Assimilation or appropriation has always played an important part in Bob Dylans music. From his early days emulating Woody Guthrie to the Beat poetry-influenced mid-sixties, to the bordertown feel that permeates Desire, different artists and styles have inspired his music. With his new album, Dylan accomplishes a complete artistic synthesis. On "Love and Theft," country, blues, folk, swing, and rock all converge with Dylan's husky growl into a form of music that he has himself described as "all mashed up." But Dylan also grabbed from other areas to create this amazing amalgamation, most notably from literary sources. Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald are obvious imprints, however a lesser known but equally important one may be Eric Lott's detailed study of the history of minstrelsy, Love & Theft. Besides the title which Dylan seems to have borrowed, Love & Theft also involves a discussion of the earliest forms of American music and also the first major artistic relationship between the black and white cultures. Hence, minstrelsy is directly related to much of the music Dylan draws upon to make his music, especially his most recent album. Gadfly spoke with Lott, a professor of American Studies at the University of Virginia, about his connection to Dylan, minstrelsy of course, American music, and Elvis.
Gadfly: Has there been any acknowledgment from Dylan, or people close to Dylan, that he did in fact use the title of your book Love & Theft for his new album "Love and Theft" and was perhaps even inspired by it?
Eric Lott: The only word I've gotten on the issue is from Dylan's publicist, who told a writer doing a piece on the relationship between Dylan's title and my book that Dylan "does not deny a connection" between them. Beyond that, he doesn't want to talk about it.
The New York Times asked you to interview Dylan about the album, but he declined. Do you know why? If not, do you wonder why? What would you have asked him had you interviewed him?
I don't know why Dylan declined the interview, but I'd guess it had something to do with imagining a tedious sit-down with a scholar-squirrel (Gore Vidal's term) who'd be asking all sorts of boring shit about the connections between my book and his CD. Who's going to look forward to something like that?
But in fact I was thinking of something mock-confrontational. I mean, I like revere the guy. But I was going to be, "What do you think gives you the right to use my title?" Ho-ho-ho. By the way, I think I'm going to call my next book Time Out of Mind.
Why do you think he used the title of your book? Do you think Dylan is making some connection to minstrelsy? Is the idea of "love and theft," as you understand it, a presence in the album? Might it be that in much the same way that "love and theft" for you sums up the concept of white expropriation of black culture in the form of minstrelsywhat you refer to as "minstrelsy's mixed erotic economy of celebration and exploitation"for Dylan symbolizes his relationship with the old blues/country artists? In other words, is what Dylan does in performing the blues/country stuff and borrowing from it in any way a modern equivalent of blackface?
My title is actually a riff on one of Leslie Fiedler's; he wrote a famous book of literary criticism called Love and Death in the American Novel, and, among other things, it suggests that classic U.S. fiction is continually possessed by the idea of two men, one white and one dark, alone together in the wilderness or on the open sea, like Huck and Jim, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, Ishmael and Queequegon up to Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, and beyond, I suppose. I think the minstrel show isn't too far from this notion; with white men putting on blackface to mimic and lampoon black people and black culture, there's the same kind of imaginary proximity of white and black men. So "Love and Theft" it was: the fascination with and heisting of black cultural materials.
One can't know this, of course, but I imagine Dylan liked, first of all, the general resonance of the title, in which stolen hearts and emotional misdemeanors always stalk the sweetness of love, as they do in Dylan's songs. More generally, though, I think you're right; he knows full well his musical indebtedness and is playing with it in the songs as well as title of "Love and Theft." "High Water" sounds the most like actual minstrel show music from the 19th century, which is interesting not only since it's dedicated specifically to black blues singer (donor?) Charley Patton but also because it's a song of high seriousness, as though ultimate truths are rooted in cultural plunder.
Dylan knows whereof he speaks, too. There's a great line on "Sugar Baby" that goes, "Some of these bootleggers/They make pretty good stuff/Plenty of places to hide things here/If you want to hide them bad enough." Sure, he's talking about moonshiners; he can't help but also be talking about pirated recordings since he's been so richly bootlegged himself. Best of all, though, he's bootlegging all kinds of music on Love and Theft, and in lines like these he shows he knows it. (By the way, Sean Wilentz's magnificent article on the album nails a number of these sources; you can find it at bobdylan.com.)
This isn't to say that Dylan's just a blackface artist, like Michelle Shocked abjectly claimed herself to be on her record Arkansas Traveler. He's one of those rare people, like Michelle Shocked, in fact, for whom cultural miscegenation is a spur to cultural newness and uniqueness. Dylan goes his own way. Of course he pokes fun at himself in the middle of "Brownsville Girl" when he goes, "If there's an original thought out there, I could use it right now." He's obviously always been full of original thoughts.
