[The following was delivered, by Paul Buhle, to an audience of 150 Brown undergraduates preparing to watch the first night of the Dylan special directed by Martin Scorsese, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, 26 September 2005.]
In my young political lifetime, from being your age to twice your age, there were three great individual singers who expressed the ideas of the age.
The third one was Bruce Springsteen, who told us all about the disillusionment sweeping across America during the 1970s.
The second was one not all of you have heard, Jimmy Cliff, whose work on the soundtrack album of the film The Harder They Come was the last but most inspirational tone of what might happen, or might have happened, if the world could be redeemed by the Reggae beat.
But the first was Bob Dylan. I’m a historian of popular culture, so I will take up a few minutes of your time to talk about Bob Dylan’s importance to American culture and the world culture of youth forty years ago, about his determined effort not to be made into a symbol instead of a creative artist, and what he meant to us, my generation, through a decade of civil rights, antiwar movements, marijuana, LSD, love, sex, friendship, struggle, and despair.
Your generation is bound to enjoy and absorb his work differently. But as the work of Shakespeare, or Louis Armstrong, or Katherine Hepburn is also going to retain many of the same artistic and social messages through the passage of generations and centuries, so does and will the work of Bob Dylan.
I was reminded of this sharply just a little over two years ago, as the US prepared for another invasion of a small country far away. “Masters of War” is not a terribly complex song, and it represents a style that belongs most to Bobby Zimmerman, a few years away from Hibbing, Minnesota, and the folksinger that Zimmerman was just becoming.
But during two months of 2003, I saw a political comic-book version of “Masters of War,” and heard a slam poetry version of it, both by artists under 25. They heard the same message that I heard back in 1964, and for very good reasons: the Masters of War are still the Masters of War, they are involved in the most profitable business in the history of the world, and they are much in control of the White House and Congress. Just as they were then.
I find myself playing “The Chimes of Freedom Flashing” and other civil rights material in classes at Brown, in order to explain the evocation of emotion around the bombing of the schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama, because, to this day, the sensitivity of Bob Dylan’s interpretation of racial events shaking the country, with repercussions far beyond, is astounding. He really captured something about the civil rights struggle pushing the whole society forward as it compelled Americans to look at themselves in the mirror the way they had not wanted to do.
The emerging Bob Dylan who broke with that Bob Dylan by turning up the amps at the Newport Folk Festival, forty years ago, was already speaking to something different, to something that was not just political protest, peace, and love. If we didn’t know that “Rainy Day Women” was about marijuana, we learned pretty soon, and the songs that were cryptically about his affair with folky Joan Baez were expressing some of the tensions between men and women that would acquire articulation, from women’s side, in the women’s movement.
Something else happens within him, too, of course. The so-called Bob Dylan of underground comix, my friend Robert Crumb, observed to me that when a million young people call you God, you are lucky just to be alive in a few years. The pressure is too much.
We may hear Bob Dylan say, somewhere in this documentary, what he told a reporter around 1990, to the effect that he didn’t know what he had when he had it, he didn’t know how he lost it, and he didn’t know if he’d ever get it back.
My own view is that he hadn’t yet looked as deeply inside himself, analytically, as he might if he were someone else, a different kind of person. And that’s all right. We should not demand that an artist who is a lyricist and musician also be a deep political thinker, any more than we should expect him to be a film director, or anything else.
What we do know, what we can say, is that he is an American Jew, but to say that is to say something potentially large. Jewish Americans, in polls conducted during the 1960s, were more completely against the US war on Vietnam than any other population except for African-Americans, and that fact remains the same today, in regard to the US war on Iraq. Official Jewish instititons overwhelmingly supported the War then as now. The preparations for war that was bound to come had already alerted Bobby Zimmerman before he became Bob Dylan — he had to deal with some deep, deep contradictions within America and within American Jewishness.
Young Jews Dylan’s age in the early1960s and those younger also embraced the principle of anti-racism in ways that shocked and offended large parts of the older generation, Jews along with Gentiles. He was already looking at Amercan culture upside down, from their point of view, and rejecting the suburban prosperity of two automobiles in the garage that defined the consumer way of life by 1960.
There is something else to say about American Jewishness, and it is my last point tonight. The disproportional role of Jews in many areas of popular culture, music to films and television among others, has always been a subject of controversy. But I have written that because of the diaspora experience and associated suffering and persecution, Jewish popular artists have been able to articulate the sentiments of many millions of others, and to allow others to hear and see images of themselves. It is a historic gift and opportunity, and responsibility, for those who make it their way in the world.
Many, tragically, have used it only for their own advantage, to try to become rich and powerful. But many have had a different purpose. I’m thinking about the victims of the Hollywood blacklist who I interviewed before they died. I’m thinking about my friend, genius playwright Tony Kushner, or another friend with a different kind of genius, Harvey Pekar. And about many others.
Bob Dylan is a person of many contradictions. But he is a serious artist, a universal artist as well as a Jewish artist. Listen and learn. Thank you.
Paul Buhle, currently a lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University, is author or editor of twenty-seven books on radicalism, labor, and popular culture, including five volumes on the films of the Hollywood blacklistees. Most recently, he coedited Wobblies: A Graphic History (2005) and The New Left Revisited (2003), winner of an American Library Association’s Choice Academic Book Award. He has written for The Nation, Times Higher Education Supplement, The Guardian, and the Journal of American History, among others. He founded the journal Radical America (1967-95), the Oral History of the American Left project (New York University), and the Community and Labor Oral History project of Rhode Island.