By: Stefan Schindler
The demand to abandon illusions about our condition is a demand to abandon the conditions which require illusion.Karl Marx
Bob Dylan’s winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature – the most coveted literary prize in the world – presents us with an opportune moment for looking back on his long and astonishing career as a constantly evolving musical icon. It is the first time that the Nobel Prize committee has awarded the literature prize to a musician. In defending this almost revolutionary break with tradition, the committee’s chairman, quoting Dylan’s most famous line from the ‘60s, announced, “The times, they are a changin’.” Dylan’s originality as a surrealist lyricist was elevated by his engagement with profound social and political themes. So in honor of his award for “literature,” let us examine what Mike Marqusee calls “the politics of Bob Dylan’s art.”
In the 1960s, Bob Dylan was the Noam Chomsky of rock’n’roll. With America now at war again, it is timely that Mike Marqusee’s book on Dylan, Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art (released in 2003), begins with a line from “Highway 61” – “Where do you want this killing done?”
“A hard rain’s a-gonna fall,” Dylan sang in the sixties. America doesn’t heed her troubadours, so 9/11 happened. That’s how I see it, so I’m sympathetic to Marqusee’s hermeneutic of Dylan’s lyrics. Marqusee notes: “I wrote this book with the hard rain headed Iraq’s way.”
As in his earlier Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, Marqusee’s book on Dylan employs a shape-shifting cultural icon to mirror the sixties’ Zeitgeist. Ali and Dylan helped shape the times they were shaped by, reflecting and prodding a tempest of revolutionary consciousness. Marqusee has written a worthy sequel to his book on Ali; another portrait of an artist as a young man.
Marqusee shows Dylan’s evolution in, and contribution to, a time of promise and tumult; a time whose “chimes of freedom” still ring, although in 2016 less loudly, the word “freedom” largely co-opted by Republican sophists to mask an increasingly neofascist agenda. As Gore Vidal once observed: “At election time, words are used to confuse so that citizens vote against their own best interest.”
Marqusee says of Dylan: “Enigma has long been his stock in trade.” Nevertheless, an Ariadne’s thread of revolt runs through Dylan’s lyrics; an iconoclastic probing of existential depths, mind control, war, exploitation and racism. For example, in July 1963, three months after Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his infamous letter from a Birmingham jail, and a month after black activist Fanny Lou Hamer was jailed and beaten for participating in a voter registration drive, Dylan went to Greenwood, Mississippi, to join Pete Seeger in lending support to the civil rights movement, playing for 300 black folk from the back of a truck in a farm field surrounded by police and Klansmen.
The following month, on August 28th in Washington, D.C., Dylan appeared on stage in front of 200,000 people, prior to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. Dylan sang two songs. The second song, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” Dylan had written after the assassination early that summer of NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. Marqusee guides us into understanding Dylan’s choice: “The focus of the song is not, in fact, Medgar Evers … but the man who shot him, and above all the system that generated the murder.” This 22-year old upstart folkie with strangled voice and leonine hair on national stage in historic moment delivers a haunting, balladic, class-based analysis of American racism.
Upon meeting Woody Guthrie, Dylan must have noticed Guthrie’s guitar with its splashy motto: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Though Dylan’s D.C. performance was not yet Allen Ginsberg’s “America, go fuck yourself with your atom bomb,” it bridged Woody and Allen. With shades of Camus – “It is necessary not to side with executioners” – Dylan’s indictment also invites: You, we, don’t have to be “pawns in their game.”
In the song “John Brown,” Marqusee observes, “Dylan told the story of Ron Kovic – disabled Vietnam veteran, antiwar crusader and author of Born on the Fourth of July – some seven years before Kovic lived through the nightmare and drew the lesson of the song from his own experience.” Dylan vows to “tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it.”
He would then refuse to speak out against The Vietnam War; go electric and chemical; crash his motorcycle; retreat into a long night like Jonah in the whale; and emerge wanting to “kiss your cracked country lips, as to be by the strength of your skin” – immensity and intensity seeking completion in intimacy.
Dylan’s artistic journey exhibits four phases: folk singer, protest icon, rock-n-roll poet, crooning country sage.
Already steeped in the vagabond folk-revolt of Woody Guthrie’s musical democratic socialism, Dylan left his northern Minnesota roots in 1961 for a bohemian sojourn in Greenwich Village at the age of 19.
Among his New York City friends and lyric and political influences were Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Allen Ginsberg, and especially folksinger Dave Van Ronk.
Dylan’s song-writing gifts were perfectly suited to the temper of the times.
He penned “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall” just a few weeks before the Cuban nuclear missile crisis of October 1962, the closest moment to self-extinction in human history, when American and Soviet naval forces confronted each other barely a hundred miles off the coast of Florida.
When the song hit the airwaves, it captured the mood of a world on the edge of nightmare. Nuclear lunacy? The irrationality of cold-war mentality? The oxymoronic militarization of civilization? Dylan expressed it all, in a song more relevant to the present than any time since, now that President George W. Bush’s pre-emptive nuclear first-strike option is established policy. Noam Chomsky’s major book of 2003, Hegemony or Survival – following closely upon America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Bush-Cheney plan for world domination backed by a new breed of tactical nuclear and space-based weapons – is a rigorous, frightening, prose political update of Dylan’s prophetic prophecy.
