It’s protest music: Bob Dylan at 80
“If you want to remember yourself, you better write down the names,” says a line from “Murder Most Foul”, Bob Dylan’s incantatory, delirious and visionary from the Kennedy assassination to America’s nightmare. , and the rest of the song evokes her world, through a continuous loop of borrowed, stolen and reworked phrases from the American songbook. Sinatra rubs against Stan Getz, Howlin ‘Wolf against Patsy Cline, black freedom lore against white jingles of Tin Pan Alley.
“Murder Most Foul”, with its reinvention of the United States and its myths – Kennedy’s Camelot as the most obviously liberal age, and what Jordy Cummings, in brilliant read, calls “the monstrosity that is American society” – arrived in the midst of last year’s lockout, the gloom and grime of its subject matter and its tone corresponding to the moment just like the exhilaration of its music (and the reminder that Dylan was always there, always creating, always urging us to “stay safe, stay alert”) helped ease the claustrophobia and fear of those weeks. The song is built, over more than fifteen minutes, from a murderous ballad and an investigation into the wreckage of “the american centuryIn a self-referential guide to listening to the music of Dylan herself, a way to work on your own poetry in a self-generated tradition:
Play “Misty” for me and “That Old Devil Moon”
Play “Anything Goes” and “Memphis in June”
Play “Lonely at the Top” and “Lonely Are the Brave”
Play for Houdini who turns in his grave
Play Jelly Roll Morton, play “Lucille”
Play “Deep in a Dream” and “Driving Wheel”
Play “Moonlight Sonata” in F-sharp
And “Key to the Highway” for the king of the harp
Play “Marching Through Georgia” and “Dumbarton’s Drums”
Play dark and death will come when it comes
Play “Love Me or Leave Me” by the great Bud Powell
Play “The Blood-Stained Banner”, play “Murder Most Foul”
The insistent and repetitive imperatives that structure this stanza give it ritual power. But also notice what Dylan brings up. Jazz and blues, creations of black America, are evoked by Bud Powell, Jelly Roll Morton, Big Bill Broonzy, and put in aural relationship with white musicians transformed by jazz (Sinatra) and classical songs (“Misty ») Which are now part of Black and White Songbooks. “Marching Through Georgia” is a song by the Revolutionary Civil War Union, while “The Bloodstained Banner” is a phrase that once conjured up the Confederate rag and, more recently, has become a key phrase for Christian devotion in black spiritual music and Christian missions for the social reform of the working class, organization of trade union rights and migrant rights.
The dystopian lyrics of death, murder and loss somehow produce a utopian image of anti-racist unity in American sounds; just as “Marching Through Georgia” promised that the Union’s struggle “would bring jubilee” in its defeat of southern slavery, “Murder Most Foul” offers a voice in a musical tradition, the one it creates. It is the sound of freedom itself.
If that sounds contradictory, it’s: Dylan, like his inspiration Walt Whitman, “embraces multitudes”. For 25 years, his albums have developed this difficult and intoxicating combination. Song after song draws on, recognizes and permeates the music of the black freedom struggle – from “If You Ever Go to Houston” (2009) and its borrowings from “The Midnight Special”, to “High Water (2001) and his tribute to Charley Paton, the early 20th century Delta Blues musician, to last year’s “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”.
Rough and turbulent ways (2020), Storm (2012), Together through life (2009), Love and flight (2001) and Wasted time (1997) create the soundtrack of an imagined America, filled with half-remembered lines, glowing images, sounds echoing the half-forgotten sources of folk songs, white and black, country music tracks, poems and phrases from movies.
