Bob Dylan at 80: The songwriter’s many personae show a unique talent for borrowing from the past
It’s December 1963, and a roomful of liberal luminaries are gathered at New York’s Americana Hotel. They are here for the presentation of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s prestigious Tom Paine Award, an accolade which, a year earlier, had been accepted by esteemed philosopher and anti-nuclear campaigner Bertrand Russell. If any in the audience have reservations about this year’s recipient, a 22-year-old folk singer called Bob Dylan, their skepticism will soon be vindicated.
In what must rank as one of the most cack-handed acceptance speeches in history, an evidently drunk Dylan begins with a surreal digression about the attendees’ lack of hair, his way of saying that maybe it’s time they made room for some younger voices in politics. “You people should be at the beach,” he informs them, “just relaxing in the time you have to relax. It is not an old people’s world.” Not that it really matters anyway, since, as Dylan goes on to say, “There’s no black and white, left and right to me anymore; there’s only up and down… And I’m trying to go up without thinking of anything trivial such as politics.” Strange way to thank an organisation which barely survived the McCarthyite witch-hunts, but Dylan isn’t finished. To a mounting chorus of boos, he takes the opportunity to express sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin who had shot president John F. Kennedy less than a month earlier. “I have to be honest, I just have to be… I got to admit honestly that I, too, saw some of myself in him… Not to go that far and shoot…”
Stories like this one have a special status in the world of Bobology, or whatever we want to call the strange community-cum-industry of critics, fans and vinyl-collecting professors who have turned Dylan into a unique cultural phenomenon. The unacceptable acceptance speech at the Americana is among a handful of anecdotes that dramatize the most iconic time in his career – the mid-’60s period when Dylan rejected/ betrayed/ transcended (delete as you see fit) the folk movement and its social justice oriented vision of music.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, Dylan made his name in the early ’60s as a politically engaged troubadour, writing protest anthems that became the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement. He even performed as a warm-up act for Martin Luther King Jnr’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Yet no sooner had Dylan been crowned “the conscience of a generation” than he started furiously trying to wriggle out of that role, most controversially through his embrace of rock music. In 1965, Dylan plugged in to play an electric set at the Newport Folk Festival (“the most written about performance in the history of rock,” writes biographer Clinton Heylin), leading to the wonderful though apocryphal story of folk stalwart Pete Seeger trying to cleave the sound cables with an axe. Another famous confrontation came at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966, where angry folkies pelted Dylan with cries of “Judas!” (a moment whose magic really rests on Dylan’s response, as he turns around to his electric backing band and snarls “play it fuckin’ loud”).
In the coming days, as the Bobologists celebrate their master’s 80th birthday, we’ll see how Dylan’s vast and elaborate legend remains anchored in this original sin of abandoning the folk community. I like the Tom Paine Award anecdote because it makes us recall that, for all his prodigious gifts, Dylan was little more than an adolescent when these events took place — a chaotic, moody, often petulant young man. What has come to define Dylan, in a sense, is a commonplace bout of youthful rebellion which has been elevated into a symbolic narrative about a transformative moment in cultural history.
Still, we can hardly deny its power as a symbolic narrative. Numerous writers have claimed that Dylan’s rejection of folk marks a decisive turning point in the counterculture politics of ’60s, separating the collective purpose and idealism of the first half of the decade, as demonstrated in the March on Washington, from the bad acid trips, violent radicalism and disillusionment of the second. Hadn’t Dylan, through some uncanny intuition, sensed this descent into chaos? How else can we explain the radically different mood of his post-folk albums? The uplifting “Come gather ’round people/ Wherever you roam” is replaced by the sneering “How does it feel/ to be on your own,” and the hopeful “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” by the cynical “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Or was Dylan, in fact, responsible for unleashing the furies of the late-’60s? That last lyric, after all, provided the name for the militant activist cell The Weathermen.
More profound still, Dylan’s mid-’60s transformation seemed to expose a deep fault line in the liberal worldview, a tension between two conceptions of freedom and authenticity. The folk movement saw itself in fundamentally egalitarian and collectivist terms, as a community of values whose progressive vision of the future was rooted in the shared inheritance of the folk tradition. Folkies were thus especially hostile to the rising tide of mass culture and consumerism in America. And clearly, had Dylan merely succumbed to the cringeworthy teenybopper rock ’n’ roll which was then topping the charts, he could have been written off as a sell-out. But Dylan’s first three rock records — the “Electric Trilogy” of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde — are quite simply his best albums, and probably some of the best albums in the history of popular music. They didn’t just signal a move towards a wider market of consumers; they practically invented rock music as a sophisticated and artistically credible form. And the key to this was a seductive of vision of the artist as an individual set apart, an anarchic fount of creativity without earthly commitments, beholden only to the sublime visions of his own interior world.
