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Bob Dylan After the Fall

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Barry Feinstein/davebrolan.com
Bob Dylan at a press conference at the George V Hotel, Paris, 1966; photograph by Barry Feinstein from the exhibition ‘Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present,’ which opened at the Brooklyn Museum last year and is on view at the Akron Art Museum through January 23, 2011. The curator, Gail Buckland, quotes Feinstein in the catalog: ‘In the morning we went to the flea market and Bob bought this puppet. Every time one of the journalists asked him a question, he put his ear to the puppet’s mouth and pretended to listen to the answer. Then he would tell the press. It drove them nuts. They didn’t understand him.’

1.

Bob Dylan, according to Sean Wilentz’s passionate and informative (if at times lurchingly uneven) new book, “has dug inside America as deeply as any artist ever has.” This is well put, for it suggests the way in which Dylan’s songs (there are now more than five hundred of them) seem to unearth a strange, alternate, subterranean America, an antic shadow country of dirt roads and frontier towns, abandoned mines and teeming plantations, a land inhabited by outlaws, vagabonds, crapshooters, confidence men, vigilantes, and religious fanatics, to name only its most conspicuous citizens.

Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, has clearly had to do considerable digging of his own: his book constructs a system of underground tunnels connecting Dylan’s music (thirty-four studio albums alone, from 1962’s self-titled debut to last year’s characteristically odd Christmas in the Heart) to a vast range of movements and individuals in American history and culture. Something of Wilentz’s method is suggested by his epigraph, which is taken from Whitman’s “When I Read the Book”: “Only a few hints—a few diffused, faint clues and indirections…” Wilentz sees Dylan’s work as a constellation of hints and clues, and he follows up on them with an obsessive meticulousness.

The influence of Woody Guthrie on Dylan is well known. Less so is that of Aaron Copland, whose famous “Hoe-Down,” from the ballet Rodeo (1942), Dylan began using in 2001 as a prelude to his live concerts. Noting this fact, Wilentz launches eagerly into a discussion of New York’s radical leftist musical milieu in the 1930s and 1940s. At that time, Copland, already a celebrated composer, had gotten to know the musicologist and composer Charles Seeger, who was helping his friend and fellow musicologist John Lomax to expand the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, along with Seeger’s second wife, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. From Seeger1 and Lomax Copland discovered a wide array of vernacular music, which he began to draw upon and transfigure in works such as Lincoln Portrait (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944).

In the “Hoe-Down” section of Rodeo, Copland takes the fiddle line from an old country song, “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and through a series of ingenious counterpoints and elaborations makes of it something entirely new. Wilentz shrewdly sees in this method a foreshadowing of Dylan’s own approach to songwriting. Both men, according to Wilentz,

soaked up the popular music of the American past…and transformed it into their art, reconfiguring old songs and raising them to creative and iconic levels that the purist folklorists could never have reached.

Dylan was born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, the eldest son of comfortably-off second-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants. Like many restless and disaffected members of his generation, he first began rummaging through the country’s immense trove of traditional folk songs in the late 1950s, having come to the conviction that the rock and roll he’d heard on the radio and fallen in love with as an adolescent, with its limited subject matter of teenage hedonism and heartache, “didn’t reflect life in a realistic way.” These folk songs, on the other hand, as Dylan writes in his endearingly blunt and disheveled memoir, Chronicles (2004), were about

debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children, Cadillacs that only got five miles to the gallon, floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the bottom of rivers…. They weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness. They didn’t come gently to the shore…. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic.