From the murder of Emmett Till to Times are changing ‘ (1964), at the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, when a white mob carried out a pogrom on the city’s “Black Wall Street” in Rough and turbulent ways (2020), Dylan’s is a moralistic recording of America’s racist brutality and cruelty. Nothing of the culture is lost in Dylan, and nothing fades; like Shakespeare’s Ariel in another Storm, he has the capacity to make it undergo a radical change “into something rich and strange”. Borrowing, reworking, re-imagining, projecting connections: this has also been a constant for 60 years. The first track from Dylan’s debut album, after all, is Jesse Fuller’s “You’re No Good”, while his most famous song, “Blowin ‘in the Wind,” takes inspiration from the dark wit and response. to slavery, “No More Auction Block”.
Too much writing on Dylan focuses on the 1960s itself, when the artist’s project and outlook were fundamentally set. Better, if you follow the music, listen to it all as a response to a formation of the “long” radical 1950s: the decade of the Montgomery bus boycott, the murder of Emmett Till, Brown vs. Board of Education, the Birmingham campaign, the 1963 march on Washington (in which Dylan sang). The deep and massive radicalization of a generation of black workers, in turn inspiring solidarity responses from a layer of young white activists, has changed American culture in a lasting and generative way.
The tradition of freedom – from anti-slavery rebellion and civil war to sit-ins and civil rights marches – has always had music, culture and oratory linked in its organization and turmoil. And the self-expression of blacks, from Miles Davis in jazz to Muhammed Ali in sports, showed performances of self-respect, dignity and confidence that could only have political resonance as signs of the way freedom could live. This energy, explosive in itself, jumped through stations, barriers and audiences too, making Elvis Presley’s music thinkable, shocking all streams of modern and contemporary popular music into life.
Is it any wonder that a middle-class boy from a Jewish family in Minnesota, himself displaced to the suburb of WASP, and an even more outsider amid the anti-Semitism of American society at large, could to find this wild mercury electrifying? Of course, cafes and folk revival mattered too, and, via Woody Guthrie, some echoes of the Old Left and the Popular Front played their part in Dylan’s formation, but it all can be overstated. Folk music could never hold the attention of an artist in the decade of civil rights; you can’t dance to it, on the one hand, and its deafening orthodoxies couldn’t accommodate the wayward energies that the youth rebellion, anti-racist insurgency, and shifting cultural allegiances demanded.
Dylan’s official words have always been politically ambivalent anyway, and “the answer is in the wind” is not really a claim to trample on a pace of protest. Instead, listen to the “sound of wild mercury” and hear how, in the words of Jordy Cumming, “his protests were not for the movement, but for the movement.” Cummings, in a beautiful phrase, calls him “a cognitive mapper of the new left,” his ear keen for stray and unhoused sounds and snatches of speech mapping an America that could be.
Or maybe again. Dylan’s rapprochement of working-class white cultural forms in country, hillbilly and folk music with the energies of the Black Freedom Struggle soundtrack in spirituals, blues and idea (if not a audible affiliation) of jazz may have shown, in music, forms of unity and reconstruction that political struggle could recreate. The color line, in music as in so many in America, was created and applied to serve racist business interests.
Country music was separate in the imagination by an industry that is afraid of what “racing music” could do to its audience; contemporary black country musicians love Rhiannon giddens, Priscilla renea and Leyla mccalla recapture previously broken connections, rather than settling into a “white” creative space. It’s also telling that some of the best renditions of Dylan’s love songs – indulgent, misanthropic, often misogynist, and boring in her own renditions – come from performers shaped by the struggle for freedom: Nina Simone, Mavis Staples, Odetta, Betty LaVette, Miriam Makeba.
Never trust the storyteller, trust the story: as with the massively richest stars, Dylan’s political statements and formal opinions have, over the past half-century, ranged from mundane to boorish (“everything this foreign oil / control of American soil ”) to the reactionary. None of this really matters, however. We don’t look to political theory to discover the beauty of life, and we don’t approach music for strategic analysis. Listening, on the contrary, to the chimes of freedom flashing through 60 years of music shaped by the possibilities of vision offered by the struggle for freedom, we are fortunate to hear music giving an indictment, despite itself at times. , of the America that is now and, in its elusive, slippery and clacking sounds, a promise of what true liberation could be.