Chimes of Freedom
A new Bob Dylan biography draws on seven songs to explore the folk singer’s most quintessentially American trait–his perpetual self-reinvention.
by Greil Marcus (Yale University Press, 288 pp., $23.99)
Bob Dylan is one of the few figures left in our fractured culture who pretty much everyone can agree on. He connects so many different currents of American life: a Jewish Midwesterner obsessed with Southern music who quite literally reinvented himself in the bustling Sixties-era Greenwich Village by melding Woody Guthrie’s pithy simplicity with the surreal poetic spontaneity of Allen Ginsberg.
Deeply countercultural yet a household name, clearly a man of the left yet refusing to wave any partisan flag, Dylan’s a worldly college dropout who declined to appear at his own Nobel Prize ceremony. He’s hit the sweet spot to which we all should aspire—remaining relevant for decades without catering to the public’s wishes. He’s been on the road for decades now, on the “never-ending tour,” playing the songs a different way every time, testing the tensile strength of words and melodies against the pressure of history.
Greil Marcus is an ideal person to have written a new book entitled Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs, his third book on Dylan and his nineteenth overall. Accurately referred to as “a supreme artist critic,” Marcus writes criticism like Dylan writes songs, with one foot firmly planted in a deep erudition about American culture and history and the other in a poetic, imaginative sensibility. He doesn’t just tell you the whys and wherefores of a particular song, though he certainly can. Marcus stretches out and uses his imaginative reaction to the words and then follows the connections that he makes. Marcus writes associatively, allusively, and in the process opens up new ways of experiencing art.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
If Bob Dylan didn’t exist, someone would probably want to invent him. After all, he did. Maybe his art gains in vitality because of his ability to radically change his approach every few years. This is unlike some of his peers who continue to offer up a reheated version of their still fun but once revolutionary work, singing all the way to the bank. I’m fascinated by his statement in the Martin Scorsese documentary about the legendary 1976 Rolling Thunder Revue tour that, “life isn’t about finding yourself. Or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself.” Not an easy standard for anyone to try to live up to. As a line from one of his greatest songs asserts, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” It’s an existentially challenging assertion, which is why I suspect that it might be true.
The insistence on perpetual self-reinvention places Dylan in the American grain. It has often been remarked that America—unlike many far older, tradition-steeped nations—simply hasn’t been around long enough to establish a fixed national identity. From the start, we have been in an incessant, polyphonic debate over just what America is and what it’s supposed to be. And history proves that the stakes can be extremely high indeed. To be an American is to figure it all out as you go, to create yourself in the midst of history’s clamor, to “take what you have gathered from coincidence,” in the words of another Dylan song.
Marcus has been listening to this debate and listening well. Folk Music takes seven songs as stepping stones into Dylan’s career. They range from well-known choices like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to Dylan’s version of the lesser-known Australian folk ballad “Jim Jones” and the brooding “Ain’t Talkin’” from his Modern Times album (the conclusion of what I’ve always seen as a masterful late 20th-century trilogy alongside the albums Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft). I was glad to see that he included the recent epic “Murder Most Foul” because juxtaposing the noirish paranoia of the Kennedy assassination with the rich tradition of American music fits in perfectly with Marcus’ holistic approach.
I’ve always thought of Marcus’ approach as a kind of lyrical criticism, which we don’t see enough in these days of just-the-facts, up or down consumer reports, or ideologically drenched analysis. “Interpretation is not necessary. Decoding is not necessary,” Marcus suggested to me over Zoom from his home in Oakland:
I think that’s an incredibly sterile way to experience art of any kind. And particularly to figure out what in the artist’s own life, in their biography, explains this or that instance of creation. If you experience or listen to songs in particular as what’s happening in them as events, things that take place in the world, in time, and then either remain in time or vanish in memory, if you listen that way, then you experience these things as they happen.
