Dylan’s America


For this Fourth of July, I’m sitting with young Dylan at a reading room in the New York Public Library scrolling through newspapers from 1855-1865: “There is a riot in New York where two hundred people are killed outside the Metropolitan Opera House because an English actor has taken the place of an American one.”

In the build-up years to the Civil War newspapers portray a certain would-be Senator from Illinois as a baboon. No way to suspect what Lincoln would become. “Anti-slave labor advocates inflaming crowds in Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Cleveland, that if the Southern states are allowed to rule, the Northern factory owners would then be forced to use slaves as free laborers.” Defeat the South, save our jobs! “This causes riots, too.”

Writes Dylan, “You wonder how people so united by geography and religious ideals could become such bitter enemies.” What was the Civil War about? For Dylan’s friend Van Ronk, “It was one big battle between two rival economic systems is what it was.” Slave system vs. imperialist capital.

If Van Ronk was correct post-war Reconstruction in the South would stand for imperialism at its progressive best — the kind of thing one might believe could work better in Baghdad than it did in Dallas. But then again, Baghdad had no General Lee. On Lee’s word and Lee’s word alone, writes Dylan, “America did not get into a guerilla war that probably would have lasted ’til this day.”

For Dylan’s friend Ray who was a “nonintegrator and Southern nationalist” the Civil War was a useless war, a tragic reversal of history. Sure slavery was evil Ray agreed, but it would have died a natural death anyway, Lincoln or no Lincoln. “I heard him say it,” recalls Dylan, “and thought it was a mysterious and bad thing to say, but if he said it, he said it and that’s all there is to it.” Ray was as much anti-slavery as he was anti-union (as in anti-United States.) And he smoked opium.

If you took a Van Ronk angle on Ray, between slavery and imperial capital, there was no comfortable choice, and certainly no historic destiny worth living for. From the reconstruction period Southern white gents simply learned to seize the post-colonial attitude, re-making their racial order in the image of credit banking. In return for Lee’s peace pact, token attempts at de-Dixification died quickly in Washington from lack of zeal, just as de-Baathification would fall hard on its face in Washington were a General Lee good enough to appear in Falluja.

For Dylan himself, the Civil War was also a battle between two kinds of time: “In the South, people lived their lives with sun-up, high noon, sunset, spring, summer. In the North people lived by the clock. The factory stroke, whistles and bells.” It must have been a Southerner who coined the term “New York minute” to describe the Northern kind of time — yes the kind of time that forges capital into imperialism, post-colonialism, and oh-so-helpless-hand-wringing-witness to Jim Crow or Abu Ghraib, whichever.

“After a while,” says Dylan, “you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.” And the archetype for this sort of story is found in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. “Back there, America was put on the cross, died, and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The god-awful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.”

Resurrection without synthesis. Crucifixion upon the cross of the Fourth of July. This is the underlying song of the great American folksinger. Why he must die in his shoes.

“In American history class,” recalls Dylan, “we were taught that commies couldn’t destroy America with guns or bombs alone, that they would have to destroy the Constitution — the document that this country was founded upon. It didn’t make any difference though. When the drill sirens went off, you had to lay under your desk facedown, not a muscle quivering and not make any noise.”

“Living under a cloud of fear like this robs a child of his spirit,” says the author of Masters of War. “It’s one thing to be afraid when someone’s holding a shotgun on you, but it’s another thing to be afraid of something that’s just not quite real. There were a lot of folks around who took this threat seriously, though, and it rubbed off on you. It was easy to become a victim of their strange fantasy.”

Dylan’s counterpunch against the “lame as hell big trick American mainstream culture” was the folksong. “There was nothing easygoing about the folksongs I sang. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic.” He foraged the songs from fellow singers, from 78 records, from archives. He would pitch them fast and hard to his audiences, practicing live in front of people because he couldn’t bear up to the experience of practicing alone in some room somewhere rehearsing for who knows who?

In Irish folksongs especially, Dylan found the rebel voice. “There were songs like that in my repertoire, too, where something lovely was suddenly upturned, but instead of rebellion showing up it would be death itself, the Grim Reaper. Rebellion spoke to me louder.” But Ireland was not an American landscape, and in order to translate the rebel songs he turned to the library. “I needed to slow my mind down if I was going to be a composer with anything to say.”

As we know, everything worked out pretty well. Dylan became that composer he was looking for. America was ready to rock. And in a passage that I’m having difficulty locating right now, Dylan says acid was helping to move history in the right way.

But what happens next is really hard to say. Dylan describes a life run over by American feet, grabbed up by American hands, and tossed around by American voices. The composer who would write resurrection songs for rebel America found himself projected into some kind of leader. Identity he had created was made into identity he needed to destroy. So he rebelled against his own alienation.

At this point you have to know more than is possible to know, but I think about the scene in the Oliver Stone movie The Doors when Jim Morrison gets the quivers in the experience of a chanting crowd. There is a quasi-fascist tingle in American adoration that the strongest leaders know to reject. To Dylan’s credit, he got really sick of it, as if the very thing that his songs rejected was being taken up, stitched together and brought to him to wear.

On the other hand, America has weak leaders too, who stitch together for themselves costumes of quasi-fascist adoration. They can be any kind of leader with a name. You praise the Lord in America if you don’t have one of these creatures for your boss. Whereas great folk songs from the Dylan point of view are ever busy tearing the clothes off of this kind of power, there is another kind of music that puts people in the marching mood.

So here I sit on the Fourth of July, slowing down my mind. On this day in particular, I want nothing of the marching kind, certainly none of that music. Give me a 22 verse folk song where a vicious hammer splits open a rebel’s resurrection, yes over and over again.

Source: Bob Dylan. Chronicles: Volume One. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net


















Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. Moses is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com