Bob Dylan, a Genius Among Us
Amid America’s cultural upheaval, some things remain constant.
Summer begins and it may be a hard one. Lots of pain in this big place.
The cultural upheaval continues, the plague marches on, a bitter election looms. This is a good time to think about something noble and inspiring, the life and work of Bob Dylan. He has an album out this week, his first with original material since 2012, called “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
Mr. Dylan wrote his most famous anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” in 1962. He has been operating at the top of American culture and embedded in the national consciousness for almost 60 years. You have to go back to Robert Frost and Mark Twain to find such a span of sustained literary productivity and importance.
Like Twain and Frost his great subject is America. Like them he is a genius: He did work of high artistic merit that had never been done before and won’t be replicated. For me, having known his work since I was young, his work is grave, wistful, rollocking, full of meaning and true. Also, obviously, prophetic, as if he were picking up big clear waves of themes in the electrical static all around us. “The battle outside ragin’ / Will soon shake your windows / And rattle your walls / For the times they are a-changin’.”
That was true when he wrote it and is true today. Great art is always about right now. It time-travels. Mr. Dylan’s music never settles down into an era, it’s dynamic, it’s like hearing the past in active conversation with the future.
There are two things you have to do if you have big ambitions and want to create something important that lasts. The first is the daily work and trying to keep it at a height that satisfies you. That’s hard. If you succeed, the second is dealing with the effects of the work, managing a career. That’s tricky. It involves making big, real-time decisions about pathways and ways of being. You have to figure out if an opportunity is a true opening or an easy way out; if a desire for security has the potential to become a betrayal of yourself and the thing God gave you, your gift.
Mr. Dylan seems to have handled all this by following to an almost radical degree the dictates of his essential nature and talent, and doing the work as he envisions it day to day. You can wind up being a hero one decade and a joke the next when you choose that route, and that’s happened to him. But in the end, this: In October 2016, he became the first writer of songs to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
What a great figure.
In his autobiography, “Chronicles,” Mr. Dylan writes of how one night, when he was starting out playing the clubs in New York in the 1960s, he stumbled on a man who’d been stabbed to death. The blood made interesting patterns in the snow. This reminded Mr. Dylan of old photos of the Civil War. He began to study the war, deeply. Its meaning would shape him: “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.”
He loves the mythic, fabulous figures of U.S. history. On the first page of his autobiography he writes of meeting Jack Dempsey. “Don’t be afraid of hitting somebody too hard,” the old boxer, taking him for a bantamweight, advised him. On “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” Mr. Dylan sings of William Tecumseh Sherman and George Patton, “who cleared the way for Presley to sing / who cleared the path for Martin Luther King.” It’s as if it’s all a continuum in which America’s outsize and spectacular beings clear the way and pave the path for the renegades and revolutionaries who will follow.
Mr. Dylan has the soul of a worker, a craftsman who has learned his craft. He spoke of this in February 2015, when he received the Person of the Year award from MusiCares Foundation. Rolling Stone later printed a transcript taken, the magazine said, from Mr. Dylan’s notes.
“These songs didn’t come out of thin air,” he said. He learned how to write lyrics from listening to folk songs over and over. He studied them, absorbed them, sang “The Ballad of John Henry, ” the steel-driving man with the hammer in his hand. “If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ too.” He said his intention was “extending the line,” continuing the music he loved by internalizing it and turning it into his own words, thoughts and stories.
In a New York Times interview last weekend, the historian Douglas Brinkley asked Mr. Dylan about the musical tributes he’d done to John Lennon. Is there anyone else he wants to write a ballad for?
Some public figures “are just in your subconscious for one reason or another,” he said. “None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written. They just fall down from space. I’m just as bewildered as anybody else as to why I write them.”
Writers are often asked how they get their ideas, and the language with which they express them. The truth is they don’t know. Why did your mind yield up that thought in those words? Walker Percy thought when he got something right the Holy Spirit had snuck into him.
Mr. Dylan doesn’t know where it comes from. Sometimes you write “on instinct,” he told Mr. Brinkley. “Kind of in a trance state.” His recent songs are like that: “The lyrics are the real thing, tangible, they’re not metaphors. The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”
Mr. Dylan more and more speaks of fellow artists — fellow workers — with great tenderness. He reminds me of what Pope John Paul II said, that artists know a special pain because they imagine a work and see it in their heads but can never execute it perfectly, can never achieve what they’d imagined, and forever carry the anguish of unmet ambition.
Mr. Dylan looked up to Nina Simone, “an overwhelming artist.” When she recorded his songs, it “validated” him. “Johnny Cash was a giant of a man, the Man in Black.” When Mr. Dylan was criticized, Cash defended him in letters to magazines. In Cash’s world nobody told a man what to do, especially an artist. Little Richard was a man of “high character”: “He was there before me. Lit a match under me.” Why didn’t people appreciate his gospel music? “Probably because gospel music is the music of good news and in these days there just isn’t any. Good news in today’s world is like a fugitive, treated like a hoodlum and put on the run. Castigated. All we see is good-for-nothing news… . On the other hand, gospel news is exemplary. It can give you courage.”
We can forget: There are geniuses among us. They’re doing their work and bringing their light. Remembering this is encouraging.
Also Bob Dylan needed freedom to be Bob Dylan. Lose that and you lose everything.
But isn’t it good that he’s here? Rock on, Bob Dylan. Your work adorns us.
Republished with permission from peggynoonan.com.
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