It was Dylan’s lyrical innovations, above all, that carried this vision. His new mode of social criticism, as heard in Gates of Eden and It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), was savage and indiscriminate, condemning all alike and refusing to offer any answers. Redemption came instead from imaginative power of the words and images themselves — the artist’s transcendent “thought dreams,” his spontaneous “skippin’ reels of rhyme” — his ability to laugh, cry, love and express himself in the face of a bleak and inscrutable world.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Here is the fantasy of artistic individualism with which Dylan countered the idealism of folk music, raising a dilemma whose acuteness can still be felt in writing on the subject today.
But for a certain kind of Dylan fan, to read so much into the break with folk is to miss the magician’s hand in the crafting of his own legend. Throughout his career, Dylan has shown a flair for mystifying his public image (some would say a flair for dishonesty). His original folksinger persona was precisely that — a persona he copied from his adolescent hero Woody Guthrie, from the pitch of his voice and his workman’s cap to the very idea of writing “topical” songs about social injustice. From his first arrival on the New York folk scene, Dylan intrigued the press with fabrications about his past, mostly involving running away from home, travelling with a circus and riding on freight trains. (He also managed to persuade one of his biographers, Robert Shelton, that he had spent time working as a prostitute, but the less said about that yarn the better). Likewise, Dylan’s subsequent persona as the poet of anarchy drew much of its effect from the drama of his split with the folk movement, and so it’s no surprise to find him fanning that drama, both at the time and long afterwards, with an array of facetious, hyperbolic and self-pitying comments about what he was doing.
When the press tried to tap into Dylan’s motivations, he tended to swat them away with claims to the effect that he was just “a song and dance man,” a kind of false modesty (always delivered in a tone of preening arrogance) that fed his reputation for irreverence. He told the folksinger Joan Baez, among others, that his interest in protest songs had always been cynical — “You know me. I knew people would buy that kind of shit, right? I was never into that stuff” — despite numerous confidants from Dylan’s folk days insisting he had been obsessed with social justice. Later, in his book Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan made the opposite claim, insisting both his folk and post-folk phases reflected the same authentic calling: “All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities… My destiny lay down the road with whatever life invited, had nothing to do with representing any kind of civilisation.” He then complained (and note that modesty again): “It seems like the world has always needed a scapegoat – someone to lead the charge against the Roman Empire.” Incidentally, the “autobiographical” Chronicles is a masterpiece of self-mythologizing, where, among other sleights of hand, Dylan cuts back and forth between different stages of his career, neatly evading the question of how and why his worldview evolved.
Nor, of course, was Dylan’s break with folk his last act of reinvention. The rock phase lasted scarcely two years, after which he pivoted towards country music, first with the austere John Wesley Harding and then with the bittersweet Nashville Skyline. In the mid-1970s, Dylan recast himself as a travelling minstrel, complete with face paint and flower-decked hat, on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. At the end of that decade he emerged as a born-again Christian playing gospel music, and shortly afterwards as an Infidel (releasing an album with that title). In the ’90s he appeared, among other guises, as a blues revivalist, while his more recent gestures include a kitsch Christmas album and a homage to Frank Sinatra. If there’s one line that manages to echo through the six decades of Dylan’s career, it must be “strike another match, go start anew.”
This restless drive to wrong-foot his audience makes it tempting to see Dylan as a kind of prototype for the shape-shifting pop idol, anticipating the likes of David Bowie and Kate Bush, not to mention the countless fading stars who refresh their wardrobes and their political causes in a desperate clinging to relevance. Like so many readings of Dylan, this one inevitably doubles back, concertina-like, to the original break with folk. That episode can now be made to appear as the sudden rupture with tradition that gave birth to the postmodern celebrity, a paragon of mercurial autonomy whose image can be endlessly refashioned through the media.
But trying to fit Dylan into this template reveals precisely what is so distinctive about him. Alongside his capacity for inventing and reinventing himself as a cultural figure, there has always been a sincere and passionate devotion to the forms and traditions of the past. Each of the personae in Dylan’s long and winding musical innings — from folk troubadour to country singer to roadshow performer to bluesman to roots rocker to jazz crooner — has involved a deliberate engagement with some aspect of the American musical heritage, as well as with countless other cultural influences from the U.S. and beyond. This became most obvious from the ’90s onwards, with albums such as Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, composed entirely of covers and traditional folk songs — not to mention “Love and Theft,” a title whose quotation marks point to a book by historian Eric Lott, the subject of which, in turn, is the folklore of the American South. But these later works just made explicit what he had been doing all along.