In February 1962, Dylan premiered his new composition “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid blues,” a blistering satire of America’s right-wing, red-baiting, cold-war anticommunist hysteria. The lives, lyrics and music of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, combusting with Minnesota back-street and socialist Greenwich Village be-bop, birthed a poet whose authenticity backed his critique. “In 1963, when Dylan turned up at a CBS studio to rehearse for his first national network TV appearance – on the [hugely popular] Ed Sullivan show – he played the John Birch satire. He was asked to play something else. He refused. His appearance was canceled.”
Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the Village in the spring of 1962, introducing his performance with a caution against turning him into an icon, a basket for projections he had no intention of playing-out in anybody’s politics: “This here ain’t a protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write protest songs. … I’m just writing it as something to be said for somebody, by somebody.” John Lennon would later say the same for his musical odes to Yoko and Sean. Dylan sensed the destination early, constantly deconstructing his persona to make space for the existential Urgrund without which there is no chance to give peace a chance.
“The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” – here but not here; pervasive but elusive; absent presence. Sarah Vowell observed: “It usually takes a real Guernica to remind us of the meaning of the painting.”
In the early summer of 1963, prior to his excursion to Mississippi and his Washington D.C. performance, Dylan wrote “North Country Blues,” one of the earliest musical protests against what is now known as globalization, doing in song for Minnesota what Michal Moore would do in film 30 years later for Flint, Michigan: engaging in a libertarian critique of capitalism’s dehumanizing indifference to blue-collar working folk.
Dylan defies the role of prophet even as he speaks it: “I came to tell everybody / but I could not get across. …Don’t say I didn’t warn you / when your train gets lost.”
In 1964, after his gritty and spectacular “The Times They Are A-Changin’” – with America still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy in late November ’63, and with Lyndon Johnson claiming to be the presidential peace candidate in contrast to Barry Goldwater’s “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” – Dylan withdraws from events, wanting nothing more to do with the storms of social protest, writing Socratic assertions: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
This political apostasy was a poetic blessing for those scorched by, and recoiling from, the violence with which the national security state met civil rights and anti-war protest; a blessing also for those eager to explore brave new worlds of anti-establishment sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Dylan is, after all, the man who turned The Beatles on.
Deep in his alchemical egg, Dylan penned “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a magical mystery tour for the many ready to say “I’m ready to go anywhere … cast your dancing spell my way … take me disappearin’ through the smoke-rings of my mind, down the foggy ruins of time … out to the windy beach, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorry.”
But if Dylan defies the role of protest icon, refusing to meet anybody’s expectations but his own – resisting values reification while insisting on the primacy of artistic process – his retreat into the existential doesn’t prevent him from touching his torch to the social crust. In November 1964, in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” he sings: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
Marqusee observes: “It’s Alright Ma is filled with a Gramscian conviction that the most insidious means of domination are those that secure the ‘spontaneous consent’ of the dominated. It’s a song about ‘the mind-forged manacles’ that Blake heard clanging as he walked the streets of London in 1792.”
In July 1965, after the launching of President Johnson’s invasion of Vietnam in March and the first national upsurge of anti-war protest in April, Dylan created a national moment of astonishment with his song “Like A Rolling Stone.” Said Allen Ginsberg: “It was an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox, and [Dylan] proved it can.” Perhaps only Dylan put it better: “I don’t call myself a poet because I don’t like the word. I’m a trapeze artist.”
In “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – “Twenty years of schoolin’ / and they put you on the day shift” – Dylan’s critique of the wage slave labor education equation anticipates Lennon: “They torture and scare you for twenty odd years / then they expect you to pick a career.” In “Tombstone Blues,” Dylan reminds us that it’s “Jack the Ripper who sits / at the head of the chamber of commerce.”
From the spring of 1966 to early 1968, between the release of Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, Dylan – suddenly silent and invisible – camped out in a communal musical workshop in the Catskills producing the Basement Tapes, reinventing himself as a country-ballad outlaw heading toward Nashville Skyline. Yet because of his songs, Dylan was politically more present than ever. He was internationally famous and viewed abroad as the voice of dissident America. With the Vietnam quagmire turning into LBJ’s Indochina holocaust, Dylan’s earlier protest ballads fueled the anti-war movement.
Revolt met increasing force from the national security state. If 1967 was “the summer of love,” it was also prelude to 1968: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the slaughter of 300 students by Mexican military and police at a pre-Olympic protest in Mexico City; the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where the people’s movement was transmogrified into a teargassed nightmare by Nixon’s hired thugs and Mayor Daley’s uniformed brutes. Ginsberg says of Chicago: “Crowds of strange children … were demanding reality and truth from business-delegates who were walking around in upstairs Hilton rooms scared of the stink of their own karma. Teargassed! That scene was, literally, blowin’ in the wind.”
