Today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, probably the most famous singer to come out of the counter-culture folk movement of the 1960s. Some of his songs have become so ingrained in American culture that we think they are traditional songs (Blowing in the Wind I thought, when I was young, was a traditional hymn that Bob covered in his early years). There are few singer/songwriters that get to become icons in their lifetimes and leave such a rich and beautiful catalogue: Elvis Presley, Woody Guthrie, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and a handful of others. I know a lot of people who have told me that Bob Dylan actually opened the door to Buddhism, it is through him that many, including me, were introduced to the Beat Generation: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac (Dharma Bums), Allen Ginsberg, etc. Bob Dylan has opened many doors to many people, I still remember the first time that I read his book Chronicles, which I believe is one of the great American commentaries to this days. I was engulfed by his words and observations, I remember being struck by this quote the first time that I read it:
“Folk songs are evasive — the truth about life, and life is more or less a lie, but then again that’s exactly the way we want it to be.” — Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One
What I enjoy of Bob Dylan is his many personae (“A folk song has over a thousand faces, and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff.”), Bob Dylan has become a great cultural figure, maybe one of the most important. But what made me fall in love with him? Obviously his music, but mostly his politics that were wrapped in his songs. My first love in music was punk rock, but Bob Dylan is the first songwriter to wake me up! I still remember being a kid and my dad putting on a Dylan record and hearing the song The Times They Are A-Changing, those words spoke volumes to me and a generation.
Bob Dylan premiered this song on October 26th 1968 to a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall, I always felt connected to this song and it was fitting that it saw the light of day on my birthday. The song is founded on the conviction that social change is unstoppable, history will conform to morality; its second verse sends out a challenge to the punditocracy:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
It is thanks to the unexpected achievement of the civil right movement, a grass-roots movement that changed the American political landscape, this made the message of this song possible or even plausible. He was articulating the universal spirit animating this moment in history. The protest songs that made Dylan famous and with which he continues to be associated were written in a brief period of some 20 months – from January 1962 to November 1963. Influenced by American radical traditions (the Wobblies, the Popular Front of the thirties and forties, the Beat anarchists of the fifties) and above all by the political ferment touched off among young people by the civil rights and ban the bomb movements, he engaged in his songs with the terror of the nuclear arms race, with poverty, racism and prison, jingoism and war.
Dylan gave us songs like ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ (class rule as the root of racism), ‘With God on Our Side’ (rejecting American fundamentalism), ‘Masters of War’ (taking on the military-industrial complex); he was able to offer us a clear eyed account of a single injustice that becomes an indictment of a system and its liberal defenders. Dylan had a sharp-edged radicalism and a poetic charm that helped bring the protest genre to a more mainstream audience. When the Times They Are A-Changing record came out, at the young age of 22, the young singer-songwriter from Minnesota was crowned the “voice of a generation”. This is not what Dylan wanted, the new Woody Guthrie had other plans, he is maybe not the most known protest singer of his time but more the greatest renegade. He stated in 1964 “Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore – you know, be a spokesman. From now on, I want to write from inside me …I’m not part of no movement… I just can’t make it with any organisation…”.
In his song My Back Pages, Dylan offers us a dense critique of the movement that he had celebrated in The Times They Are A-Changing. Sneering at “corpse evangelists” who use ideas as maps, who spout “lies that life is black and white” and who fail to understand that “I become my enemy in the instant that I preach.” Alarmed by the discovery of authoritarianism at the heart of the movement for liberation (and within himself), he rebels against the left’s self-righteousness. He pours bile on the “self-ordained professor/ Too serious to fool”. He scorns what he sees as the dead culture of political activism: “memorising politics/ Of ancient history”.
‘Equality, I spoke the word, as if a wedding vow But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’ Most people (for Dylan it would be the whole yuppie vs hippie kind of evolution) will “evolve” to the giving-way of rebellious youth to responsible maturity. Dylan reversed the polarity. For him, the retreat from politics was a retreat from stale categories and second-hand attitudes. Dylan did break form the political landscape as we had known him, but he freed himself of outside events to explore his inner landscape. What most people might not realize is that this inner-reflection was often explored as inner studies of his reactions to outside events. A great example is ‘Maggie’s Farm’ – booed by purists at the Newport folk festival – fuses class and generational rage in an uncompromising renunciation of wage labour. Here the power of the employers is propped up by ideology (“She talks to all the servants about man and God and law”) and the state (“the National Guard stands around her door”.) The social order is experienced as intrusive, deceitful, inimical to the individual’s need for self-definition. “I try my best to be just like I am/ but everybody wants you to be just like them.”
I will leave you on this note, Bob Dylan is still to this day very much part of the musical landscape. His influence is still felt with many great singer-songwriters, his spirit has taught us so much and more is still to come. I encourage you to take some time with his music and explore your own inner landscape as these words pierce us, music has been one of my greatest teachers and Bob Dylan is one of my greatest teachers! Bob Dylan might be 70 today, he is long from leaving our communal consciousness! Music is a powerful thing! Like Springsteen said “We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school.”