|A Bard of the People
Bob Dylan – Almost Seventy and
Young at Heart
Soon he will be touring in China,
a man more or less my age who has been out there, in the world, for years:
far from any place like Hibbing, the place he hails from. Far from home?
“No direction home”, we once heard. “You can’t go home again”: another
poetic mind knew it, too. From a certain moment, there is no turning back
any more. And we start feeling at home everywhere, even in once seemingly
Red China. Or Los Angeles, for that matter. Or a hotel room, a friend’s
place, a joint that we come to, to sing our song, or chant a poem. Home…
Not something charged with intense feelings of belonging any more, as in
childhood. And yet, there are the sudden moments of warmth experienced,
and of being a part of humanity, among a small crowd of two, of
three, a dozen, twenty, or more than that…
He discovered folk music, discovered
Guthrie very early, listening to radio stations while still in Hibbing.
Like Guthrie, he knew so soon
“that men are men
an’ that men have reasons
for what they do
an’ what they say”
while adding, no doubt for a reason,
“an’ every action can be questioned”.
The reason, the commitment, and
the doubt that comes with it – it’s all there, in these few lines.
Awake minds shy away from every
kind of ‘religious’ certainty that what they do and stand for and see as
an issue worth standing up for cannot be put in doubt. The John Birchers
of the time when he, Dylan, wrote the text I’m quoting from (Outlined Epitaphs),
didn’t have those qualms perhaps. And while they may have feared or hated
those who refuse to simplify things, they needed so much to find and experience
human warmth and friendliness. Yes, of course. And the sensitivity of women
and men who try to grasp what turns a man into a “staunch patriot” and
a “Cold warrior.”
But cannot the same be said of certain
folks who see themselves as liberals, or as people that cherish ideas of
the Left? Of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics?
Like Guthrie, Dylan wrote songs
and still writes songs that are the songs of a man who has a reason. It’s
strange, he referred to such reason as that unwritten and yet known “book
of Man” that the older singer songwriter and bard of the people had “carried”
for a while. Yes, Guthrie,
“for he just carried a book of
an’ gave it t’me t’read awhile
an’ from it I learned my greatest
You see what he’s saying? From
it, that metaphorical book of Man, not from Guthrie. The humanity that
Guthrie had at heart was concrete, it was the American people that suffered
the effects of the Great Depression. It was the people, the populace, that
finds itself nailed so often to a cross of gold. In the 1890s. In the 1930s,
And again today.
Guthrie’s songs were still alive
when we heard them in the sixties and early seventies, and they are still
alive when we hear them now. But they turn our eyes and minds and hearts
back to the past, and in that sense and to some extent away from today,
from our time. In the 1960s it was apparent, to an awake mind like Dylan
that these were no longer
“the hungry thirties” when people
like Woody “blew in […] t’ New York an’ sang for dimes
on subway trains
satisfied at a nickel fare
an’ passin’ the hat
an’ hittin’ the bars
on eights avenue
an’ makin’ the rounds
t’ the union halls”
When Bob was perhaps romantizicing
the experience of Guthrie “blowing into New York”, he did not romanticize
his own experience at all, as he “blew into” New York town aka Big Apple:
“[…] when I came in
the fares were higher
up t’ fifteen cents an’ climbing
an’ those bars that Woody’s
rattled… they’ve changed
they’ve been remodeled
an’ those union halls
like the cio
an’ the nmu
come now! can you see ‘em
for a song
There is no need to comment this.
We all know why Herbert Marcuse saw potential for change, at the time,
above all in disempowered, unjustly treated minorities and in the women’s
Bob Dylan did not get involved without
a reason in the civil rights movement. Nor was his involvement atypical
for college kids and young college drop-outs embracing values that echoed
John Steinbeck, Dos Passos, the sense of history that informed a film like
Grapes of Wrath. And of course the songs of the
Dylan was in a sense one of them,
one of those young people who got involved in the civil rights movement.
Were they liberals? Leftists? Idealists? None of these labels help us very
much if we do not attempt to grasp, at the same time, the existential commitment
of the young civil rights workers who headed South. And at the same time
the summer camp atmosphere, the longing for boundless freedom that filled
these kids – usually young men and women with a “middle class” background.
It was no mirage, it was real, this sense of freedom as they climbed on
buses that took them to Alabama, to Mississippi, to Arkansas. It implied
an escape from parental control and from the often inane discipline
of institutions (no matter whether we think of the army, schools, universities
or some recently found work-place, often inside the bureaucratic apparatus).
