LOS ANGELES — Bob Dylan has been lauded so often as “the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll” that even the man himself, who for decades protested the notion that he was speaking for anything but his own musical muse, eventually caved and now incorporates the phrase into the voice-over introduction at his own concerts.
This week, a massive new four-CD tribute album, “Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International,” amplifies that sentiment with recordings by 80 artists of 75 of his songs that demonstrate his influence not just on his own generation but on several succeeding ones.
The new album, which arrives Tuesday and from which proceeds will benefit Amnesty International’s ongoing efforts to free political prisoners around the world, brings together numerous unlikely musical bedfellows: It finds room for 92-year-old folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger and 19-year-old pop princess Miley Cyrus; brash punk-rock band Bad Religion and elegant jazz standard-bearer Diana Krall; indie-rock group Silversun Pickups and chamber music’s boundary-bending Kronos Quartet.
And it raises a question, arriving as it does in conjunction with this year’s 100th anniversary activities marking the birth of Dylan’s preeminent musical influence, rabble-rousing troubadour Woody Guthrie, who also is being saluted by a raft of musicians affected by his deft explorations of social and political issues: Could 2012 become the year that pop music rediscovers its political conscience?
The music of Dylan and Guthrie has been used prominently in “Occupy” protests across this country and at game-changing political uprisings in other countries. And these projects surrounding their work come just in time for what looks to be an exceptionally volatile presidential election year, one that comes on the heels of last year’s Arab Spring protests that toppled long-entrenched repressive governments in several countries and helped foment myriad “Occupy” demonstrations in the U.S. and abroad.
Plus, both the Guthrie and Dylan projects tap a broad swath of artists from the pop music world, efforts that will likely draw attention across disparate genres, social and economic strata, gender, race and geographical boundaries.
The pairing of artist and beneficiary for the “Chimes of Freedom” project is a natural: Dylan released his first album in 1962, a short time after Amnesty began lobbying on behalf of prisoners of conscience. Both were informed by the conflicts between forces of totalitarianism and freedom during World War II and the consequent politics of the Cold War. Both found inspiration and validation in the politically minded music of Guthrie as well as that of Seeger, the Weavers and other folk revivalists who came to the fore in the ‘50s.
Dylan himself started out a Guthrie clone, but quickly evolved into a widely lauded singer-songwriter whose initial exposure came through recordings of his songs by Joan Baez; Peter, Paul & Mary; the Turtles; Sonny & Cher; the Byrds; and other rock and pop acts. “Some of the themes (in Dylan’s songs) feel like they were ripped from the headlines,” said Karen Scott, Amnesty International’s manager of music relations and an executive producer of the “Chimes of Freedom” album. “We are reminded again and again that the quest for freedom, for dignity and for transparency are issues that are long-standing.”
A similarly conceived 2007 album, “Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur,” for which a variety of veteran and younger artists recorded songs of John Lennon, has generated more than $4 million for the human-rights organization. “It is creating awareness, getting people to open their eyes and perhaps take a deeper look at what this album is,” Scott said. “They’re going to keep seeing it, and they’ll see their favorite artists posting about it. The hope is that once they hear the music, they’ll want to take action.”
That’s how it is playing out for many of the younger-generation artists represented on “Chimes of Freedom.” “When so many people hear your voice, you just feel like it’s time to start saying something that should be heard,” said Josh Homme, 38, of heavy-metal group Queens of the Stone Age, which recorded a raw, sizzling version of “Outlaw Blues.” “I’ve done so much press over the years. It’s great to talk about a new record and it’s a beautiful thing to make one, but it’s something else to be part of something that helps human rights. ... At some point it starts to turn around and you feel like you finally have enough power to do something. If you don’t do something to help somebody else, then you’re using that power for the wrong reason.”
Members of Chicago punk band Rise Against were attracted to “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” — a song that tells the story of a farmer who essentially loses everything. They decided to cover the song because it felt so timely.
“I thought it was a great comment on contemporary society and had a lot of great parallels between the farmers who are losing livestock, farms and crops (in the song) and the world in 2011, with people losing jobs, factory workers being out of work, poverty and income disparity,” said Rise Against singer Tim McIlrath, 32. “When you listen to the song, it’s almost like the rallying cry of foreclosure in 2011 and what happened to the American dream. It rings so true. That’s the sign of a good song — it’s timeless.”
