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A (JEWISH) FAN'S NOTES: BOB DYLAN AND THE AMERICAN PAST

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By A.E. Smith

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The Montréal Review, January 2017

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Many years ago, in Toronto, my mother and I were driving downtown together. I had been living outside of Canada for a while and we were in the long process of catching up. My mother asked me something about my old girlfriend. I thought for a moment and then, instead of answering her question, I sampled Bob Dylan:

All the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now

Some are mathematicians, some are carpenter’s wives

Don’t know how it all got started, I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives

Dylan fans recognize that right away. It’s from “Tangled Up in Blue,” the first cut on his 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks. Deeply – even darkly – introspective, Blood on the Tracks is a musical chronicle of the slow collapse of Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lowndes, the original sad-eyed lady of the lowlands. By turns angry (“Idiot Wind”), wistful (“You’re A Big Girl Now”) and cinematic (“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”), it may be the most consistently romantic album of his entire career.

It sure seemed to have struck a chord with me. With my spontaneous Dylan quote, I was really telling my mother, in my smartass 23 year old way, something about how confused I was feeling about my girlfriend. Which is ironic because Blood on the Tracks is one of those albums that you really don’t understand until you’ve been married, and built a home and maybe had a couple of children of your own. Bob Dylan is wasted on the young.

But that’s beside the point. What is interesting about this story is how my mother reacted.

“Oh,” she said, “that’s Walt Whitman.”

And when I said no, it was Bob Dylan, my mother said she was sure I was mistaken, that it was Walt Whitman and, moreover, that I had lifted it from “Song of Myself.” It wasn’t until we got back home and I laboriously demonstrated from two “proof texts” (this was more than a decade before anybody had ever heard of the Internet) that my mother finally believed me that I had, in fact, been quoting Bob Dylan and not Walt Whitman or some other avatar of the American spirit.

As my mother seemed to recognize, Dylan is a quintessentially American artist, in his voice, in his point of view, in his choice of subject matter and in the complexities of his musical roots. Like Whitman, Dylan is able to capture the universality of human experience through the particularity of an American vernacular.   And the ultimate recognition of this was the decision by the Swedish Academy to honor him with the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Truly, Dylan has been travelling the Lost Highway of real American culture for generations and it is our privilege, as listeners, as fans, to have been able to share that journey with him.

Everybody knows about Dylan’s place in the early 1960s folk scene, going back to his days in the Dinkytown student ghetto of Minneapolis. In those days, the curators of “authentic” American folk music were heavily influenced by the vast canon of English, Scottish and Irish ballads (by way of Appalachia) that reach back as far as the Middle Ages. “Boots of Spanish Leather,” to my mind one of Dylan’s most heartbreaking love songs, is probably derived from the same cycle of ballads that gave us “the Raggle Taggle Gypsies” and Robert Burns’ “Lizzie Lindsay.”

Oh I'm sailin' away my own true love

I'm sailin' away in the morning

Is there something I can send you from across the sea

From the place that I'll be landing?

Dylan’s debt to Woody Guthrie is also well known. With a degree of adulation that almost, but not quite, strayed into the creepily obsessive, Dylan modeled his entire youthful persona on Guthrie, not only singing like him, but trying to look and dress like him, and even talking like a Jewish kid from northern Minnesota imagined a dust bowl Okie would talk. On YouTube, you can find 1962 television footage of Dylan singing “Man of Constant Sorrow.” It’s eerie.

Dylan specialists have picked up on some of the lesser known influences in Dylan’s development as an American artist. In his book Bob Dylan in America, Sean Wilentz linked him to Aaron Copland, who was fascinated by traditional American culture, particularly the mythos of the Southwest and – in works like Hoedown and Billy the Kid – created a distinctively American canon of serious music based on traditional cowboy songs. Gershwin did something similar, of course, only his compositions are based on urban black music – Jazz and Blues.

Copland’s music was immensely popular during Dylan’s childhood in the 40s and 50s, and Wilentz speculates that Dylan must have listened to and been influenced by him. By his own account, the teenaged Bob Dylan was probably a lot more influenced by the “race music” he was listening to on late night pirate radio stations. Nevertheless, composers like Copland effectively legitimized American vernacular music, “…produc(ing)…” as Wilentz observes, “…the folk-music revival which in in turn helped produce Bob Dylan.” Most importantly, Dylan clearly enjoys Copland and understands his legacy – orchestral selections from “Hoedown” are often played before the curtain goes up on a Dylan concert.