Perhaps the best guide to this different, liberated republic is the music historian and cultural critic Greil Marcus, whom Dylan goes on to mention admiringly in his very next sentence. Marcus’s The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (first published in 1997) is a masterful, imaginative, sometimes overimaginative piece of cultural detective work that traces various strains in Dylan’s music back to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), the legendary three double-LP compilation of old-time vernacular songs that in the late Fifties and early Sixties served as the cornerstone of the folk revival.2

The Anthology was, for Dylan, a source both of musical history and of the social and political history captured in (and often eccentrically distorted by) that music. Although many of its songs are, as Marcus writes, “tied to historical incidents”—“White House Blues” is about the assassination of President McKinley, “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man” is about the West Virginia railroad worker who was hanged after killing a man during a game of craps—they are not, strictly speaking, “historical dramas.” Rather, the songs “dissolve a known history of wars and elections into a sort of national dream, a flux of desire and punishment, sin and luck, joke and horror.” Dylan first heard the Anthology in 1959 when he was a college dropout loitering in the coffee houses around the University of Minnesota. According to Marcus it constituted the “first true map of a republic that was still a hunch to him.” Dylan, however, would not leave this republic as he found it.3

2.

At his recent public orgy of shrill alarmism and lachrymose self-righteousness, the so-called “Restoring Honor” rally, Glenn Beck stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered a shallow, predictable, sinisterly atavistic encomium to the United States. Beck’s speech was followed by a performance of “America, the Beautiful” by the country music stars John Rich and Jo Dee Messina. Forty-seven years earlier to the day, on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the same steps and delivered his “I Have a Dream” oration. Before King’s speech, a young Bob Dylan had approached the lectern, with its thicket of microphones, to sing one of his recent compositions, “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Although he was just twenty-two, Dylan had already established himself as the moral and artistic figurehead of the folk revival by writing and singing what Marcus, in his new book, a loose, baggy, but stimulating hoard of journalistic pieces from the past four decades, calls “songs that told stories about the wrong inside a nation that believed it was always right.”4

Only a Pawn in Their Game” is about Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s chief organizer in Mississippi, who had been murdered less than three months earlier, on June 12, by the Klansman Byron de la Beckwith. Dylan’s approach to this subject, like his decision to perform the song at the March on Washington, is characteristic of his refined moral intelligence. Rather than sermonize—as, for example, Phil Ochs does in his predictable, hand-wringing, and largely forgotten “The Ballad of Medgar Evers,” written the same year—the song asks its audience to husband their anger and to consider where it might be more profitably spent. “A South politician preaches to the poor white man,” Dylan sang in his flat, hay-feverish voice, himself wary of preaching:

“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

The poor white man: not merely impecunious but also deserving of pity or sympathy. It is some feat of moral imagination to be saying this, especially so soon after Evers’s murder. How finely, though, it answers to the spirit of King’s ecumenicism.

As the Sixties wore on, however, Dylan grew increasingly frustrated with what he came to regard as the pious sloganeering and doctrinaire leftist politics of the folk milieu. (Such politicized folk music, Dylan said in one of the notorious semicoherent interviews he gave mid-decade, “is a bunch of fat people.”5) As a result, his songs became stranger, more complex, less overtly concerned with the political happenings of the day. They no longer partitioned the country into moral factions, with arms dealers, corrupt politicians, Southern racists, and conventional bourgeois society on one side and the young, the poor, the downtrodden, and the guitar-and- harmonica-wielding troubadours on the other. They no longer asked—as Florence Reece’s pro-union protest song of the 1930s had done—“Which Side Are You On?” Instead, Dylan began writing a kind of visionary nonsense verse, in which the rough, ribald, lawless America of the country’s traditional folk music collided with a surreal ensemble of characters from history, literature, legend, the Bible, and many other places besides.

Dylan’s achievement is vast and hard to distill, but part of it surely consists of the way in which he expanded the scope of his chosen form to the point that, like one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, a four-minute song might contain anything he felt like throwing into it. No songwriter before him would have thought to include Paul Revere’s horse, the ghost of Belle Starr, Jack the Ripper, the Chamber of Commerce, John the Baptist, Galileo’s math book, Delilah, Cecil B. DeMille, Ma Rainey, Beethoven, and the National Bank in a single song, as Dylan does in the rollicking phantasmagoria of “Tombstone Blues” (1965), a fairly typical example of his output at the time.

