In their new book Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music, David Janssen and Edward Whitelock, two English profs at tiny Gordon College in Barnesville, Ga., document the soundtrack to the end of the world. After examining the musical fixations of cult leaders Charles Manson and David Koresh, Janssen and Whitelock devote chapters to “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”: Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Leonard Cohen and Harry Smith. Here's a breakdown of their arguments for each artist as an apocalyptic figure.
Horseman: Dylan | Degree of devastation: Extreme. “A fascination with death is discernible even with a cursory glance at the song titles from Dylan’s debut: ‘In My Time of Dyin’, ‘Fixin’ to Die,’ ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,’” the authors write. “Though these are not his compositions, his choice of material on the first album still provides a glimpse of an apocalyptic aesthetic that is perhaps the defining element of both the content and style of Dylan’s own songs, from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to Modern Times.”
Horseman: Coltrane | Degree of devastation: Moderate. “The achievement of A Love Supreme is that it pinpoints a moment in Coltrane’s development as an apocalyptic artist when the beauty inherent in ‘seeing’ God is almost perfectly balanced by the sometimes terrible ‘turmoil’ required for achieving that vision.”
Horseman: Cohen | Degree of devastation: High. “Cohen works beyond cliché and has, from the start, understood the seemingly innocuous link between individual love and world-scale apocalypse.”
Horseman: Smith | Degree of devastation: Mild. “Anthology of American Folk Music is an apocalyptic text with a prophetic warning that the end is near. But like so many apocalyptic texts before it, its purpose is not to welcome that end but to thwart it.”
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