Looking for Bob Dylan Comparables: Skip James and Sin

Tracing Bob Dylan’s artistic roots is an exercise in deception and half truths. Sure, there are the obvious two towering giants of Hank Williams and, of course, Woody Guthrie. However, neither of those two really begin to fill out anywhere near a complete picture of the forces that shaped both Bob Dylan and his music. It is the neglected link between Dylan, blues musicians and rock ‘n’ roll that not only tell the story of popular music but also draws links to several loose ends that, when they come together, one realizes that rock was a progression of small steps.

The more one digs into the blues of the 1930s-1960s, you find little signs that the young Robert Zimmerman passed through here on his way to becoming Bob Dylan. Sin is a theme that laces itself throughout Bob Dylan’s work. While it undoubtedly factors into country and folk music heavily, in blues, it comes out of the song and sits down besides the singer, forever on his case. For, in the black communities of the south, the blues was the devil’s music. The men who played it had to be a little out there. Most of them were quite the characters in their own way.

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An excellent beginning  is Skip James. Born Nehemiah Curtis James in Bentonia, Ms. June 9, 1902, James’ songs dealt a great deal with personal reputation and sin. Adding to the haunted quality of his music was the falsetto voice James sang in. It ripped through your body and took a stranglehold on your soul. A peek at some of the lyrics to James’ song “22-20 Blues” finds  a very Dylan-esque conundrum for its narrator.

Oh, Mr. Crest, Mr. Crest
How in the world you
Expect for me to rest?
Oh, Mr. Crest, Mr. Crest
How in the world you
Expect for me to rest?
You’ve got my 22-20
Layin’ up across my breast

Musicologist Dick Spottswood had this to say about James, the man, “Skip James, you never knew. Skip could be sunshine, or thunder and lightning depending on his whim of the moment.”

The religious aspect of James’ music was there from the very beginning and it caused great inner turmoil inside of him. Dylan sought religion as a way to understand the sought religion as a refuge and even then  one could question whether it was all just a part of the act.

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The Fictional History of Bob Dylan

He exists. Bob Dylan walks this world enshrouded in myth. He is the myth maker, the song and dance man. He is on the TV singing a Frank Sinatra song and doing it very badly. Yet, it digs into your soul. It digs into my soul, until you say, “Wow, genius.” I still hate the album but that is no longer the point. Bob is fucking with us, like Johanna fucked with him in the ultimate  Greek tragedy (Or was it a comedy?) “Visions of Johanna.” After all, like the ethereal goddess, bits and pieces of an illusion are all that remain when the lights go down. No, it was real. Bob Dylan was here. A mercurial headache, lustily dreamt up  by the Robert Zimmerman, song and dance man. The Fictional History of Bob Dylan, in four/four time. It is a myth in the making.

This is a story. My story about the story that is Bob Dylan. Like Hank Williams before him, Bob emerged from the swirling mists of clutter and spit language into the bucket of my mind. He unburdened realms of consciousness and rewrote the ground rules one Sunday afternoon. I’m not sure if it was before or after he went masquerading in his Bob Dylan mask. The wry scoundrel. He can separate any woman from her panties when he slips on his Bob Dylan mask. Of course, he knows that is why I write this article, to impress a girl. She is my Johanna.

Everyone has a Johanna. That is what Bob Dylan, or is it Robert Zimmerman, is trying to tell us. Are you listening? Art is only relevant as long as it remains active, a tool for the next person. Bob and others gives us the eyes with which we see, so we can aspire, to refill the beauty of illusion. That is all it is.  An illusion. A passing breath of a dream. The oasis with which happiness is launched from. Bob is “The Wicked Messenger,” a wandering boy nipping at the heels of Woody Guthrie. He, too, trying to impress a girl, his Johanna.

The Fictional History of Bob Dylan has come full circle. Tales of love, loss and betrayal spill out onto the carpet and humble us by their sheer poetry. Lines from a song make us dream, sooner or later one of us must know. The traveling troubadour named Bob Dylan has spun his tales and brought forth a glimmer of hope. Now, he disappears back into the recesses of illusion and becomes Robert  Zimmerman.