But it also was an experience that brought them in contact with American
realities that they had known up to that point mainly from textbooks. It
brought them into contact, the hard way. With racism. Police dogs. Officers
who did not welcome them.
Dylan went down South not to “perform”
and promote his music but in order to be there. Being present was necessary.
His guitar, his voice were what pens and paper were to journalists if they
came and supported the struggle. His tools. His weapons? If you prefer
militaristic language, yes. But I think he wouldn’t have said, “my weapons”.
A song like Only a Pawn in
Their Game lets us understand how nuanced and conscious Dylan’s
apprehension of racism in the South was. It was clear to him – and
his song tried to make it clear to whoever cared to listen and pay
attention to it – that the particular racism that Black Americans
encountered was most deeply entrenched among poor whites who were compensating
an inferiority complex buttressed by their poverty, minimal education,
general ignorance and low social status. In America’s class society, they
needed somebody to look down on, to blame. Somebody they could take it
out on, venting their anger and frustration. The political establishment,
especially in the U.S. South, relied on their votes and used and fanned
their racist prejudice, diverting aggression from worthier targets: from
unjust social structures that the broad majority of “Blacks” and “Whites”
Yes, Dylan was right: it was the
average politician in the South who told “the poor white man,
‘You got more than the blacks,
Your better than them […].’”
And it was the entire phalanx, “the
deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors […] the marshalls and cops”
who functioned so well, preserving the status-quo and earning their secure
salaries while doing so.
“But the poor white man’s used
in the hands of them all like a tool.
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.”
The concern with racism and lynchings
haunted this American poet and singer songwriter in more than one song.
It is starkly present in a song called The Death of Emmett Till.
“Some men they dragged him to
a barn and there they beat him up.
They said they had a reason,
but I can’t remember what.
They tortured him and did some
thing too evil to repeat.
There were screaming sounds
inside the barn, there was laughing
[sounds out on the street.
Then they rolled his body down
amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters
wide to cease his screaming pain.
The reason that they killed
him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie,
Was just for the fun of killing
him and to watch him slowly die.”
The intensity of the pain and the
outrage felt by the writer of the lines just quoted, as the murder of a
young Chicago boy visiting relatives down South became known, is very present
in the lyrics and in the way Dylan sings these lines. Emmett Till, not
aware of social conventions in the Southern community he was visiting in
the 60s, had dared to look at a “White” woman, rather than bowing his head
down low. Perhaps he had even whistled, seeing her pass by. It cost his
life; “white” guys had been determined to “teach him a lesson” (and by
implication, all the other “Blacks” in the community).
Perhaps it was to some extent that
note of commitment which echoed in songs like Only a Pawn in Their
Game and The Death of Emmett Till that attracted
me to the music of Bob Dylan when I discovered it.
Living it Europe, it was thanks
to the New York Times and TIME magazine, since 1961, that I had followed
the news concerning the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the
free speech movement in Berkeley. Having been attuned to pop music,
then Jazz, then briefly to country music (Flatt and Scruggs, Hank Williams,
etc.) played on AFN, I discovered folk music since about 1963-64.
It was at that time that I started to listen to and care for Mississippi
John Hurt, Cisco Houston, Rambling Jack Elliott, Sonny Terry and Brownie
McGhee. I bought a song book done by Alan Lomax, and I came across
Woody Guthrie singing Grand Coulee Dam, This Land is
My Land and other great songs. I heard Leadbelly’s voice on the
radio, listened to East Texas talking blues and to the first songs protesting
against the war – songs by Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs… Much of
it played on BFBS by Murray Kash. It was only a bit later that I
heard Joan Baez on the radio. And then, also, Bob Dylan.
I was stunned. I loved her way of
singing, but that nasal twang typical of Dylan, that use of the throat’s,
in fact the body’s potential to produce a rich experience of timbre struck
me as even more surprising and beautiful. It erased the tarnish, the glossy
polished surface typical of the rendition of pop singers. You sense it
when you listen to Peter, Paul and Mary singing Blowing in the wind,
and then listening to Dylan. Perhaps it was because I had been already
attuned to other folk singers that I was bound to love it.
I still love to rediscover that
special way of singing that reminds me faintly of Blues singers, in –
say – the young Dylan’s rendition of Corinna, Corinna.
There is that slow, clear-cut accompaniment of the guitar. The rough edge
of the voice that suddenly can take a sharp turn, reaching a high note.
It’s not just the text, it is even more so his way of singing that transports
a sadness that is existential. Collective in the sense that the experience
of loss, of grieving when a loved one has left for good is shared by so
many. Folk music quite typically embraces such collective or shared experiences,
and the personal, idiosyncratic rendition of Dylan doesn’t diminish this
quality but, on the contrary, lets us feel it more intensily.
