By Jade Sylvan

(excerpted from the forthcoming book, More Popular Than Jesus: The Beatles and the Mythology of Rock by Jade Sylvan and Steve Wagner)

“I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes.” – Bob Dylan, Chronicles

Americans of Bob Dylan’s generation grew up beneath a pall of apocalypse, bombarded by anti-Soviet propaganda and regular nuclear holocaust drills during which school children were instructed to kneel beneath their desks to protect themselves from atomic attack. These drills now decorate American history like pieces of kitsch horror, displayed prominently, almost too prominently, and often joked about as if open acknowledgement of their ludicrousness somehow assuages the reality: We bought these things. We own them. They’re ours.

Young students of the 1950s were raised inside a perpetual, abject paranoia that today would be viewed as a form of mass child abuse. As Dylan himself laconically understates, “The threat of annihilation was a scary thing,” [1] and the children of 1950s America grew up knowing that annihilation was lurking around every turn. On the one hand, the world they knew was tenuous and violently ephemeral. On the other, every moment carried with it a heightened sense of urgency and importance.

In addition to the amorphous, eschatological threat of the Bomb, the United States experienced a more visceral upset following the abolishment of segregation in schools by the Supreme Court in 1954. The ensuing cultural unrest as the civil rights movement gained momentum generated a vicious backlash. Newspapers began to focus on the prevalent acts of brutality against blacks, including murders and riots in response to black students integrating into previously all-white classrooms and college campuses. However, as the news and fear culture grew more baleful, the images and voices of the media had become sanitized and harmless at best, and insipid and cloying at worst. On television, the chaotic absurdity of I Love Lucy was drawing to a close, to be replaced almost immediately with the sterile, ordered suburban sanctums of The Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver.  The raucous sexuality of Rock ‘n’ Roll was diluted to the innocuous, polished good looks of teen crooners like Fabian and Frankie Avalon. This world was a terrifying place, full of injustice, uncertainty, and lies, and for the first time in history, the vast majority of a nation was being upset and unsettled by the same images and same words at exactly the same time.

At the height of this cultural turbulence, in the saccharine sonic wasteland following Elvis’s enrolment in the U.S. Army and the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, entered an androgynous singer, implausibly young, who sang with the voice of a grizzled Wiseman, singing new, pertinent poetry to the seemingly-timeless musical forms that had evolved out of centuries of American folk music, through early recording artists like Pete Seager and Woody Guthrie, and crystallized in the folk scene of the late fifties and early sixties. This young man was the definition of an enigma, untraceable and untrained. He sang of change and justice, salvation and annihilation in a common voice, to the elemental chords G, C, and D. His words inspired millions, bringing with them passion, a call for action, and hope for a better tomorrow. The media began to refer to him as a prophet, only mostly allegorically.

A prophet is fully flesh and blood, as opposed to a demigod, who is half human and half divine. A prophet is usually preternaturally gifted with wisdom, temperance, perspective, poetic language, and sometimes, clairvoyance. In some cases, such as in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the prophet may be inspired or led by a direct connection with the divine. Sometimes the words he [2] speaks or writes are even considered to be the god speaking through the human being, as if the prophet were a celestial stenographer. Western religious prophets tend to show up in highly contentious and seemingly hopeless situations, and also usually possess warlike qualities, inspiring their followers to overturn an oppressive or unrighteous ruler, often by violence.

In Eastern traditions, such as Daoism and Buddhism, the prophet archetype takes the form of the “Wiseman,” achieving enlightened perspective through isolation and meditation rather than divine ventriloquism. The Eastern sage also inspires change in his followers, but it’s usually an abstract, cultural change in morals, governing, or the way the individual views the world and his or her place in it.

A partial list of major prophetic figures:


Found as a baby beside a river by Pharoah’s family. An unskilled speaker who was gifted with eloquence by God as a means to inspire the Israelites to rebel and search for the Promised Land. After successfully leading his people to freedom, he wandered off and died alone to be buried by God in an unmarked grave.


