Leader of the Beat Generation and counter-cultural icon Jack Kerouac not only inspired the works of many of his literary contemporaries, but also the style and lyrical composition of his musical successors, most notably Bob Dylan. While Kerouac himself was inspired by the free-flowing musicality of jazz music, his iconic novel On the Road, as well as his approach to fame and materialism, inspired a new musical genre. His life story, portrayed through his eccentric writing style, drew the attention of folk and rock and roll icon Bob Dylan, whose stylistic shift in the mid 60’s can be largely credited to Kerouac’s work.
In addition to Kerouac’s inspiration on Dylan’s later albums is the singer’s famed friendship with Ginsberg, whose connection to Dylan alone allowed him to pursue higher literary culture and recognition.
Dylan embraced the Beat culture in both his artistry and lifestyle. He adopted their counter-culture attitudes towards societal conventions, and adapted their writing in subject matter, theme, and style.
Through his shift in inspiration from Woody Guthrie to prominent Beat authors such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Dylan successfully transformed his image from that of a popular folk singer icon to a serious poet laureate. Kerouac rose to prominence as the leading voice of the Beat Generation following the release of his 1957 novel, On The Road. Much to his distress, On The Road inflated Kerouac’s fame and popularity, as his work was transformed from an authentic tale of adventure and camaraderie to a pop culture phenomenon.
In a notebook from the early 1960s, Kerouac wrote, “Realized last night how truly sick I am of being a ‘writer’ and ‘beat’—it’s not me at all…” portraying his discomfort with the superficial fame that accompanied his status as the “Beatnik Captain” (Timothy Hampton). Ginsberg had his own experience with early fame. Two years prior to On The Road’s release, Ginsberg’s poem Howl was published, an iconic poetic portrayal of American counterculture in the 1950s. After meeting in 1944, Kerouac and Ginsberg remained close friends, exchanging visits and letters throughout much of their careers until Kerouac’s death in 1969. As the two leading figures of the Beat Generation, Ginsberg and Kerouac shared values relating to social authority, politics, and drugs. Their combined works shaped the heart of the Beat culture that Dylan was drawn to.
Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota. His family emigrated from modern day Ukraine to the United States following the anti-semitic pogroms of 1905 (Coalson). Dylan began his career in 1961 after moving to New York City in pursuit of his musical idol, Woody Guthrie. After playing gigs around Greenwich Village, Dylan was signed to Columbia Records later that year (Kooper). New York Times critic Robert Shelton wrote in a 1961 article: “Among the newer promising talents deserving mention are a 20-year-old latter-day Guthrie disciple named Bob Dylan, with a curiously arresting mumbling, country-steeped manner’ (Shelton). Dylan’s first four albums, recorded between 1962 and 1964, were folk albums, inspired heavily by Guthrie and Pete Seeger. His fifth studio album, “Bringing It All Back Home,” serves as an early example of Dylan’s “new look,” where his friendship with Ginsberg is publicly displayed, marking his transition from folk to rock and roll.
His later albums parallel Kerouac’s narratives of pursuit and loss through America’s landscapes, as seen most prominently in On The Road (Timothy Hampton). Dave Van Ronk, an important figure in the revival of American folk music, noted that Dylan was a clear product of the Beat Generation (Polizzotti). Dylan was even described as a, “Kerouac-crazy culturally alienated youth at the cusp of the 1960s” by. Like Kerouac, Dylan resented the role of the anti-establishment hero that accompanied his success. Dylan’s character became threatened by his own popularity, as he was restricted to a single folk counter-cultural entity created by fan adoration. Similar to Kerouac’s journal entry, Dylan described in a memoir instances of an invasion of his privacy and negative experiences with fans, writing, “…To them it must have seemed like I was something out of a carnival show”. Like Kerouac, Dylan rejected the image of a societal hero placed upon him by his fans.
