Monday, April 3, 2023

A Visit with Seth Rogovoy: On Looking at Dylan Through a Jewish Lens

Seth Rogovoy. Photo credit: Richard Lovrich
Hard to believe April's already here with May just beyond the horizon. In the Northland we're still buried in a blanket of snow, but based on experience we know that there will eventually be green grass, buds on the trees and the promise of warmer weather. In the Duluth "event" cycle the Homegrown Music Festival, Duluth Dylan Fest and Grandma's Marathon will soon be unfolding like lilac blossoms.

At this year's Duluth Dylan Fest there will again be two John Bushey Memorial Lectures, one via Zoom which can be enjoyed from anywhere in the world and the other live. The first will feature Seth Rogovoy, a writer and producer who also works as an editor, radio commentator, lecturer, teacher, cultural programmer, record producer and theatrical producer.

Rogovoy has written extensively about Bob Dylan over the years. In addition to being author of Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet he is founder and curator of The Rogovoy Report, which self-describes as "an opinionated and radically curated digest of news and features from around the corner to around the globe."

One positive that came out of the tragic and disruptive Covid pandemic is that nearly everyone now knows how to use Zoom so that people across the country and around the globe can tune in for Rogovoy's multi-media presentation titled The Kabbalah of Bob Dylan. The free live event will take place Sunday May 21, 6:30–7:45 PM. Rogovoy describes his talk as "a 45-50 minute multimedia version of my book, where I examine Dylan's life (including his early life in Hibbing) and his musical career through a Jewish lens."

E: How did you first come to take a serious interest in the music and life of Bob Dylan? 

Seth Rogovoy: I began listening to Bob Dylan at an impressionable age, around 13, just as my music tastes were being formed. I had an older friend who was very into him and we would get together and play and sing Dylan songs on our acoustic guitars. So it was partly a case of "folk tradition," but also that Dylan offered something much more intellectually satisfying and more emotionally sophisticated than the music that was playing on the pop charts. I felt this deeply and it affected me strongly and influenced my own intellectual and emotional development, so that within a few years my interest in Dylan, listening to his songs, reading and writing about him, and playing and performing his music, became a significant part of my identity. It was a key factor in pointing me to toward my life and career path as a writer and more specifically as a music critic and journalist - on some level it was all about trying to figure out what made Dylan so great -- and so much greater than almost everything and everyone else. It was inevitable that I would eventually write a book about Dylan from a unique vantage point.


E: Why do you consider Planet Waves to have been your "perfect entry point" into the music of Bob Dylan?

SR: The sound of Planet Waves was immediately appealing and the songs were well-suited to singing and playing on acoustic guitar. They were intimate and personal and very easy to inhabit. And Planet Waves was the only studio album on which Dylan was backed by The Band -- Dylan's best accompanists ever.


E: What were the biggest surprises you discovered about Dylan when you took your own deeper journey into Judaism and mysticism?

SR: In reading and studying the panoply of Jewish texts -- scripture (e.g. the Bible), liturgical, philosophical, and mystical writings aka the Kabbalah -- I recognized many phrases, images, and concepts from my lifelong immersion in the work of Bob Dylan. For example, when I learned the prayer for blessing my children, I realized that Dylan had based "Forever Young" on that very same prayer. Instances like these just piled up quickly -- the phrase "one says to the other no man sees my face and lives" in "I and I" is almost wholly lifted from a sentence that God uttered to Moses when the latter asked the former if he could "view His countenance." And the "Wheels on Fire" imagery is a direct reference to the prophet Ezekiel, who scripture says appeared riding a chariot with wheels of fire. That sort of thing -- enough to fill a book!

E: In layman's terms, what is mysticism? 

SR: Mysticism of any kind, in any religion or belief system, is the pursuit of making a direct connection with the Divinity. There are many tools given in order to achieve this -- meditation, textual study, ecstatic singing, chanting, plumbing the mysteries of the esoteric, mystical writings. In Judaism, the overall term for this is Kabbalah. And following Hindu precepts, when George Harrison sang, "I really want to see You, I really want to be with You" in "My Sweet Lord," that is a direct expression of the mystical pursuit.

E: Your book Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet seems to have garnered a fair amount of praise. Why has there not been more attention paid to Dylan's Jewish heritage?

SR: Bob Dylan is multi-faceted, so when people talk about or write about Bob Dylan, there are so many avenues to explore. I cannot answer why there has not been more attention paid to Dylan's Jewish heritage, and I am not even sure that there has not been enough. I was happy to propose and write a deep dive into this one aspect of Dylan's life and work.

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EdNote: If you plan to join us live in Duluth for 2023 DDF, be sure to attend Saturday's John Bushey Memorial Lecture featuring Bobcats podcast host Matt Steichen. Steichen's talk is titled Bob Dylan and his Fans: Searching for Love and Inspiration. Wussow’s Concert Cafe, 1:30–3:00 PM | Free.

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Related Links
For a complete rundown of 2023 DDF events visit: 

Seth Rogovoy's Books on Amazon 

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