An orphaned, illiterate merchant and shepherd who abandoned his family and business to seek solitude and meditation in the woods, where he was visited by the angel Gabriel who commanded him to recite the holy words of God. His followers went on to conquer Mecca and neighboring cities. He embarked on a final solitary pilgrimage which would later become a part of the Islamic religion.


An Indian prince (some say warrior) who renounced his position to become a monk and spread the dharma of Buddhism from India to China. Apparently often traveled with disciples, but did not stay in the same place for long.


Born poor and illiterate, became a monk when he happened to overhear a recitation of the Diamond Sutra. Was named the Sixth Patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism after composing a poem that demonstrated true understanding of the dharma.


Literal existence is highly doubted by scholars, but eponymous text is one of the foundations of Daoism. Ascribed stories poked fun at Confucianism and proposed freedom and mystical detachment from the physical world as the way to happiness. [8]


Name means elder or old man, is credited with the authorship of the Dao De Jing. He humbled Confucious and cultivated his own philosophy with an emphasis on self-effacement. Authored the Dao De Jing and then left his hometown, never to be heard from again.


Author and original singer of the Greek epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Carried his massive compositions in his memory as he wandered, ready to sing. Some hold that he was physically blind. Many modern scholars believe that he was not a real person. [9]

William Shakespeare

The most famous and influential poet in the English language. Very little is known of Shakespeare’s personal life aside from an unremarkable young adulthood and seemingly traditional marriage and family, whom he eventually abandoned without a trace and remained unaccounted for until he popped up in London as the precocious, untrained [10] new kid in the popular playwriting scene.

Three common themes show up again and again in the prophet archetype: inspiration, words, and mystery. The prophet, through superhuman wisdom (sometimes even clairvoyance), inspires people to change the world they live in, be it a power structure, their personal actions, or their own points of view. He possesses a preternatural propensity for language that extends far past his perceived parameters, which he uses to incite the inspiration for change.  He also hides most of his carnal and psychic life behind the veil of enigma. The prophet often has supernatural capabilities, and usually wanders. He comes from somewhere else, brings people along on a short part of his journey, and once their positions have shifted slightly, he keeps moving, like a leaf blowing in the wind, or (I have to do it) like a rolling stone.

It’s almost as if we intentionally decline to document the mundane acts and utterances of sages, as if we require these prophetic figures to carry with their proclamations a certain amount of otherness to be taken seriously.  After all, we’re all surrounded by normal people every day, and we know none of them knows any more than we do about anything, and probably less.

Above all, a prophet needs to know more than we do. If we knew everything the prophet does, we’d have no need for him. In order to remain a prophet, he must keep us guessing. The lack of a solid personality, history, and recognizable identity characteristic of the prophet may also serve as a blank slate onto which we can attach our own presuppositions and past experiences, helping us to identify further with the sage as we substitute the identity of our choosing (probably ourselves or who we want to be) for the lack of identity supplied to us. Without a recognizable personality obviously generating the words, they seem to appear out of nowhere, like a dress in a high-end boutique. The design, manufacturing, and marketing of the product are all hidden from us with our blessings. All we see, all we want to see is the dress, fresh, clean, and ready for us to step into. It fits perfectly. It’s like it was made for us. How did we ever get by without it for so long?

The new generation had grown up primed for simultaneous collective imprinting from the evolving media. Along with the homoidolatrous fantasy offered by television and radio came a culture-wide blurring of the line separating that fantasy from reality.  After all, if everyone experiences the same fantasy at the same time, what’s the difference between that and what we call reality? [11]

Describing the state of the media at the time of his coming of age, Dylan writes,

“The dominant myth of the day seemed to be that anybody
could do anything, even go to the moon. You could do
whatever you wanted – in the ads and in the articles,
ignore your limitations, defy them. If you were an inde-
cisive person, you could become a leader and wear leder-
hosen. If you were a housewife, you could become a
glamour girl with rhinestone sunglasses. Are you slow
witted? No worries – you can be an intellectual genius.
If you’re old, you can be young. Anything was possible.
It was almost like a war against the self.” [12]

For the first time, a culture’s collective desires and dreams had an immediate visual and auditory gratification system. In this world of new media, a homely bespectacled teenager could not only dream of being a beautiful singer on a stage, she could go to her living room and see and hear Peggy Lee. She could picture herself as Peggy Lee without leaving her house or interacting with the harsh, dispassionate world.

