At midnight on Thursday, May 8, 2020, Bob Dylan released “False Prophet,” his third original composition since March 26. You can listen to the song on his official YouTube channel here.
Like many other neurotic Dylan devotees, I saw Dylan cryptically post what would be revealed to be single release artwork for False Prophet at 6:00 PM on May 7. Knowing that Dylan releases his new songs at midnight Thursdays, I stayed up to see what he had in store. Six hours later, I was excited to find that not only had Dylan dropped a new single, but he had also revealed that he will release a full album of new material of which False Prophet is a part, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” on June 19, 2020.
Rough and Rowdy Ways will be Dylan’s first album of new material since he released “Tempest” in 2012. It is also notable in that it will be Dylan’s first new album as a Nobel laureate, having won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.
I look forward to writing extensively about both Dylan’s False Prophet and Rough and Rowdy Ways in the coming days and weeks. As an introduction to the series, I will explain what makes Dylan so special and why he has had a profound influence on me, both as a person and also as a folk musician.
A Dylan Overview
Bob Dylan is known for drawing inspiration for his lyrics from a nearly impossibly wide range of sources. In one song, Dylan may extract lines from American Civil War poetry. In another, he may conjure images from James Cameron’s 1997 “Titanic” movie. These are just two notable examples from Dylan’s nearly-six-decade body of work.
Dylan has been criticized, unfairly in my view, for his lifting material from other sources. Some have gone as far as to suggest that he is a plagiarist or that he lacks originality. The folk music tradition is about – to borrow from Dylan’s rendition of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” –“Conjuring those long haired souls from their crumbling tombs.” Part of being a folk musician is assimilating material and reinterpreting it, keeping the original alive and making the new your own. Dylan’s Rollin’ and Tumblin’ itself, part of his 2006 album “Modern Times,” is a blues standard that traces its lineage back to Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.”
Folk music is, so to speak, an art of conversing with the dead. Viewing Dylan in that context reveals him to be one of history’s most proficient necromancers.
Why I Study Dylan
I live for carefully parsing Dylan’s lyrics, listening to his songs, and decoding their references. This passion has not only led me to appreciate Dylan’s brilliance, but also to discover the source material that he relies on. False Prophet led me to some interesting finds before I even had a chance to contemplate the song itself. For example, I expeditiously ordered a copy of “The Shadow, Volume 96,” the 1936 murder mystery publication from which Dylan borrowed elements for his single release artwork for False Prophet. I also looked up the picture that Dylan used for the inside of the LP jacket posted on the website, featuring Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, photographed on June 10, 1931.
Whether you are a Dylan fanatic or a curious newcomer to music’s first Nobel laureate, I hope you join me over the coming days and weeks as I explore his first new album in nearly a decade. For now, we can all start together by listening to his newest single and taking down the lyrics.