If Dylan was present even in his absence, he was also missed. The release of John Wesley Harding in 1968 disappointed many who wanted more fuel for the fire. Marqusee concedes they had a point: “If public life is an ongoing test for the artist, then when it came to Vietnam, Dylan failed.” The Vietnam War was the most morally problematic phase of Dylan’s career.
Yet, as Marqusee notes, John Wesley Harding is deeply political, even if its action-at-a-distance is veiled by a country-ballad sound. If Vietnam and civil rights go unmentioned by name, there are, nevertheless, immigrants, hobos, drifters, rich and poor people, landlords and outlaws. In the song “I Am A Lonesome Hobo,” Dylan makes explicit the incompatibility of private wealth and human solidarity. He may not talk about war as such, but “All Along The Watchtower” became an anthem for soldiers in Vietnam: “There must be some way out of here … I can’t get no relief.”
In 1969, Dylan refuses to participate in the musical festival at Woodstock, feeling crowded by hippies, yippies and the movement, and trying to claim some unbroken space for his family, his art, his head. But he cannot fully extricate himself from a movement he helped create. Richard Nixon is president, the bombing of Indochina escalates, and a disenchanted sector of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) urges the violent overthrow of an American militaristic megalomania impervious to reason or conscience. In “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” arguably the first rap song, Dylan had said: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” The Weather Underground (or Weathermen) hitched a linguistic ride on Dylan’s fame; and then, says Marqusee, “the gentle political urgency of ‘Blowin in the Wind’ [was] given a savage twist.”
The 1960s came to its dark, fevered, unfinished close with astronauts (apparently) walking on the moon, while chimes of freedom flashed through the smoke of the civil war on America’s streets.
Over the next two decades, from Kent State to Watergate through the Reagan counter-revolution, Dylan would go through a self-indulgent Self-Portrait stage, the title of his worst album; join Phil Ochs for a 1974 benefit concert for victims of the September 11th, 1973, U.S.-sponsored military coup in Chile; startle and amaze again with the romantically robust masterpiece Blood on the Tracks; take a rapier swipe at America’s judicial system with his song for boxer “Hurricane” Carter; delight, confuse and disappoint with his Christian-based A Slow Train Coming; then drift into middle-age as the most famous rock’n’roll poet of the 20th century.
In the 1990s, Dylan dusted off his ‘60s-era protest songs and integrated them into his touring repertoire. He occasionally plays benefit concerts, and continues to win music awards. On October 13, 2016, Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature – an international confirmation of his poetic, political and musical legacy.
Marqusee notes that “Dylan was never an activist. He absorbed his politics, like much else, by osmosis. His contribution to the [anti-war] movement was limited to a small number of personal appearances, a few donations – and the songs. These, however, were inestimable.”
By focusing on the politics of Dylan’s art, Marqusee ties Dylan to his times, writing less a biography than a historical portrait; indeed, a hymn to the spirit of the sixties. A reminder of the roots of our war-torn present. The lyrics fairly sing from the page. “Look out kid / It’s somethin’ you did / God knows what / But you’re doin’ it again.”
Marqusee journeys into the smoldering fissures that still inform our collective psyche: globalized, militarized, terror-edged, spied upon, and led by lunatics. Marqusee makes exactly the right point when he suggests that “the sixties might someday come to seem merely an early skirmish in a conflict whose dimensions we have yet to grasp.” As William Faulkner said: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
Note: A version of this essay was originally published as a book review in the journal “Socialism and Democracy” (Vol. 18, No. 1; January-June 2004). It has been slightly updated for its reappearance in 2016. Special thanks to Victor Wallace – professor of Political Science at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and current editor-in-chief at Socialism and Democracy – for his editorial help in multiple drafts of this review.
Marqusee’s book on Dylan was published by The New Press (New York; 2003). It was rereleased as Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s (Chimes of Freedom revised and expanded); published by Seven Stories Press (New York; 2005). Marqusee died in 2015.
Stefan Schindler graduated with a B.A. in philosophy from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston College in 1975. As Associate Professor in the Humanities Department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, he taught philosophy, psychology, education, and religion from 1976 to 1990. In 1988, he was awarded the Boston Baha’i Peace Award. He lived in a Zen temple in Cambridge for a year; an echo of his three years in Japan as a child. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he taught at The University of Pennsylvania, La Salle University, The University of the Sciences, and Community College of Philadelphia.
Dr. Schindler is a Trustee of The Life Experience School and Peace Abbey Foundation in Millis, Massachusetts. He wrote the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Awards for Howard Zinn and John Lennon. With Justice Lewis Randa, he co-founded The National Registry for Conscientious Objection, and co-wrote the Courage of Conscience Awards for Thich Nhat Hanh, Ram Dass, and the Dalai Lama. Schindler’s books include The Tao of Socrates, America’s Indochina Holocaust, Discoursing with the Gods, and Space is Grace. He currently teaches courses at Salem State University’s Lifelong Learning Institute. He is working on his next two books: Buddhism in a Seashell, and The Origins and Evolution of Buddhism in Tibet.
Image: Cropped photo of Bob Dylan taken by Xavier Badosa, in 2013. Distributed under a CC BY 2.0 licence.