Bob Dylan came up in the New York City folk scene under a self-constructed identity. He changed his name and told artists, audiences, and record producers fantastic tales of iconic Americana in place of his life story, while in actuality he grew up middle class and bored in a small town in Minnesota, dropped out of college, and moved to New York to be a singer. The truth, it turned out, was common to the point of being trite, but Dylan seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the power the performer has to create an identity in the eyes of his audience that may have little to do with what is physically and temporally “true.” In fact, it was directly after Dylan was “outed” as a middle-class Midwesterner in the media that he abandoned all coherence and respect for reporters, cameras, and tape recorders, answering nearly every question with bald-faced lies, doublespeak, and insouciant jabs. It didn’t matter what the technical facts of his past or his present were, the character of Bob Dylan was mercurial, cagey, and above all, mysterious.

It’s easy to see why people were eager to buy into the notion of a teenage Dylan on a Steinbeckian dustbowl pilgrimage or learning guitar techniques from Leadbelly’s grandson. His early songs captured the zeitgeist of a novel time period, and also utilized tones, themes, and forms heretofore unemployed in contemporary folk trends. Dylan brought to the voice of the rebel to the despairing commentary style that was popular in American folk songwriting. Lyrics to “It’s a Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall” and “The Times They Are A’Changin’” capture the paranoia and nascent hopes of that particular moment in history while maintaining the ethereal, timeless quality of traditional form. In his autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan writes of his early attraction to the traditional songs of Ireland. “[E]ven in a simple, melodic, wooing ballad, there’d be rebellion waiting around the corner …. There were songs like that in my [American] repertoire, too, where something lovely was suddenly upturned, but instead of rebellion showing up it would be death itself …. Rebellion spoke to me louder. The rebel was alive and well, romantic and honorable. The Grim Reaper wasn’t like that.” [13]

When Dylan honed his songwriting and first made waves as a Columbia recording artist, he brought the spirit of the rebel with him. His anthems were not tales or threats of death, dull, and full of despair, like so many of the traditional and contemporary American folk songs. They were hopeful and inciting, they called believers to arms and promised change and a better world could be right around the corner if those who could see clearly could take up their swords, shields, and pens to fight for truth and justice. The times would change. The ship would come in.

Of course Dylan’s most significant cultural contribution was to make it okay, and eventually standard, to combine poetry and popular music, providing a medium for passionate and lyrical ideas that was farther-reaching and more accessible and immediate than words on a page. Indeed, since Dylan, the role of the poet in American life has been all but supplanted by the singer/songwriter, and many of the most culturally relevant post-Dylan poets (Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen) eventually wound up making their largest (or at least widest) impact through songwriting. From a pop-music historian perspective, no one did more to bring the Word to Rock ‘n’ Roll than Bob Dylan.

In that sense, Dylan certainly stands with Homer and Shakespeare as a prophet in terms of his literary influence. As Homer brought poetry to storytelling, illustrating the human being in relationship to mythology and the world, and Shakespeare brought poetry to playwriting, illustrating the human being in relationship to society and human dynamics, so Dylan brought poetry to the musical song and to the individual, and his or her relationship to him- or herself [14].

