Let me begin this commentary by stating clearly that I am a Dylan freak. I’m not going to go dig in his garbage like some others so identified have, nor am I going to assign any supernatural aspects to the man and his work. After all, he is a human, not a god. It’s because of my obsession with the man’s music that I read almost anything that is printed about him, though. Indeed, it is what drew me to the recent work on Dylan’s Sixties persona by Mike Marqusee. This work, entitled Chimes of Freedom: the Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art, Places Bob Dylan squarely in the center (how’s that for a Dylanesque image?) of the political and cultural upheavals of that age. Of course, this is exactly where Dylan and his work belong.
Marqusee is something of a Dylan freak himself and admits as much in his introduction. He is also the author of one of the best books out there written about heavyweight champion and poet Muhammad Ali: Redemption Song. In fact, he peppers his work on Ali with references to Dylan’s songs and easily equates the two men’s influence and impact on the decade.
Marqusee opens the book with a description of the so-called early Dylan-a political broadsider, activist and heir to the legacy of the obviously political wing of the folk music revival then underway in the US and Britain. Woody Guthrie was not only Dylan’s model, Dylan was Guthrie reincarnated. His songs not only spoke of the anger that resided just underneath the hopes of civil rights activists-black and white-they pointed that anger not at an individual but a system. Even songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which tells the story of an African-American woman accidentally killed by a rich white slumlord for which she worked, does not point the finger at the killer. As Marqusee points out so eloquently, Dylan places that incident in the context of a system that not only encourages racism, but thrives on it. The final verse in the song points the blame at the system that gives the killer a mere six months for his crime of negligent homicide. This contextualization is further developed in the song “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” For those unfamiliar with the lyric, this is a song about the system’s tactic of divide and conquer-a tactic that keeps natural allies fighting amongst themselves for the crumbs that litter the floors where the rich and powerful sup.
In his discussion of these and other songs and their meaning, Marqusee equates Dylan’s development with that many people (mostly young) were simultaneously experiencing individually and collectively. The largest left political organizations-SNCC and SDS–representing black and white youth respectively, were also coming to a realization that what they were up against in their quest for social justice was not just a few individuals but a racist system that needed war to survive. Dylan lost his innocence along with the rest of his generation. His reaction to this loss was also shared with his audience cum compadres. Sometimes it was raging cynicism, sometimes it was a retreat into drug-fueled fantasy, and sometimes it was insurrection. And sometimes it was all three. Perhaps Marqusee explicates this best in his thoughts on the song he titles the book after: Chimes of Freedom.
It is the author’s contention that Dylan grew frustrated with being a mouthpiece for the left (This is a contention shared with most Dylan critics and even by Dylan himself). This frustration, along with a growing alienation from those who would attempt to define him, fuels a goodly amount of the next few years of Dylan’s repertoire. Tired of being “a pawn in (anybody’s) game,” Dylan began to explore the politics involved in the liberation of the personal. These are the years for which Dylan is best known: the years that brought Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde to the world’s turntables. The songs on these albums redefined rock music, popular music, new left politics, and were essential to the creation of the ethos of the counterculture. Marked by excess and clarity, noise and poetry, Dadaism and Rimbaudian symbolism, these three albums stand alone in Dylan’s tremendous output. Furthermore, argues Marqusee, they encapsulate the generation that Dylan never wanted to be a spokesperson for. It’s not that these songs eschew politics; it’s more like they move politics to a new level. Along with the efforts of the rest of those cultural workers writing and performing in the countercultural milieu, the new left politicos, and the freaks who inspired and responded to the former, there was a move afoot that hoped to make politics matter to the individual and the mass, and to change the world forever. Some of this was conscious and some of it just happened due to the confluence of action and thought.
Like other biographers/critics, Marqusee uses Dylan’s fabled 1966 motorcycle wreck near Woodstock, NY as his next critical marker. While the rest of America (and a good part of Europe) were either joining the counterculture revolution or reacting against it, Bob was reclaiming some personal calm and rediscovering his musical roots. He and some friends (The Hawks, soon to be The Band) sat in the basement of a house soon to be known as Big Pink and jammed. Pulling influences from the country and R&B songs he’d listened to on the radio in Hibbing, Minnesota late at night as a teenager, the hillbilly and delta blues tunes culled from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and the rock and roll al of them had been listening to since their teenage years, these men recorded over a hundred songs which were soon in circulation as illegal bootlegs. At the same time, Dylan was slowly pulling together the songs that would make up the apocalyptic collection that he would name John Wesley Harding.
By the way, Dylan never has been a spokesperson; he has always been a poet. Marqusee places him firmly in the lexicon of music, performance and politics that marked the period known as the Sixties. He also notes the transcendent nature of his works, constantly reminding the reader of the current relevancy of so many of Dylan’s forty-year-old (yes, forty) songs. Unfortunately, what this also means is that the political system that Dylan spent exposing in the Sixties is more entrenched than we thought. It also means that it’s up to those of us opposing that system to not make the same mistakes again. For some guidance in that exercise, one might do well to listen (closely) to “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.”
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org