To explain the devastating line “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” that opens “Desolation Row” some critics might point out that lynchings had indeed occurred in Dylan’s grandparents’ Duluth community, and that postcards were indeed sold of the horrific event. In addition, Marcus speculates with moving plausibility that Dylan’s parents might have taken the young man aside, opened up a drawer, and shown him something he might need to know about. Lingering on that hypothetical moment speaks volumes about what might have reappeared a few years later at the beginning of one of his greatest songs. As Marcus says, “the world that Dylan creates in his songs is open. That’s why all kinds of characters, from literature, from movies, from real life, seem to flit in and out of the songs, depending on your mood.”
I’ll admit that I didn’t really get Dylan at first. Growing up in the Nineties, I had my suspicions that he was just some old hippie guy who wrote weird songs about getting stoned. When Columbia House randomly sent me a copy of the album Highway 61 Revisited, I confess that I couldn’t get past his voice (Philip Larkin called it “cawing, derisive”) or make heads or tails of the lyrics, and I ended up sending it back in disgust. It wasn’t until a friend insistently made me a mix tape that the scales fell from my ears.
There was something immediately gripping about “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” The starkness of the lyrics about starvation and misery and death, that gunslinger guitar line, and the utter lack of any neat moral resolution made my sullen teenage self sit up straight and give it my complete attention. I don’t remember any other song I’d heard before grabbing me by the throat like that and refusing to let go. And then “With God on Our Side” quietly and subtly pulled the rug out from underneath all the official narratives we are often told about man and god and law.
That also happens to have been the song that captivated Marcus when he first heard Dylan play it back in the febrile mid-Sixties, which he recalls as a time when culture mattered tremendously because the country was intensely clashing over what was happening in its name, over what it was becoming, over the story that it was going to tell itself. “You couldn’t talk about anything,” he writes, “without talking about everything else.”
Then there is the cinematically vivid story of power, violence, and race in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which also merits a chapter in Folk Music. Marcus’ extended comparison to Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” doesn’t do as much for me as finding out that the real life aristocratic tobacco farmer William Zantzinger really did beat a Black hotel worker named Hattie Carroll to death in a Baltimore hotel with a cane and got a shockingly short sentence for it. Discovering that he went on to “live an ugly life of privilege and fraud. . . . He never escaped the song. . . . To the end he cursed Dylan for making sure his name would outlive him” gives the song’s outrage a poignancy and moral urgency in these times. When Marcus quotes a painting depicting police brutality “carrying the title “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!”, the shiver of historical recognition is unmistakable.
One thing I will always cherish knowing thanks to this book—and that to my mind refutes the argument for separating art and the interpretation of it into lanes of age, race, or gender—is how both Mavis Staples and Malcolm X marveled at how this young white kid from the Midwest could have the insight to ask how many roads a man must walk down before you can call him a man. It was a pointed and all too relevant question when they looked at their own and previous generations of Black people trying to get by in a hostile land that denied their rights and full participation in society.
As Marcus told me,
People are always asking questions about authenticity and “Is this real?” Well, what’s more interesting to me is “can you make it real?” Can you cast a spell in which the listener feels as if they’re in a different world, in a different dimension, and that all the aspects of that different world come into bright focus, you really see where you are. And it’s not somewhere you’ve ever been before.
Maybe Dylan’s visionary quality has to do with superb technical skill; maybe it’s radical empathy, or maybe it proves that in the particular is contained the universal, as Joyce used to say. Dylan himself apparently said that the songs sometimes came to him unbidden, and somehow appeared almost fully formed. So maybe they really were blowin’ in the wind after all.
To understand what America gets right you must first understand what’s wrong with it. Dylan’s contrasts and contradictions, his ability to criticize America bitterly while being as representative an American figure as one could ask for, are our contradictions. They are what make him a national bard, on the level of Twain, Whitman, or Baldwin, who he is photographed conferring with on the first page of Folk Music. The times are always changing because that’s what they do, they have no choice but to, that’s just how it goes. It’s true that America doesn’t always love or appreciate its artists—yet another distinction from other counties—but that only increases the urgency of listening, because we need an effective way of explaining ourselves to ourselves more than ever. Let us not talk falsely now; the hour is getting late.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor of American Purpose and The Arts Fuse, Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine. His work has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and Three Quarks Daily.
Image: A mural of Bob Dylan by Eduardo Kobra, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Hennepin Theatre Trust)
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