Do you remember the middle part
of the song? In the version copyrighted in 1962, it’s the second of three
“stanzas”. He adds more, varies it, but never mind. In that stanza , the
imagery is naïve, simple, and typical of a folk song.
“I got a bird that whistles,
I got a bird that sings.
I got a bird that whistles,
I got a bird that sings.
But I ain’t a-got Corinna,
Life don’t mean a thing.”
Hearing Dylan sing this, he seems
to me like a bird that whistles.
And I find the observation of Joyce
Carol Oates confirmed, who described his voice as “raw, very young”, adding
that hearing it, it was to her “…as if sandpaper could sing.” She’s wrong
of course when she says it was a “seemingly untrained voice”, unless you
take the “seemingly” serious. He obviously had learned a lot from singers
that weren’t in the mainstream, singers close to folk and blues and even
perhaps bluegrass traditions. But he wasn’t trained in the way singers
of classical music are trained, or singers of operettas; and it is
clear that their mastery of the voice and their “accomplished” renditions
have set standards for Western pop music, too: by and large standards that
tended to make it sterile and boring. At least up to the moment when the
dominance of that paradigm waned and when blues began to “infect” popular
When Dylan performed Idiot
Wind in the mid-1970s, his looks had changed, the charm and boyishness
perhaps as youthful and fresh as ever, but there was a harder edge to the
way he was singing.
It was less clear, less pure, in
the way his folksong-like rendition of Corinna, Corinna had
been ‘pure’. It was closer to rage, closer to rock music influences, too,
Alan Ginsburg, in conversation with
a Peter Barry Chowka, has noted that lines like
Blowing like a circle around
From the Grand Coulee Dam to
are “absolutely at the height of
Hart Crane-type poetics.”
Like Brecht, like a lot of poets
in fact, Dylan incorporated quotes and allusions to words written by others.
The reference to the Grand Coulee Dam is evoking Guthrie’s song, but to
bring together that dam in the Far West and the Capitol in Washington,
D.C. in the same line evokes the vastness, the wide space of the
American continent, and to have the wind that sweeps across this continent
circle the protagonist’s (or the poet’s?) skull is tantamount to the production
of a grotesquely surreal image. Indeed, an idiot wind that rushes across
the rockies and plains, in order to engulf a single poet in its whirring
maelstrom-like eddy of insane air. Indeed an image of the confused, dizzying
times that for brief moments hold us, again and again, in their dizzying
Dylan’s epic ballads, for instance
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,
can do without such imagery, it
The information transported is
concise, nothing excess, so to speak; and the rendition, calm and in the
way of a cantastorie.
“William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred
With rich wealthy parents who
provide and protect him
And high office relations in
the politics of Maryland,
Reacted to his deed with a shrug
of his shoulders”,
we hear about the murderer who killed
a a fifty-one year old kitchen maid in a Baltimore hotel.
“With a cane that he twirled
around his diamong ring finger”.
The story, gathered perhaps from
an account in a newspaper, has been reduced to the bare essential. It speaks
for itself. Superficial “ornamental” details would only diminish it. The
details that are given by Dylan elucidate, in a sober, factual way, what
Is it that I loved the cantastorie,
the teller of news that are often withheld from the people or that would
go unnoticed or that would be forgotten as soon as the newspaper editors
change the topic and highlight another scandal or affair? Yes, because
he is close to the people, a bard of the people, the so-called common folks.
But I also love, in Dylan, the singer of sad love songs, of despair, and
the inventive experimenter.
The Times They Are A-Changing,
is the title of a fairly early song written by Dylan. The times have indeed
been changing. The days when hunger was a thing of the nineteen thirties
in the U.S. (or in Europe, for that matter) are over. Dylan, the poet and
singer-songwriter, has not ceased to change, either. Being often too broke,
changing places, working in different places and also different countries,
I have not bought many of his records, and for many years lived without
record player, tape recorder, walkman, radio and television set. It is
difficult for me to know what he is doing and to find an opportunity to
listen to his music. Sometimes I hear a song he sings, on my brother’s
radio, and I know he is still the same great singer and sensitive poet.
As his 70th birthday approaches, he is getting ready to sing in front of
a young and not-so-young Chinese public. I can sense already the idiot
wind engulfing him and those who assemble to listen to him. Let the wind
herald a new springtime, a new hope, while we embrace each other, promising
each other that this world will not remain a place called desolation row.