Bob Dylan and Minstrelsy!

This is an examination of the merging of two seemingly disparate works; one scholarly and one musical.

Love and Theft: Black Face Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, by Eric Lott. (1995).

“Lott exposes minstrelsy as a signifier for multiple breaches: the rift between high and low cultures, the commodification of the dispossessed by the empowered, the attraction mixed with guilt of whites caught in the act of cultural thievery.” — Book jacket.

Lott quotes historian Sean Wilentz, about how minstrelsy connected “workingmen’s pride, resentments, and simple pleasures to the language of republican politics.” p. 72.

Love and Theft,” Bob Dylan. (2001).

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum
Summer Days
Bye and Bye
Lonesome Day Blues
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Honest with Me
Cry A While
Sugar Baby

Rolling Stone article (2016) on the making of “Love and Theft”.

“When it was wrapped up, the album – its title inspired by historian Eric Lott’s 1993 study Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class – could be as somber and austere as Time Out of Mind, with Dylan’s increasingly gnarled voice now the equivalent of a weathered oak tree. ‘Basically, the songs deal with what many of my songs deal with – which is business, politics and war, and maybe love interest on the side,’ Dylan said at the time. ‘The whole album deals with power. If life teaches us anything, it’s that there’s nothing that men and women won’t do to get power. The album deals with power, wealth, knowledge and salvation – the way I look at it.'”

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Dylan “Love and Theft” lyrics word cloud

In the above lyrics analysis it is surprising that Tweedledee and Dee and Dum are prominent. There are 12 songs on the album and the first is Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The songs importance is not missed here.

According to legend, from, Tweedledum and Tweedledee originated with John Byrom in the 18th century and later immortalized by Lewis Caroll:

“Byrom took his cue from the world of music. In particular, Byrom invented Tweedledum and Tweedledee in a poem that satirised and mocked two rivalling schools of music at the time. (‘Tweedle’ from twiddle, as in to tweak an instrument.) Byrom’s poem runs:

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!


[The pair show up after Through the Looking-Glass] in an anti-war nursery rhyme ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ published in Extraordinary Nursery Rhymes (1876):

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Had a mighty battle,
And what was it all about, think ye?
About a penny rattle.
So nations foolishly make wars,
And loud their cannons rattle;
When oft they have as little cause,
As Tweedledum for battle.”

Bob Dylan in America, by Sean Wilentz (2010).

Perhaps Wilentz’s vision of “Love and Theft” stuck in my mind. He describes it as a minstrel show!

“While I was preparing to write [web notes] about “Love and Theft” in late summer 2001, I thought I perceived (and it turned out to be a pretty obvious observation) that the album was a kind of minstrel show, in which Dylan had assembled bits and pieces of older American music and literature (and not just American music and literature) and recombined them in new ways.” p. 8.

A Glance at New York, 1848 play discussed in Lott’s work.

“A Glance at New York and sketches like it were riotously egalitarian, offering a kind of plebeian heroism against the dangers of downtown New York.” p. 83.

Audio excerpt of the play from 2004 revival via WNYC.

A review of A Glance at New York describes this minstrelsy as a musical farce.

“Condemned for its “vulgarity,” the musical farce, A Glance at New York in 1848, was a sensational blockbuster, one of the greatest successes of the New York stage up to that time. Its hackneyed plot of the Bowery fireman Mose, the original b’hoy, to save his new found friend George, a country greenhorn, from scrapes with city sharpers, proved to be irresistibly popular. Credited with being one of the first American “musical farces,” and long out of print, Theatre Arts Press is proud to bring the libretto of this important American musical back from the past.”

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