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The Nightingale's Code
A poetic study of Bob Dylan

John Gibbens

Touched Press, London, 2001
384 pages, paperback
27 black and white photographs
by Keith Baugh

Links for further exploration:
- The contents, a 2-page pdf
- A sample section, in an 18-page pdf
- A web page with an extract (2,700 words), illustrated with a couple of Keith Baugh’s photographs
- A brief biography of the author, John Gibbens

A portrait of the photographer, Keith Baugh (click for the full-size version). See more of his work – paintings and photographs, and his book Early New York Subway Graffiti 1973–75 – at his website,

Below: author and artist together at Bristol’s Weapon of Choice gallery in May 2010, for a show of Keith’s graffiti photographs (note red dot).


The three kings, in the story that Bob Dylan wrote as a sleevenote for John Wesley Harding, wanted to get into his work “not too far but just far enough so’s we can say that we’ve been there”.

With The Nightingale’s Code you will go a bit further than that.

Paul Williams, one of America’s most celebrated writers on popular music, and author of a series of books about Bob Dylan, greeted this one generously:

“John Gibbens digs deep (below the basement) and casts new light on a body of work always worthy of fresh exploration and excavation. Even the songwriter himself might be pleased at this evidence that his early work is indeed made new once the empathetic listener has encountered and begun to absorb the Time Out of Mind songs and World Gone Wrong performances. The Nightingale’s Code is refreshing and surprising and well worth examining.”

Paula Radice, in the Dylan fanzine Freewheelin’, called it:

“The most challenging of any of the Dylan books I’ve read for a long while… a delight to read just for the neatness and eloquence of the writing…

When I was only a little way into the book I was already formulating a theory that only real poets should be allowed to write about Dylan, because they are the only ones with sufficient understanding of the power of individual words and phrases to do Dylan’s art justice on the page.

A gem amongst a lot of current fibreglass… essential reading”

In The Independent, Emma Hagestadt wrote :

“This engaging study of the old troubadour’s ditties achieves perception without pretension… studded with sharp images and insights – just like the subject’s work.”

Kirkus UK, the review service for industry professionals, summed up the book as follows:

“As a poet and rock musician, John Gibbens has the background to give us a fresh perspective on Bob Dylan's substantial body of work. He has also read all the major critical studies and biographies and tracked down Dylan's literary and musical sources, from Blake and the Bible to Howlin' Wolf and Woody Guthrie. As a result, this book is literate, personal, refreshing and shows a deep affection for the artist he calls 'our first old rock star'. Dylan, Gibbens suggests, made himself into a particular kind of folksinger, an individual who picked up pieces of whatever lay around, including the 'museum of sound' of 20th-century recorded music, to create an individual vision, continually open to what was new and fresh. Gibbens looks at all the different kinds of music Dylan has appropriated in this way, from country to gospel, and also at the social and political background against which Dylan has worked, particularly the rise and fall of the 1960s counterculture. Although he concentrates on the 1960s and 1970s albums, Gibbens has something illuminating to say about every album, good or bad, up to 2001's Love and Theft. He analyses structures and styles to show how the songs demonstrate consistent themes and at the same time reveal an artist following his own creative rhythms. Strikingly, he has uncovered the way in which Dylan plans his albums, making deliberate correspondences and contrasts between tracks. He also has a theory about the way the albums seem to fall into a creative cycle, which he compares to the four seasons. Looking in depth at individual songs, he shows Dylan turning away from conventional politics and developing a personal creed revolving around questions of identity and duality. We leave Dylan on his 'Never Ending Tour' doing what he loves best, remaking and recreating himself and his music. John Gibbens's passionate advocacy of one of the 20th century's greatest popular artists belongs among the best Dylan books.

The text is illuminated with 27 previously unpublished black-and-white performance photographs, taken by Keith Baugh at Dylan’s UK appearances between 1978 and 2000.

Buy The Nightingale’s Code
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UK: £13.50 (including P&P)

Europe: £16.50 (including P&P)

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Further musical prose:

Through the Iron Gates Part 1, About ‘Brownsville Girl’ and The Gunfighter, originally published in Montague Street #2

There’s Hot Stuff Here and It’s Everywhere I Go A Young Person’s Introduction to Modern Times

61 Minutes : A Second (pdf) A reading of Chronicles

Steady Rollin’ Man: a revolutionary critique of Robert Johnson A brief essay on the famous bluesman (expanded from a footnote in The Nightingale’s Code)

We Walk the Line (pdf) A rambler’s guide to the Dylans, Bob and Thomas (expanded form of a lecture given at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea)

Bow Down to Her on Sunday ‘To Ramona’ and the Tarot (originally published in Judas! magazine)


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