While Kerouac attempted to escape the notion of the “Beatnik Captain,” Dylan struggled with his newly placed “duties as the conscience of the generation.” By drawing on Kerouac, Dylan managed to transition out of the haze of the 60s and into his own songwriting style. Dylan’s shift from the rambling of Guthrie’s America to Kerouac’s fast-paced America can be seen most clearly in his 1974 album Blood On The Tracks, an appropriation of On The Road which drew from “denser and more archaic literary traditions”. While Dylan was originally inspired by Guthrie’s soulful folk style and his protest songs, it was Kerouac’s world that shaped the mythologies of the 1960s, the time period of which Dylan was writing about. The album is an explicit reflection of the 1960s, pieced together through a web of literary inspirations including Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” and Ginsberg’s “Best Minds Of My Generation” and “Howl.”
While Beat influence on Dylan’s work is evident, Guthrie’s life and work had an unquestionable impact on Dylan, as clearly demonstrated through Dylan’s early lyrics. In his 1962 hit, “A Song To Woody,” Dylan wrote, “Hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song… cause there’s not many men that done the things that you done” (Dylan 1962). His lyrics suggest a deep respect for Guthrie, as he pays homage to the folk singer’s unparalleled greatness. Dave Marsh, a grammy award winning American music critic, argues that without Guthrie, there would be no Dylan (Klier). Dylan’s pop music culture was drawn solely from the “ashes of the Woody Guthrie cultural tradition — a tradition that began with Walt Whitman”.
Whitman’s influence on both Guthrie and the Beat Generation creates a clear picture of Dylan’s craft, inspired by different artists who shared a common literary forefather. As an individual, Guthrie’s imagery and Whitman-inspired ideas shaped Dylan’s early career. Kerouac’s influence went beyond that. Kerouac’s work did not just affect Dylan’s style and content, but also shaped the very world that Dylan was so inspired by. While Guthrie created a genre, Kerouac led the Beats as the creators of a new generation, producing works that would later infuse all aspects of Dylan’s ideology, attitude, and imagery. Most notably among these generational works is Kerouac’s On The Road, a text that became instantly embedded into American life during Dylan’s coming of age years.
On The Road became a new form of social identity, much like how Dylan’s music would later influence America’s musical canon. Blood on the Tracks carries the same underlying theme of escape into adventure seen in On The Road. “Tangled Up In Blue,” one of the tracks off the album, addresses Kerouac’s recurring theme of leaving behind landscapes of emotional and mechanical destruction, as Dylan wrote, “We drove that car as far as we could / Abandoned it out West / Split up on a dark sad night / Both agreeing it was best”. Themes of westward travel, splitting up and reunion, and heartbreak are present throughout much of On The Road, and clearly echoed in Dylan’s lyrics. Through his use of Kerouac, Dylan grasps the problem of generational identity and the problem of collective illusion of societal normalcy. Dylan’s echoing of Kerouac in both style and subject matter can be traced through his straying from basic conventions of folk music and embrace of a more eccentric, unconventional style. Standard narrative development is discarded, replaced with geographical motifs and extensive scenographic imagery.
The content of Dylan’s later songs also reflected similar themes of social authority, the emphasis of the self, and rejection of institutional norms often addressed in Beat literature. Dylan takes on an autobiographical voice in “Tangled Up In Blue,” a track off of Blood On The Tracks, where he references leaving Minnesota to find fame in New York: “standing on the side of the road, / Rain fallin’ on my shoes / Heading out for the East Coast…”. This travel from the midwest to New York oppositely mirrors the travels of Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty’s travel buddy and the narrator of On the Road, who moved from New York to Middle America in the novel. Through his shift from clean stanzas and folkish rhymes to the rough edged, unpredictable nature of Beat poetry, Dylan pushed past folk music and embarked on a new journey of not only musical triumph, but literary prowess as well. Dylan instigated this smooth transition from folk music hero to rock and roll poet laureate through his friendship with Ginsberg.