And, like Homer and Shakespeare, Dylan did not actually innovate much in terms of plot or form. While Homer retold mythological tales and Shakespeare stole most of his plots from traditional stories and drama, most of Dylan’s most influential songs are structured directly after formulas and themes which grew up organically over generations. “It’s A-Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was formulaically based on the traditional Scottish ballad, “Lord Randall,” but the subject matter was urgent, while at the same time managing a timeless, revelatory quality. Dylan’s lyrical and melodic voice was not strange to the point of being alienating, it was a culmination of hundreds of years of musical and literary evolution. It encompassed and crystallized songwriting into a singular form that seemed to the audience to have been waiting out in the aural ether for the right moment to unveil itself.

And of course, at surface value, Dylan’s early songs certainly lent themselves to prophetically-overtoned extrapolation. The sad, wizened hopefulness of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and the farseeing call to arms of “The Times, They Are A-Changin’” affected listeners like religious inspiration, like the best sermons they never heard in church. Lyrics to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” read like something directly out of the Bible: some good Old Testament authority mixed with Revelations-style eschatological clairvoyance and allusions to prophetic wandering and meditation on a mountaintop (and walking on water, while we’re at it) thrown in.

And what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
And what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’.
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my songs well before I start singin’.
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

Though Dylan’s melodies constituted a large part of the effectiveness of his compositions [15], his lyrics were what most people initially responded to. The weight and insight of the melodic poetry of this slight-bodied youth seemed to be almost supernatural in nature. Commenting on his early days of songwriting, Dylan writes, “To do it, you’ve got to have power and dominion over the spirits …. [You have to] see into things, the truth of things – and not metaphorically, either – but really see, like seeing into metal and making it melt, see it for what it was and reveal it for what it was with hard words and vicious insight.” [16] For his audience, he may as well have been melting metal, parting seas, and receiving lyrics from the divine.

Whether it was his intention to put forth this image or not, it’s doubtful that even he would have been able to predict the impact the rapidly expanding homoidolatrous face of the media would have on his audience, his career, and his place within the culture. He was not a Bodhidharma or a Laozi, known by a few students who would begin to build him a solid mythology after his disappearance. He was a twenty-year-old living in New York City, and his mythology was hastily erected around him in quick-drying paper mache, before he was even old enough to grow a beard.

But everything was suddenly paper mache in the early 1960s: fake, flimsy, plastic, and disposable, so the mythologized Dylan remained an appropriate (if reluctant and irksome) prophet in the popular consciousness. Dylan was highly adept at self-mythologizing, and equally as adept at dodging labels and media-imposed images, though the press and public persisted (and to a large extent, still persist) in painting him as a prophet long after he had publicly shunned the role. It’s relevant to point out that even his denials of these labels often have an elliptical, far-reaching, and, well, prophetic tint to them:

“It was surprising how thick the smoke had become.
It seems like the world has always needed a scapegoat –
someone to lead the charge against the Roman Empire.
But America wasn’t the Roman Empire and someone
else would have to step up and volunteer. I really was
never any more than what I was – a folk musician who
gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made
up songs that floated in a luminous haze.” [17]

The masses did not take the abandonment of their prophet gracefully. The backlash following his foray away from folk music and into Rock n Roll in 1964-5 (following Dylan’s exposure to The Beatles) may well be the ultimate fan backlash of the age of television. Former fans catcalled, threw things at the stage as he performed, and even called in death threats. The media hounded him with never-ending prods about his artistic integrity and responsibility to the masses. All of this exists in countless forms on film and on tape, and has become iconic to the point that the “Dylan Goes Electric” controversy constitutes small, multimedia canon in its own right.

In a famous scene in the documentary, Don’t Look Back, a reporter asks Dylan if he cares about what he says. He famously responds, “Would you ask The Beatles that?”  No, of course he wouldn’t, nor would he likely ask any other recording artist of the 1960s that question. But Dylan’s words carried weight. People believed in what he said and so it was very important to them that he did as well. After all, if Dylan didn’t believe what he sang and said, the very foundations of their belief system would evaporate. It would be as though halfway through the Exodus, Moses revealed himself as a con-artist, unveiling the burning bush as a parlor trick pulled off with mirrors and duct tape.  Judas, indeed. [18]

When Dylan retreated quietly to a home in upstate New York to attempt to live a normal life with his family, his followers found him. People slept on his lawn, hid in his bushes, stole his garbage, and broke into his house. “Demonstrators found our house and paraded up and down in front of it chanting and shouting, demanding for me to come out and lead them somewhere – stop shirking my duties as the conscience of a generation.” [19] Unlike prophets of centuries past, Dylan couldn’t just disappear after he’d said what he came to say. Television, radio, and photographs had made it impossible to hide by walking away. He would have to find other ways to keep moving.

In Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Alan Light first introduces Dylan not with a summation of his influence on songwriting, but with rumination on the Dylan Mystique:

“Dylan has probably spent more time in the public spotlight
than any other figure in Rock & Roll. Yet in all those years,
the most influential songwriter of the rock era has only become
more of an enigma; unlike such celebrated recluses as Thomas
Pynchon and J. D. Salinger, Dylan doesn’t have to hide to
increase the mystery surrounding him. He is hidden in plain site.” [20]

In fact, it is the elusive and confounding nature of Dylan that’s allowed the myth to root and persist for half a century, even as the physical flesh-and-blood man still survives. While Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and many other Rock Gods who were not martyred in the midst of a tragically beautiful youth or a peace crusade seem to carry their aging flesh awkwardly as disjointed living relics somehow connected to the glory of the deities past, Dylan, with his bizarrely epic Never Ending Tour (which could not scream “wandering prophet” more loudly), and constant identity reinvention has remained the reluctant, sometimes unintelligible prophet. Writers and fans expressed the same dismay and sense of betrayal over his hermetic, countrified, late 1960s New Morning period as they did over his initial foray into Rock n Roll. Then in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Dylan followed the acclaimed Blood on the Tracks and Desire with a trilogy of Christian albums, and followed that with a near decade of artistic apathy, the reaction was repeated. He was still Bob Dylan. He still owed the world the truth, which he was unfairly hiding behind these constant identity slips. Todd Haynes, writer and director of the 2007 Dylan-inspired film I’m Not There, writes:

“Dylan’s life of change and constant disappearances and
constant transformations makes you yearn to hold him,
and to nail him down. And that’s why his fan base is so
obsessive, so desirous of finding the truth and the absolutes
and the answers to him – things that Dylan will never provide
and will only frustrate…. Dylan is difficult and mysterious
and evasive and frustrating, and it only makes you identify
with him all the more as he skirts identity.” [21]

And Joni Mitchell, often listed in the same breath as Dylan when naming the founding pillars of modern songwriting, seems to mistrust Dylan’s shape-shifting, voice-borrowing, and even name-changing [22], stating in a 2010 interview: “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.” [23] Of course, as an artist whose contribution to the 20th century pop-music canon was the unedited expression of the brutally personal (or at least what was perceived as the brutally personal) it follows somewhat that she would see Dylan’s self-consciously constructed characterizations and direct borrowing from traditional songs and other artists as forms of deception. If Joni Mitchell’s early and most iconic songs show the narrator striving for the truest articulation of her identity, Dylan’s body of work, especially when viewed as a whole, seems to declare, “I’m not there.”

In Chronicles, Dylan relates the experience of recording Oh, Mercy, his first album of all original material after a creatively dry decade. Though he ends up working well with producer Dan Lanois, it is evident at first that Lanois has certain expectations about what an album of Dylan originals should accomplish. “I know he wanted to understand me more as we went along, but you can’t do that, not unless you like to do puzzles. I think in the end, he gave up on that.” [24]

One could argue that the most remarkable thing about Dylan as a cultural entity is his almost complete lack of any definable linear identity. In a 1997 Newsweek interview, when asked about his baffling born-again Christian phase, Dylan is quoted as saying,

“I don’t think I’m tangible to myself. I mean, I think one thing today and I think another thing tomorrow.  I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time. It doesn’t even matter to me.” [25] He then starts to laugh. In another interview, this one in Rolling Stone in 2006, Jonathan Lethem, writes, “As ever, Dylan is circling, defining what he is first by what he isn’t, by what he doesn’t want, doesn’t like, doesn’t need, locating meaning by a process of elimination. This rhetorical strategy goes back at least as far as ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ and ‘All I Really Want to Do’ (‘I ain’t looking to compete with you,’ etc.), and it still has plenty of real juice in it.” [26] To the reporter, the media, and his audience, Bob Dylan is ineffable, unknowable, and can only be defined by apophatic negation of all that he isn’t (which is most things that aren’t a musician, songwriter, and storyteller).

