1967.

Still, Marcus is not bidding farewell to Governor Winthrop's chosen nation just yet; in the world gone wrong of the century's last gasp, he clearly does still want to believe in the vision of community, the city on a hill. He sees today's America as a battlefield of contending minorities, far removed from the ideals of the Founding Fathers - strangely echoing the concerns of intellectuals in India, another country that prides itself on its democracy and its unity-in-diversity, but which, even as it celebrates half a century of freedom, finds the vision of its own founding fathers, Gandhi and Nehru, fractured by sectarian and particularist tendencies, by what V.S. Naipaul has called 'a million mutinies now'. Nonetheless, against the fashionable claims of women's or African-American separatism, Marcus continues to affirm the unifying dreams of an Abraham Lincoln or a Martin Luther King (p. 207). In his Gettysburg address, Lincoln evoked 'the great task remaining before us ... that this nation ... shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth'; a century later, King declared: 'I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed...that all men are created equal. (...) I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.'

Both Lincoln and King were fired by the vision of a republic of equality, a nation obliged to be more than the sum of its parts. This is, surely, a rather ampler perspective than today's narrow 'progressivism' of rule-governed behaviour and lexical absolutism. Indeed, looking through the archives of 'Time' magazine on CD-ROM ('The Time Almanac of the Twentieth Century'), I am struck by the fact that back then in the early 1960s, both King himself and the 'Time' journalists employed the now discredited term 'Negro', with no sense of negative connotation - and am also slightly surprised that no latter-day Winston Smith has been employed to replace every occurrence of the word with 'African-American' and rewrite the past in the image of today's fashion-ruled, historically amnesiac epoch. Bob Dylan mentions both King and Lincoln, albeit in passing, on his 'Freewheelin'' album, which stands as a tribute to the dreams of a time when radicalism meant something else than a censorious obsession with rigid linguistic and behavioural codes.

Marcus' ideal of community, we may conclude, is rooted in a historical nostalgia - but nostalgia for what period? Is it for the 1960s, despite his recollections of the paradoxical conformism of the protest generation and its collectivist hopes? Or - more likely - is it for the vanished America represented by the older folk tradition, that wellspring into which Dylan dipped for the basement sessions? If it is the latter, the reader might object that such a tradition, for all its heroism and dignity, belongs to a world that is now gone for good.

On the other hand, Marcus might counter-argue that Bob Dylan is still alive in our midst. He elides the bulk of Dylan's post-basement career, jumping from 'John Wesley Harding', an album that he sees as an austerer, 'black-and-white movie' continuation of the basement tapes, or 'the doomed sound of 1968' (p. 265) straight to the mid-1990s and to 'Good As I Been To You' and 'World Gone Wrong'. Dylan's conversion to Christianity and the religious albums of the late70s/early 80s are not even discussed; we may presume that, despite Marcus' historical fascination with the puritans, religion plays no part in his vision of the future community, and he won't be boarding any slow train. Over Dylan's two acoustic albums of old folk and blues songs, however, he waxes lyrical to a degree that suggests that a book-length appreciation of this material could yet be in the can: 'Good As I Been To You' is seen as Dylan's 'version of the American legacy'; in 'World Gone Wrong', 'Dylan hurried the past forward as a critique of the present' (pp. 265-266). It would be fascinating to read Marcus one day on the history of these songs; it has to be said, however, that despite the high quality of Dylan's handling of the tradition on both albums, this work is unlikely to set the nation aflame in the way his 60s material did. First, one man with an acoustic guitar does not make a community, even if his readings of the songs do form a dialogue with a community of past singers. Second, the two albums, though well received by the Dylan faithful, have not exactly had major commercial success, and the great record-buying public is probably unaware that they exist (there is nothing from either on the recent best-selling compilation 'The Best of Bob Dylan'). If Marcus is implying that traditional music itself, performed by Dylan or anyone else, can or will create some miraculous new form of community in today's end-of-millennium America, his historical nostalgia may, in a sad paradox, finally be ahistorical.


'Invisible Republic' comes over as a labour of love: the book works throughout as a highly impressive piece of research and interpretation. It is a tribute to Dylan and the folk tradition, but also to another vanished world, that of 1960s libertarianism ('So much of the basement tapes', Marcus declares in his final chapter, 'are the purest free speech' - p. 222: a brave affirmation to make in the epoch of campus and workplace censorship). It also marks a substantial contribution to both Dylan studies and American studies. The writing is taut, lucid, evocative - indeed, this is a better-written book than 'Mystery Train', its tone less vernacular but more organized, more disciplined. The connections made between American popular music and the high-cultural tradition - Winthrop, Melville, Lincoln and all the rest - are neither pretentious nor gauche: Marcus' work is the exact opposite of the 'dumbing-down process' which traditional intellectuals today deplore - as when a letter to 'Time' (18 August 1997 - p. 3) complains, justifiably enough, at the naming of rocks on Mars after cartoon characters. The type of analysis offered by Marcus will not work for all the products of non-official culture, but the point is, I suggest, that the non-elite artefacts which come out strongest from comparison and connection with the elite culture are those which - like the old folk songs, like the basement tapes - derive their sustenance from the ancient parallel tradition of popular creativity, rather than being mass-produced to 'demand-led' commercial formulas.

I have tried to show that the hidden thread, the purloined letter of 'Invisible Republic' is the idea of community. There is a crucial dimension here, however, that Marcus neglects, and that is the new kinds of community now being forged in cyberspace. The new frontier of the Internet is not without its links to the old 60s libertarianism; a direct line runs from the Grateful Dead to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Dylan community in cyberspace may not have received 'Invisible Republic' as well as it deserves, but negative cyber-reactions are still a manifestation of that 'purest free speech' which Marcus affirms. One musician, however gifted, will not create new forms of social being; nor will one musician's admirers, however devoted. But if we try to view cyberspace - especially in its Usenet manifestation - as a huge federation of communities, a network of networks, then we may begin to see our way forward to re-creating, in forms unimaginable only a few years ago, that lost sense of connection and togetherness that Marcus finds in the folk tradition, and mourns in today's fragmented America. For all we know, a new invisible republic for the next millennium may be taking shape right now, as I write and you read, right here on the electronic frontier.

Chris Rollason, 29 August 1997
Published on rec.music.dylan (Internet), August and September 1997

Thanks to Stephen Scobie for helping with invaluable background material,
and to several of the rmd folk who have discussed Marcus in the group -
especially Victor Edmonds, Oliver Bond, Ron Chester and John L. Hawn.

Christopher Rollason
Metz, France
rollason at dialup.francenet.fr

'Yet, Freedom, yet, thy banner, torn but flying, Streams like a thunder-storm _against_ the wind!'
Byron, 'Childe Harold'