That said, I have always had a hard time believing in Dylan as an earnest singer of folk and protest songs. Certainly, he himself has repeatedly tried to distance himself from that particular persona. Perhaps because of my own inclinations, I have always seen him as more closely linked to the Beats – Alan Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac – than to the folk music scene.

The Beats burst upon the complacency of “I Like Ike” America like a supernova, “…destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…” And while the Beats were at least half a generation older than Dylan, a song like “Desolation Row” sounds a lot more like Howl than it does like “Boots of Spanish Leather.”

They're selling postcards of the hanging

They're painting the passports brown

The beauty parlor is filled with sailors

The circus is in town

Sean Wilentz makes an affecting link between Kerouac and Dylan, both the products of small, blue collar cities that had seen better days (Lowell, Massachusetts and Duluth, Minnesota); both fascinated by what Kerouac called “the warp of wood of old America.” And perhaps also, both outsiders: Bobby Zimmerman as one of the few Jewish kids in a Swedish-Lutheran Minnesota town; “Ti-Jean” Kerouac as a French-Canadian Catholic growing up in the heart of Puritan New England.

By the time Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, shocking the crowd with “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” he had adopted a distinctly subversive and ironic Beat persona, leaving the earnest (and outraged) folkies behind. What the Beats did with literature, Dylan did with his Stratocaster. And when he tells Robbie Robertson to “play it fucking loud” during a 1965 concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, it isn’t about rebellion, it isn’t even about not caring what people think, it is the voice of an artist declaring himself on his own terms.  

American music – orchestral, blues, jazz, folk, rock ‘n’ roll, tin pan alley, even Broadway show tunes – is  absolutely rooted in Gospel music, the “shouts and hollers” of churches, black and white, throughout the South. And from a Jewish perspective, it is testimony to the pervasiveness of Gospel music in American culture that “Go Down Moses,” a pre-Civil War spiritual that escaped slaves used to recognize each other as they travelled the Underground Railroad, has become a musical mainstay of the American Passover Seder.

Its not surprising, therefore, that Gospel pervades Bob Dylan’s music as well. Even his so-called “protest songs” – “Hard Rain” comes to mind – are shot through with a Gospel sensibility, even when they have no religious content whatsoever. In her almost unbearably beautiful version of “Hard Rain” at the 2016 Nobel Ceremony, Patti Smith manages both to elevate the song into something truly sublime and, again, to demonstrate that universality that is Dylan’s gift to all of us.  

The spiritual underpinnings of Dylan’s music are manifold, many of them going back to the hymns and round songs of the “Second Great Awakening” protestant revival that shaped 19th Century America. The Awakening gave rise not only to an astonishing proliferation of evangelical Christian confessions, but also to the camp meetings, carnivals and medicine shows from which so much American imagery and popular culture is derived. 

Dylan has always had something of the old time preacher man to him, excoriating us (and often himself) for our sins and beseeching us to seek redemption before it’s too late. “Mama, put my guns in the ground,” he cries in the voice of the dying William Bonney, “I can’t shoot them anymore...”

That long black cloud is comin' down

I feel I'm knockin' on heaven's door

That’s Billy the Kid, of course, around whose mythos Aaron Copland created something entirely new: an American ballet.  

But sometimes, the voice of the preacher man is positively Rabbinic:

Standing by the water casting your bread

While the eyes of an idol with an iron head are glowing

In that single line of “Jokerman,” Dylan evokes the redemptive path that we all travel as Jews, and reminds us of how little has changed since Avram broke the idols in his father’s house and set off on the journey that made us Israel. And truly, despite all of deliberate mythologizing of his own past, Dylan – the kid who grew up in a reasonably observant family, became Bar Mitzvah and attended Hebrew school and Jewish summer camp – has spent his life travelling that Jewish path as well. He plays with Judaism: introducing “Talking Hava Negila Blues,” he describes it as “a foreign song I picked up out in Utah”.  He evokes the sensuality of Jewish scripture: in “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart” he honors the woman he loves using the language of Song of Songs – “a lily among thorns.” And in “Forever Young,” a song written for his son Jacob in which he urges the little boy to “build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung,” Dylan sets to music the Sabbath blessing that Jewish parents make over their children each week.  