Like the Anthology‘s America, the America of Dylan’s mid-Sixties masterpieces—“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna”—is less a place of identifiable historical record than a superabundant nightmare from which Dylan is trying, without much success, to awake. At moments, to be sure, the contours of rancorous social comment seem to appear within the rich tapestry of Dylan’s surreal lyrics. When, for example, he sings—

The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save
Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves
Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves
Then sends them out to the jungle
(“Tombstone Blues”)

—it is difficult not to think of Lyndon Johnson, the incarceration of draft-dodgers, and the disproportionate number of African-Americans sent to fight in Vietnam.6 For the most part, though, the America evoked in these songs is a kind of cross between Calypso’s Island and Lewis Carroll’s Looking-Glass Land, a place of shifting surfaces and arbitrary reversals, where the overriding mood is a combination of dread, confinement, and nihilistic glee. “Oh, the ragman draws circles/Up and down the block,” Dylan cryptically drawls at the start of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and the song holds out little hope of clarification:

I’d ask him what the matter was
But I know that he don’t talk
And the ladies treat me kindly
And furnish me with tape
But deep inside my heart
I know I can’t escape

The mood in such a song, however, is as much a product of Robbie Robertson’s delicately spasming guitar lines and Al Kooper’s puckish organ work as of Dylan’s words.

  1. 1

    Seeger was an ardent leftist who believed that folk songs could be used to foment social revolution, a belief he passed on to his son, Pete, who along with Lomax’s son, Alan, would become an influential figure in the politically engaged folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as an early champion of Bob Dylan. 

  2. 2

    For more on the Anthology, see Geoffrey O’Brien’s ” Recapturing the American Sound,” The New York Review, April 9, 1998, in which he also discusses Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (Henry Holt, 1997), which was published in paperback as The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (Picador, 2001). As Wilentz mentions in the introduction to his new book, he first came to write about Dylan when Dissent asked him to review Marcus’s book in 1998, and it is an obvious influence on Bob Dylan in America. Wilentz and Marcus have also edited a book together, The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad (Norton, 2005). 

  3. 3

    While acknowledging the importance of Smith’s Anthology, Dylan has also disputed some of Marcus’s claims. In a 2001 interview he said that, “All those people [Marcus is] talking about, you could hear the actual people singing those ballads. You could hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Furry Lewis. You could see those people live and in person. They were around. [Marcus] intellectualizes it too much. Performers did know of [the Anthology ], but it wasn’t, in retrospect, the monumental iconic recordings at the time that he makes them out to be. It wasn’t like someone discovered this pot of gold somewhere.” Regardless of where he heard them first, it is clear that these songs and artists helped form Dylan’s career. 

  4. 4

    Many of these songs—”Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “Talkin’ New York”—simply took the melody and chord structure of songs from the Anthology, or other folk standards, and added new lyrics, often about contemporary political events. Accusations of plagiarism have been leveled at Dylan throughout his career, but as Pete Seeger pointed out in the early Sixties, Dylan’s method of songwriting was typical of what he called the “folk process,” by which traditional songs are changed and updated as they pass from one generation to another. 

  5. 5

    The interview continues: “There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans and turn into angels—they’re not going to die. It’s all those paranoid people who think that someone’s going to come and take away their toilet paper—they’re going to die. Songs like ‘Which Side Are You On?’ and ‘And I Love You, Porgy’—they’re not folk music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead.” See Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott (Warner Books, 2006), p. 98. 

  6. 6

    There is a steadily expanding library of books devoted to explicating Dylan’s lyrics, of which Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks (Ecco, 2004) is by far the most interesting, ambitious, and lovingly attentive. The indefatigable Clinton Heylin has written two workmanlike volumes, Revolution in the Air (Chicago Review Press, 2009) and Still on the Road (Chicago Review Press, 2010), both of them blizzards of trivia, though Heylin is concerned less with exegesis than with establishing when and where each and every song was written and recorded. Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan and The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (Continuum, 2006; revised edition 2008) are both very much worthwhile. 

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