“What I was into was traditional stuff with a capital T,” writes Dylan about his younger self in Chronicles. The unreliability of that book has already been mentioned, but the phrase is a neat way of describing his approach to borrowing from history. Dylan’s personae are never ‘traditional’ in the sense of adhering devoutly to a moribund form; nor would it be quite right to say that he makes older styles his own. Rather, he treats tradition as an invitation to performance and pastiche, as though standing by the costume cupboard of history and trying on a series of eye-catching but not-quite-convincing disguises, always with a nod and a wink. I remember hearing Nashville Skyline for the first time and being slightly bemused at what sounded like an entirely artless imitation of country music; I was doubly bemused to learn this album had been recorded and released in 1969, the year of Woodstock and a year when Dylan was actually living in Woodstock. But it soon occurred to me that this was Dylan’s way of swimming against the tide. He may have lit the fuse of the high ’60s, but by the time the explosion came he had already moved on, not forward but back, recognising where his unique contribution as a musician really lay: in an ongoing, circular dance with the spirits of the past, part eulogy and part pantomime. I then realised this same dance was happening in his earlier folk period, and in any number of his later chapters.
“The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in” — Chronicles again — “What was swinging, topical and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry driving steel, John Hardy shooting a man on the West Virginia line.” We know this is at least partly true, because this overtly mythologized, larger-than-life history, this traditional stuff with a capital T, is never far away in Dylan’s music. The Titanic, great floods, folk heroes and wild-west outlaws all appear in his catalogue, usually with a few deliberate twists to imbue them with a more biblical grandeur, and to remind us not to take our narrator too seriously. It’s even plausible that he really did take time out from beatnik life in Greenwich Village to study 19th century newspapers at the New York Public Library, not “so much interested in the issues as intrigued by the language and rhetoric of the times.” Dylan is nothing if not a ventriloquist, using his various musical dummies to recall the languages of bygone eras.
And if we look more closely at the Electric Trilogy, the infamous reinvention that sealed Dylan’s betrayal of folk, we find that much of the experimentation on those albums fits into a twelve-bar blues structure, while their rhythms recall the R&B that Dylan had performed as a teenager in Hibbing, Minnesota. Likewise, it’s often been noted that their lyrical style, based on chains of loosely associated or juxtaposed images, shows not just the influence of the Beats, but also French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, German radical playwright Bertolt Brecht, and bluesman Robert Johnson. This is to say nothing of the content of the lyrics, which feature an endless stream of allusions to history, literature, religion and myth. Songs like “Tombstone Blues” make an absurd parody of their own intertextuality (“The ghost of Belle Starr she hands down her wits/ To Jezebel the nun she violently knits/ A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits/ At the head of the chamber of commerce”). For all its iconoclasm, Dylan’s novel contribution to songwriting in this phase was to bring contemporary America into dialogue with a wider universe of cultural riches.
Now consider this. Could it be that even Dylan’s disposable approach to his own persona, far from hearkening the arrival of the modern media star, is itself a tip of the hat to some older convention? The thought hadn’t occurred to me until I dipped into the latest round of Bobology marking Dylan’s 80th. There I found an intriguing lecture by the critic Greil Marcus about Dylan’s relationship to blues music (and it’s worth recalling that, by his own account, the young Dylan only arrived at folk music via the blues of Lead Belly and Odetta). “The blues,” says Marcus, “mandate that you present a story on the premise that it happened to you, so it has to be written [as] not autobiography but fiction.” He explains:
Words first came from a common store of phrases, couplets, curses, blessings, jokes, greetings, and goodbyes that passed anonymously between blacks and whites after the Civil War. From that, the blues said, you craft a story, a philosophy lesson, that you present as your own: This happened to me. This is what I did. This is how it felt.
Is this where we find a synthesis of those two countervailing tendencies in Dylan’s career — on to the next character, back again to the “common store” of memories? Weaving a set of tropes into a fiction, which you then “present as your own,” certainly works as a description of how Dylan constructs his various artistic masks, not to mention many of his songs. It would be satisfying to imagine that this practice is itself a refashioned one — and as a way of understanding where Dylan is coming from, probably no less fictitious than all the others.