Bob Dylan returns to the north country

The birth and death of Bob Dylan's Americana dream

Ironically, it was soon after his mid-'60s renaissance that Dylan's most "American" songs arrived. They were weird, funny, beautiful, and irreverent — and they overflowed with mystery, death, and sadness. These "Basement Tapes" songs were never finished and never intended to be heard. What better elegy could there be to our country, in all of its in escapable contradictions?

If those songs, now almost 50 years removed, and long-since canonized, have become overly familiar, Bob Dylan's messages should be no less powerful. But in the ensuing years, Dylan himself became a stranger in his own land, a person that we today barely recognize as human. We've combed his life and music so thoroughly for meaning — instead of looking in that ol' mirror ourselves — that there's nothing left of him but an emaciated shell.

Dylan keeps making music, and even at this late date — he's now 72 years old — it receives consistent acclaim. But they aren't the songs of the man who wrote "It's Alright Ma," or even "Hattie Carroll." They couldn't be — not only because he isn't the same man anymore, but because those songs aren't really even his anymore.

We've become the country that Bob Dylan once warned us about
courtesy of the artist
We've become the country that Bob Dylan once warned us about


AmericanaramA features Bob Dylan, My Morning Jacket, Wilco, and Richard Thompson playing a sold-out show on Wednesday, July 10, at Midway Stadium; 651.646.1679

So, rather than giving us a warning, or holding up a mirror with a wrinkled hand, Dylan plays a different trick: He writes songs that aren't really his. He writes songs about historical events, about wars and shipwrecks and dead famous people. Sometimes he literally uses other peoples' words — say, a forgotten 19th-century poet — but it's really just the language of those old traditional songs, a language that no one owns because it belongs to everyone.

We cast the shell of Dylan in bronze, give it awards and honors, and parade it around. All the while we're projecting onto him all the ideals we pretend to see in ourselves — as an individualist, as a philosopher, as a patriot. When we applaud him, we're applauding one of our own: a Minnesotan by birth, and an American by pedigree. But each honor only accentuates the distance between who we think we are and who we really are, and just how incapable we are of achieving our collective dream, the American Dream.

Which brings us to the AmericanaramA tour, featuring two Dylan acolytes, Wilco and My Morning Jacket. It's a name that seems quainter than it really is, an artifact that represents a country (or a singer) that used to be, but no longer is. Or perhaps one that just never was, outside of our own romanticized conception of it.

In truth, Dylan is also a shell of the performer that he once was, his voice a raw, gnarled growl. (When he says, on "Pay in Blood" from 2012's Tempest, "I pay in blood, but not my own," it seems more than likely that he's spilled plenty of his own.) But in turn, he uses that voice to reinvent even his oldest songs once more, stripping them of their uniqueness and blending each into a mass that's sinister, weathered, and unfamiliar. It may be nostalgia that brings us through the gates, but it's not what Dylan is content to give us.

In ways even subtler than those definitive "statements" of the 1960s, what these songs show us is the America that we always thought ourselves to be. It's an unruly, mythic place filled with hope and possibility — manifest destiny even — and not just the coldness of predestination, resignation, and ones and zeroes.

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