Bob Dylan returns to the north country
"Folk music," Bob Dylan once said, " is a bunch of fat people. I have to think of [my music] as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There's nobody that's going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people's brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels — they're not going to die."
He said so in 1966, in an interview with Playboy magazine. They were strange words, not only for their apparent flippancy, but because, at the time, he was seen both as the arbiter of folk rock and the angel of death for folk music.
And yet today Dylan — a man so far removed from the man who spoke those words — lives essentially by his own wisdom. His "traditional" music — which he's bringing back home to Minnesota this week under the guise of the AmericanaramA Festival of Music — continues to channel those same stories, those same myths and fantasies, the same ones that inform our sense of ourselves and country, our roots and inheritances.
The only thing is, the way that Dylan tells those stories, and what they say to us, has changed greatly over the years. He can no longer speak the same language. To understand why is to understand that we've become the country that Dylan once warned us about.
There was a time — around the time of that Playboy interview, in fact — when Dylan held a mirror up to the rest of us. And most didn't like what they saw. They even cried "Judas" — "the most hated name in human history," as he reminded Rolling Stone in 2012.
Sure, his voice was nasally, and the words were abstract — but more than that, the effect was surreal, disconcerting, sometimes ugly. Even so, it was all too easy to refuse to think critically of ourselves, and blame the ugliness we saw on others. So when Dylan held that mirror up, it was not only a reflection of what was around him, but a warning about a time when we would be paralyzed by such deferrals of guilt.
It was one thing when the story was told in the manner of, say, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" from 1964's The Times They Are A-Changin'. The moral was clear: We could listen and readily disapprove of the song's wealthy, racist, and murderous antagonist, and distance ourselves from the rest of the William Zantzingers of the world. But it was another, just a year later, when Dylan delivered the startling and terrifying combination of "Gates of Eden" and "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." Here, the images eschewed morals, at least in any clear-cut, black-and-white fashion. The "flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark" and "motorcycle black Madonnas" were visions of hell, masqueraded as holy.
On a certain level, these verses were all simple enough. We called them commentary on consumerism, a condemnation of the "establishment," and those things were easy enough to rail against. But underneath we were all complicit, not only for our own prejudices and indulgences, but for our own willful ignorance, and insistence on hearing what reaffirmed our own worldviews — much like the soldier who "sticks his head in sand and then complains." Self-righteousness became the new bigotry.
The Zantzingers of today need not kill their servants anymore; a young black man can be shot in the street just for wearing a hooded sweatshirt. And when someone murders a room full of schoolchildren, it serves only to make us cling more dearly to our own firearms. Above us, the corporate-funded masters of war indifferently lead our nation — mostly too deep in factions for effective governance. Meanwhile, we entrench ourselves as well, pick one side or the other, and drift further from engaging in times that are a-changin'.
Dylan demonstrated his own distaste for such pettiness on "Desolation Row," one of the many examples of his taking characters, both real and fictional, and rewriting their histories. In a world where the powers that be snuffed out their enemies in secret, the public were too busy arguing with each other, "shouting, 'Which side are you on?'" All of which Dylan found tedious: "These people that you mention," he scoffed, "yes, I know them; they're quite lame."
Thus, saying that Dylan was ever a poet, much less a prophet, was always misguided. Such words convey an exaggerated import for his work, not to mention that they belie his craft. He's a musician, after all. Like so much other great art, his was effective because of the possibilities that it opened up, not because it could be reduced or defined. Naturally, being called the "voice of a generation" never sat well with him.
And so it was that Dylan destroyed who he was, with a motorcycle accident that may or may not have even happened, and withdrew into himself. He would never be the same man again, although he would become many others. None of them, however, would hold that mirror up to the rest of us the same way again.
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.
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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