When he describes his early days playing folk standards in Greenwich Village’s Cafe Wha?, Dylan writes, “Most of the other performers tried to put themselves across, rather than the song, but I didn’t care about doing that. With me, it was about putting the song across.” [27] Perhaps that’s why so many viewed him as “The Voice of His Generation.” He had no voice of his own, so he borrowed voices. A different one for each song. [28]

More than perhaps anyone else from this era, Bob Dylan seems to be aware of the cultural and mythological machinations which follow him like a choreographed cloud of bees. He seems to understand it and sometimes even appears to be in control of it, manipulating the earnest seekers and snobbish debunkers who surround him, ask him questions, and dig through his trash. Is there a truth hiding under all of this performance?  Something we’re meant to learn from all of this?  Is Dylan trying to tell us something?

The source of the prophet’s power is the fact that we keep asking.


[1] Dylan, Chronicles p 30
[2] Since all of the prophets referred to in this essay are men, I’m foregoing the perfunctory inclusive language for ease of reading.  The discussion of why all of these prophets are men is another essay for another day.
[3] In the Qu’ran, Moses’s mother abandons her son completely to God’s protection.
[4] Exodus 4:10
[5] Acts 7: 18-22
[6] Jews, Christians, Muslims, John Corrigan editor p. 159
[7] Jews, Christians, Muslims, John Corrigan ed. p. 58
[8] Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings introduction, Burton Watson.
[9] Of course, after a certain amount of time, proving the existence of anyone becomes difficult and, quite frankly, moot.
[10] Shakespeare lacked a formal University degree.
[11] This tenuous line would later be blurred to the level of an electron cloud with the popularization of LSD.
[12] Dylan Chronicles p 90
[13] Dylan Chronicles p 83
[14] While Homer’s poetry was likely performed in song form to contemporaries, since they didn’t have audio recorders in ancient Greece, his influence on history wound up being strictly text-based. You could say in this regard, Dylan is the seal of the poetic prophets, bringing it all back home to where it began: the song, story, and poem in one.
[15] The author would argue that it is the way in which lyrics and melody marry to convey the song that matters the most.
[16] Dylan, Chronicles, 219
[17] Dylan, Chronicles p 115-6
[18] This references the Bob Dylan 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert, in which an audience member shouts “Judas!” during the electric half of the set.
[19] Dylan, Chronicles p. 118
[20] Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 299
[21] Original Weinstein Company Press Notes for I’m Not There
[22] Her name change (from Roberta Joan Anderson to Joni Mitchell) was organic and genuine, being a nickname derived from her middle name and her married name.  Of course, Bob was just a nickname derived from Dylan’s given first name, but let’s not nitpick.
[23]LA Times interview, “It’s a Joni Mitchell Concert, Sans Joni” by Matt Diehl, April 22, 2010
[24] Dylan, Chronicles, 218
[25] Interview with David Gates, “Dylan Revisited” Newsweek Oct 6, 1997
[26] Interview with Jonathan Lethem, “The Genius of Bob Dylan, Rolling Stone Aug 21, 2006
[27] Dylan, Chronicles 18
[28] Dylan’s literal voice has changed dramatically over the years, from the Woody Guthrie inspired Wiseman voice of his early days, to the New Morning croon, to the cowboy growl of the nineties and aughts.  If Dylan weren’t so famous for so many other reasons, he would definitely garner some nods for the breadth of his vocal chameleonism.