“Timeless” is a word that comes up a lot when describing Guthrie’s songs as well, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Hard Travelin’,” “Deportee” and “Pastures of Plenty.” As the centennial of his birth on July 14, 1912, this year will see a bounty of activity highlighting his considerable impact, not just in popular music but across social and political strata worldwide from the ripples he started with his music.
Guthrie’s legacy will be examined in new books, recordings, a slate of all-star concerts and educational conferences dotting the country throughout the year. The fact that Guthrie’s songs have turned up during “Occupy” protests doesn’t surprise his daughter, Nora, who is overseeing a broad spectrum of activities marking her father’s birth.
“I was in Italy and I went into a bar and there’s a picture of Woody — in a bar, in Italy,” she said. “I asked the bartender, ‘Why is there a picture of Woody Guthrie here?’ and he immediately launched into this whole long spiel saying, ‘He was the fighter for the working people.’ This has happened to me so many times in my life.
“That’s because it’s not about him,” Guthrie continued. “He wasn’t famous during his lifetime. He wasn’t a celebrity. There have always been people who have said things like, ‘Wasn’t this land made for you and me?’ He was just the one to put it in a word, in a phrase, in a verse. He caught it. I don’t think any of those things will ever change. It’s what people are asking around the country, and asking around the world, from the first tribe to the last tribe.”
Kris Kristofferson, who sings the enigmatic “The Mighty Quinn” on “Chimes,” recalled first meeting Dylan when he was with Johnny Cash in a Nashville recording studio where Kristofferson was working as a janitor. Without Guthrie, says Kristofferson, there might not have been a Dylan, and without Dylan, there’s no understating how differently music might have evolved. “Everything changed with him,” he said. “He brought a freedom of expression we never had before. If you look back on music before him, what was in the top 40 or the Hit Parade — there were no songs like Bob ended up writing,” Kristofferson said. “And he influenced the Beatles. They weren’t the same after they met. It wasn’t ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ anymore.”
Just as many rock purists looked down their noses when Olivia Newton-John recorded Dylan’s “If Not For You” in 1971, some will scoff today at the thought of Top 40 pop artists such as Miley Cyrus (singing “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”) and Kesha (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”) taking a swing at Dylan’s music on “Chimes of Freedom.” Veteran record label executive Jeff Ayeroff, one of the album’s co-producers, isn’t among them.
The edict Ayeroff got from Dylan’s camp upon opening his song trove for the benefit of Amnesty International couldn’t have been clearer. “My assignment was not to be a snob; it was to be creative and to let everybody do it who wants to do it,” said Ayeroff, who also shepherded the John Lennon tribute album. “There is no judgment here. We wanted to hear what people could deliver. Miley has spent a lot of time dealing with gay issues, she’s young, she has a voice and is coming into her own as a young adult. She’s actually very bright, very articulate. ... And her godmother is Dolly Parton — you can take it from there.”
Martin Lewis, producer of Amnesty International’s original benefit event in 1976 and “contributing producer” of “Chimes of Freedom,” said, “I really do think there is this political consciousness you can see in the younger artists they’ve got on the album. There’s a sense of them pitching in and picking up a torch that’s been handed to them.”
New-millennial musicians such as Cyrus, Adele (“Make You Feel My Love”), the Belle Brigade (“No Time to Think”) and Jack’s Mannequin (“Mr. Tambourine Man”) are joining the continuum of pop music activism that for all intents began in 1971 with the Concert for Bangladesh. At that watershed show, George Harrison, freshly out of the Beatles, recruited a slew of musician friends for concerts to raise relief money and awareness for the tiny war and weather-ravaged country north of India. Among the Bangladesh players: Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston ... and Bob Dylan.
The mass platform for such music, however, has dramatically shifted since radio became big business and fell largely under the control of corporate ownership in the 1980s. But the Internet is leveling the playing field again by offering a potentially high-profile public arena for anyone making music with a message.
“For our 30-year anniversary last year, we put an image of a protester on the cover of our album, ‘The Dissent of Man,’” said Greg Graffin, lead singer for punk group Bad Religion (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”). “Our hope in doing that was, yes, to spark and celebrate the idea of protest in music. Whether or not it catches steam, it’s very hard to say. But one thing we’ve seen in cities across America is young people showing they stand for each other. If we can help inspire that with music, it’s a job well done.”