Why is a 20-year-old kid singing about keeping his grave clean? This, in a nutshell, is the problem with Dylan’s first album: His songs don’t feel honest; they sound as if he is trying to duplicate the emotions of other singers instead of translating his own feelings.
There has been some discussion recently, thanks to Joni Mitchell, of Bob Dylan’s honesty. Mitchell told the LA Times that, “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.” This is not an entirely new complaint about Dylan. People have often accused him of being phony or deceptive, both in his songs and with the media.
The problem with Mitchell’s complaint (other than the fact that it was a completely uncalled for and unprovoked ad hominem attack), and this line of criticism in general, is that it confuses “authenticity” with “honesty.” It’s true that Dylan’s voice is often “fake” (although this raises a question of what someone’s “true” singing voice is; don’t all singers manipulate and modify their voice for different songs, at least to some degree?), and that many of his songs about historical events and figures play fast and loose with the facts. In this, Dylan is, I suppose, “dishonest.”
But, as Pablo Picasso said, “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Dylan’s songs may not always be “honest,” in that they manipulate facts or obscure his own personal feelings, but they are almost always authentic. Dylan’s songs get closer to the visceral truth of the world than 1,000 more “honest” songs—by Joni Mitchell or anyone else—do.
The problem with Bob Dylan as an album, though, and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” in particular, is that Dylan seems to be neither singing with personal honesty nor authenticity. He sounds like he is singing this song more out of reverence to its writer, Blind Lemon Jefferson, than out of any particular emotional resonance. There is still a dark poetry to the song, from the foreboding imagery evoked by the sights and sounds of a funeral and death, to the feeling of a final, resigned wish to merely keep your grave clean. The problem, though, is that Dylan doesn’t seem to put his own spin on the poetry of the song (as, say, Lou Reed did).
Luckily, though, as the final song on his first album, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” would spell the death of this version of Dylan—this version that was too in awe of predecessors like Jefferson and Woody Guthrie to embark on his own emotional journey. Just over a year later, though, Dylan would release The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which should really put to rest any doubts about his ability to be authentic and personal.