Were you flattered that he used the title of your book? What was your immediate reaction? (Eric, your chance to get back at Robert Christgau's piece in the Voice.) Were you curious about why? Has it affected your academic career?
I was pretty bowled over at the prospect that he might have been turned on by my book or even just the title. So I was glad some of the reviews (in Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and elsewhere) mentioned the connection. I didn't even mind (that much) the creepy mention by Robert Christgau in the Voice, where Christgau imagines me exclaiming Sally-Field-like, "He loves me! Honey, Bob Dylan loves me!" I mean, what's interesting about Christgau's quip is that he doesn't just mention my book, he actually impersonates melike minstrelsy is catching or something. As always, though, such ventriloquism says a lot more about the impersonator than the one impersonated.
No effect on the academic career to speak ofyou don't get promoted for this sort of thing. People in and out of the academy have been impressed, though, that my influence might extend so far.
When asked about his musical influences, Dylan once said, "It's all mashed up, like the influence isn't in its given form anymore." Do you think the legacy of minstrelsy is still alive in American culture? If so, what forms do you think it has taken? (Elvis and the Rolling Stones stealing from their sources comes to mind, as well as the white appropriation of rap/hip-hop. And in our minds, some bands like Limp Bizkit come close to pantomiming the black acts they are imitating.) Do you think Dylan's "Love and Theft" might be an attempt to recognize and acknowledge the twisted up forms of racism and cultural thievery that make up America's musical heritage? Might alluding to your book be a nod in that direction?
I don't know; to some extent maybe. Dylan knows how embedded in his culture he is, but I don't guess he thinks of himself or most musicians as only thieving. In a USA TODAY interview in August, he made mention of minstrel shows and other "low" entertainment forms as precedents for the feel he was after on "Love and Theft"he may think of himself as being in the burlesque vein of minstrelsy, but not so implicated in its crimes. Which I think is the point of his "influences all mashed up" remark. And I endorse that remark, not only as an apt description of what Dylan does with his sources but as a one-line account of how cultural mixing in the U.S. takes place. It's a penetrating comment.
But of course the political relations of blackface minstrelsy are still alive in the culture. Not only in the forms you rightly mention but in everything from cartoons and TV commercials to frat-house antics and bar chat. Spike Lee's Bamboozledat least its first half where not only are "black" TV productions white-scripted but even black dancers on shingles in the streets of New York are framed by white interestsis excellent on the ingrown persistence and cold corruptions of blackface structures of feeling.
What's fascinating when it comes to the music is that it's usually tricky to specify where minstrelsy or obvious cultural appropriation stops and something different and fresh begins. Sometimes they co-exist outright, in (say) Biz Markie or the Beastie Boys. The Michael Boltons of the world are always there to give us the worst-case minstrel show example; but it's far easier to spot a lame plunderer like Kenny G or Robert Palmer than it is to say how an obvious borrower like Dylan or Elvis nevertheless somehow makes the music his own.
We heard that the book you are working on now is about Elvis impersonators. Can you draw parallels at least on some levels with those performing minstrelsy? Certainly some of the same elements are involved, at least with Fat Elvis. For instance, there exists a love yet a level of ridicule with real comic and dark sides. With Fat Elvis impersonators, they're celebrating a man who at that point was a wreck as a human being and an artist who would soon die with his face on the ground, ass up in the air and pants at his ankles.
It's not a book, but I did do a long piece in my next book on Elvis impersonators and the EPIIA (Elvis Presley Impersonators International Association). Went to Vegas and interviewed many of them. It is indeed one place minstrelsy ends up; where 19th-century white guys imitated what they thought of as slave culture and Elvis took from R & B performers, the impersonators copy the copy, if you willit's minstrelsy once-removed.
It's nonetheless got much of the race, class and gender charge minstrelsy itself had. Especially because the impersonators are, by and large, very serious about what they do; Fat Elvis or notthey're not into camp, for the most part. And their acts are uniformly sympathetic and moving. Or so I found.
Considering the unanimous praise that critics have given "Love and Theft," there's a chance that the album might go down in history as Bob Dylan's finest work. As a result, there's a chance that your book might be forever connected to the album. How do you feel about that? On the one hand, it could overshadow your work and center the popular discussion about the book around Dylan. On the other hand, the connection to Dylan's legacy could give the book a kind of eternal life.
If Dylan doesn't overshadow the book, a lot of other things will: that's inevitable. As for eternal lifewhat more could you want for a mere book?