[Marxism] Bob Dylan

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 10 07:15:54 MDT 2005

Bob Dylan's Chronicles Volume One
by Louis Proyect
Book Review

Dylan, Bob: Chronicles Volume One, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2004, ISBN 
0-7432-2815-2, 293 pages, $14.00 (paperback)

(Swans - October 10, 2005)   As accustomed as we have become to the hyping 
of Bob Dylan over the years, it might come as a surprise to discover that 
volume one of Chronicles, now available in paperback, deserves all the 
accolades it has received. Named as one of the best books of 2004 by the 
New York Times, the Washington Post, the London Guardian and other 
prestigious newspapers and magazines, it demonstrates that Dylan still has 
enormous talents although arguably singing and songwriting are no longer 
among them.

With the arrival of the paperback version of Chronicles and Martin 
Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home on PBS this year, it is a good 
opportunity to reevaluate this seminal figure of the 1960s. Given Dylan's 
propensity for superciliousness, irony and evasion (bred no doubt by early 
encounters with a hostile and ignorant press,) Chronicles is a good place 
to start since it is marked by a gentle wit, graciousness and warmth.

Although volume one only deals with the very beginning of Dylan's career 
and episodes from his more recent and lackluster years, it gives the reader 
a very good sense of the creative process, which is always something one 
expects from an artist's memoir, but is frequently missing. We learn about 
the sources of Dylan's art as well as how he transformed these influences. 
His ability to understand and document this process makes for a stunning 
portrait of the creative process. Dylan writes:

     I can't say when it occurred to me to write my own songs. I couldn't 
have come up with anything comparable or halfway close to the folk song 
lyrics I was singing to define the way I felt about the world. I guess it 
happens to you by degrees. You just don't wake up one day and decide that 
you need to write songs, especially if you're a singer who has plenty of 
them and you're learning more every day. Opportunities may come along for 
you to convert something -- something that exists into something that 
didn't yet. That might be the beginning of it. Sometimes you just want to 
do things your way, want to see for yourself what lies behind the misty 
curtain. It's not like you see songs approaching and invite them in.

These words preface a discussion of the Industrial Workers of the World 
folksinger and martyr Joe Hill, who Dylan learned about through the anthem 
I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill after arriving in New York and who he describes as 
a "Messianic figure who wanted to abolish the wage system of capitalism." 
(This phrase and countless others like it belie a sympathy for a radical 
politics that supposedly Dylan had parted company with decades ago. We will 
explore this question in greater depth later in this article.)

After weighing the merits of protest songs like I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill 
and others like it, Dylan explains how he would have gone about writing his 
own version:

     I fantasized that if I had written the song, I would have immortalized 
him in a different way -- more like Casey Jones or Jesse James. You would 
have had to. I thought about it two ways. One way was to title the song 
"Scatter My Ashes Anyplace but Utah" and make that line the refrain. The 
other way to do it was like the song "Long Black Veil," a song where a man 
talks from the grave ... a song from the underworld. This is a ballad where 
a man gives up his life not to disgrace a certain woman and has to pay for 
somebody else's crime because of what he can't say. The more I thought 
about it, "Long Black Veil" seemed like it could have been a song written 
by Joe Hill himself, his very last one.

In essence, this is what marked Dylan apart from his contemporaries in the 
folk music revival of the early 1960s. He was looking for a fresh way to 
address "topical" questions. As pointed out by Irish folksinger Tommy Makem 
in Scorsese's film, a Dylan song would often sound both contemporary and 
several centuries old at the same time. "Masters of War," a song that 
appears on the 1963 album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," is a case in point 
as the concluding verses would indicate:

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

The words "I will follow your casket in the pale afternoon" have a 
profound, almost Elizabethan resonance. At the same time they evoke 
"Stagger Lee," the song performed by blues and folk musicians alike:

Stagolee stood on the gallows, head way up high
Twelve o'clock, they killed him, we were all glad to see him die
That bad man, cruel Stagolee

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy29.html



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