It is interesting to consider Dylan’s late-1970s conversion to evangelical Christianity in light of these spiritual roots and influences. His music has always been absolutely infused with religious – particularly Christian – imagery, from the “flesh-colored Christs” of “It’s Alright Ma” to the “thorny crown” we all wear in “When the Deal Goes Down.” And in the period leading up to his conversion, he conceived the Rolling Thunder Revue, an itinerant 19th Century revival meeting recast as musical performance art. The Thunder rolled along the back roads of North America, with Dylan as evangelist-in-chief, sporting dead-white pancake makeup in a subversive evocation of blackface minstrelsy.

If religion and religious ferment have always been defining features of American culture and America’s sense of itself, then it would be strange if they did not also underpin Dylan’s music.  So it’s interesting to think of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity in this context:  not so much a conversion but a quintessentially American spiritual quest that continues, as Dylan might say, “together through life.” And it certainly places him in a long line of American artists whose art is rooted in the search for spiritual meaning, from the Buddhism of Beats like Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder all the way back to Walt Whitman and his enthusiastic embrace of humanist pantheism.  

Dylan’s Christian phase didn’t last that long anyway. Four years after Slow Train Coming (actually, not a bad album, once you get past the Christian proselytizing) he released Infidels, in which he recast himself as an angry, right-wing Zionist, or what critic Seth Rogovoy called “a rock ‘n’ roll Vladimir Jabotinsky”:

Every empire that's enslaved him is gone

Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon

In a recent review of a Dylan show at New York’s Beacon Theatre, the American poet Dan Chiasson lovingly characterized him as “…a stick insect in a Samuel Clemens outfit…looking like a character from one of his songs: a Wild West dandy, perhaps a frontier barrister or bondsman.”

I think that this is the Dylan that I love best – a weird emanation out of an American past that may only have existed in the realm of mythology, yet with a unique gift for bringing that past to life, for willing it, and himself, into existence. The Dust Bowl cadences? They’re real now, rich, warm and impossible to place, either regionally or historically. An American voice. Just listen to his Grammy speech, or better yet to podcasts of his Theme Time Radio Hour show, in which he groups disparate pieces of American music together thematically and talks about what they mean to him. Or listen to a song like “Duquesne Whistle.” With its good-humored celebration of American lowlife running parallel to its evocation of a noble, proletarian American culture that is long gone – “I’m gonna stop at Carbondale and keep on going” - listening to it is like reading Dos Passos, or Dreiser. Dylan succeeds in making us nostalgic for something that none of us ever knew. And because it is rooted in an American cultural and literary tradition that is wholly real, the nostalgia itself is genuine and not simply a cheap play on emotionalism or ignorance.

And if that’s not confusing enough, try watching the music video that goes with it: by turns sweet, disturbing, comedic and brutally violent

Sometimes, Dylan even manages to nail the American future. In the opening lines of “Blind Willie McTell,” possibly one his most haunting songs, intended originally as a track on Infidels but only ever released as a bootleg, Dylan evokes an American landscape that is bereft, devoid of spirituality, perhaps even of life itself.

Seen the arrow on the doorpost

Saying, “This land is condemned

All the way from New Orleans

To Jerusalem”

With his use of an image derived from the visual code that old-time Hobos used to warn each other that they could expect no welcome in this place, Dylan could be evoking the dustbowl of his spirit guide Woody Guthrie. But somehow, he captures perfectly the anxieties of a country that is deeply divided and angry, a country that many thinking Americans have concluded truly is condemned.  

Another family story.  My son and I are driving together, somewhere way up in Northern Ontario. He is at an age where his musical tastes are really starting to develop. We are talking about that venerable BBC radio show called Desert Island Discs, where well-known people talk about the recordings they would take to sustain them if they were cast away on a desert island. I ask him if he wants to hear one of mine, he says “sure,” so I find Blood on the Tracks on my iPod and cue it up. We listen, driving through the same Great North Woods that Dylan name checks on the album, along with a whole bunch of other quintessentially American places, from Ashtabula, Ohio to the Grand Coulee Dam. An hour later, the last notes of “Buckets of Rain” fade away, and my son is quiet. I wait for a while, then I ask him what he thinks. “It tells a story,” he says, “but you have to listen to it from the beginning to hear it.”

And that’s the thing about Dylan. After all the analysis; after all the obsessive attempts to qualify and classify him, he just tells a really good story.

But to hear it, you have to listen.

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