For the latest installment of“ The Dylan Questionnaire,” we spoke to Dr. Florence Dore, Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the author of Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll, which was just published by Columbia University Press. She is a founding member of the Institute’s board of advisors.
What was the first Dylan album you purchased? What’s your favorite? Your least favorite?
Well, the first Dylan album I “got” was Nashville Skyline, which I stole from my mom, along with Rubber Soul, The Band, The Silver Tongued Devil and I, Harvest, and other records I hope one day my daughter will want to steal from me. Like a lot of people born in the mid-1960s, I came to Dylan via the obsession generated in my parents’ generation, so by the time I started buying Dylan albums he was in his Christian phase and I didn’t really want to get involved. I was way more obsessed with female artists, had been buying Joan Baez records as they came out starting when I was about 10 (I actually wrote Joan a fan letter when I was 8, and her mom wrote me back, including a picture of Joan with the letter). I don’t really know if I have a favorite Dylan album, I guess because his music has just seemed so pervasive—just kind of everywhere, like air. I can say that Nashville Skyline holds a special place in my heart, I think just because of the associations of hearing it in my house as a kid growing up in Nashville. I remember being really drawn in by the sound of the pedal steel on “Lay Lady Lay,” way before I understood what that song was about. But do I think that’s the best Dylan record? No. I definitely don’t have a least favorite, though I admit that I am not a big fan of the Sinatra covers. But even there I can appreciate the gesture.
What Dylan song tops your personal playlist and why?
“I’ll Keep It with Mine.” I choke up whenever I hear, “Everybody will help you/ Some people are very kind.” It’s just such an unironic pronouncement of goodness and love. Very vulnerable. This one I used to cover when I was a working musician—and eventually I sang it to my husband at our wedding. I have to include “Subterranean Homesick Blues” near the top as well. There I think Dylan reinvents language in the tradition of rock and roll greats like Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Let’s talk about cover songs. Do you have a favorite cover of one of Dylan’s tunes? What the strangest or most unexpected Dylan cover you’ve encountered?
I love the Kendra Smith version of “I’ll Keep it with Mine,” which is actually the first place I heard it. More recently I’ve been admiring Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne’s stunning version of “Not Dark Yet.” It’s just beautiful.
Your new book, Novel Sounds begins and ends with chapters on Dylan. Can you tell us something about the book as a whole and about why Dylan, in particular, helps us think more clearly about the intersection of music and literature?
We tend to think of rock and roll as anti-institutional and irreverent, but as rock ages along with its most influential guardians—as our immortal rude boys appear before us as so many graying grandfathers—we experience the form as legitimate. Surely Dylan is the paradigmatic example of this apparent sea change. But Novel Sounds uncovers a deeper history of overlap between rock and literature, one to which Dylan’s earliest recordings in fact contribute. So, for example, “The House Carpenter,” recorded by Dylan in 1961, turns out to have been included as an example of literature in one of the most influential literature textbooks ever published in the the US. I mean Understanding Poetry, published in 1938 and then again in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1970s, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. My book shows that the conferral on Dylan of the Nobel Prize in Literature didn’t actually break down a barrier between literature and rock, but that it culminated a deep interchange between popular music and literature that had been evolving for centuries. In England, Richard Thompson and other members of Fairport Convention brought what were understood as literary ballads into rock. But in the US it was Dylan who clarified that ballads—those, like “The House Carpenter” coming from England and Scotland, but music by African American artists like Lead Belly and Odetta as well—belonged in both literary and rock domains.
In no more than 100 words, describe why Dylan matters.
Greil Marcus has made this point more eloquently than I ever could, and from literary corners writers like Jonathan Lethem and Dana Spiotta are elaborating Dylan’s influence in wonderfully novelistic terms as well. To these accounts (and so many others) I would add that Dylan matters precisely because of the literary sensibilities he brings to rock and roll. Nothing new here: Steve Earle recently told me that Dylan was the first artist to move rock out of the realm of “cars and girls.” Another way to put that would be to say that Dylan brought into rock’s domain the very same ballads that guardians of the high literary like Brooks and Warren considered to be the origins of literature itself.