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Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007
by John Carvill

Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s
by Mike Marqusee
Seven Stories Press
October 2005, 367 pages, $116.95


Bob Dylan has always enjoyed confounding audience expectations. During the 45 years that he’s spent alternately basking in and shrinking from the glare of the public eye, he has presented his fans with more curves than a convention of Brazilian belly dancers.  Probably the most famous and far-reaching early instance of Dylan pulling the carpet out from under his fans’ feet, was the unveiling of his newly electrified music at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.


The traditional Folk contingent’s horrified reaction is widely regarded today as a pitiful case of some hopelessly out-of-touch, die-hard folkies not ‘getting it’, everyone enjoying a rueful chuckle at tales of Pete Seeger trying to cut the power cables with an axe during Dylan’s performance. But Mike Marqusee points out that the Newport Festival “was a nonprofit enterprise with a social mission,” providing “a link between the Southern civil rights movement and the folk community of the urban North,” that the performers and audience shared “a political as well as musical ethic,” and that this was a tradition worth defending from the corruption of market forces. The Newport people were right to cherish their tradition, and wise to be highly suspicious of the likes of Dylan’s dollar-worshiping manager, Albert Grossman. They associated the authentic with the acoustic, whereas to them “the electric guitar represented capitalism.”


Though Dylan was viewed by many as guilty of a double betrayal, turning his back not only on Folk but also on the leftist politics with which it was inextricably linked, Marqusee’s narrative demonstrates that nothing is clear cut. The book is full of paradoxes, contradictions and conflicts, not least within the ‘60s ‘movement’ itself. Dylan was on the platform behind Martin Luther King when he delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech, having been down South to witness the ‘American Apartheid’ of systemic, state-sponsored racism at first hand (despite Grossman’s grumbles about the cost of the trip). There had been fierce squabbles behind the scenes that day, between those who argued for more confrontational speeches and the relatively compromise-ready King, and the songs he chose to play signaled Dylan’s own “hard-edged, increasingly radical political perspective,” particularly ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’, a song “not about freedom and unity, but outlining a class-based analysis of the persistence of racism.”


Marqusee skillfully traces the convoluted history of the American left, from the 1930s Communist Party which sought to position itself as “a homegrown people’s movement for social justice, not a sect of European proletarian revolution,” through the ‘Social Patriotism’ created by the New Deal’s focus on American identity, to the emergence of the ‘New Left’. Dylan’s songs did a lot to fuel the “mass radicalisation” of the 1960s, which led to the traditional ranks of “red diaper babies from the Northeast” being swollen by an influx of “new recruits from the Mid- and Southwest ... these innocent children of the postwar boom and a conformist culture had leapt from conservatism over liberalism into radicalism. They wore cowboy boots and smoked dope. They were Dylan’s people.”


But Dylan’s people didn’t appeal to Dylan at all, especially when they turned up at his Woodstock home looking for ‘answers’, and he later went out of his way to repudiate the counterculture, perpetuating the idea that he had jumped on the left-wing bandwagon as a shortcut to money and fame. But as Marqusee says, at the time Dylan wrote those songs there was no bandwagon to jump on, as “white American youth subscribed to opinions that ranged only within the narrow band between deeply conservative and cautiously liberal,” and “defying and deriding anti-communism ... was regarded as a serious career risk.”  And Dylan was willing to take that risk. At a rehearsal for what was to have been his first national network TV appearance, on The Ed Sullivan Show, he was asked to substitute another song for ‘Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues’. He refused, and his appearance was cancelled.


In retrospect, it seems obvious that given the depth of his talent and scale of his ambition, Dylan was never destined to carry on writing what he called his ‘finger pointin’ songs for very long. Instead he embarked on a “creative firestorm,” issuing a series of jaw-dropping masterpieces which transformed popular music and, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, proved that “great art can be done on a jukebox.”


But if Dylan won the musical argument, the accusation that he abandoned political protest is less easily dodged, and the issue is at the heart of this book. Marqusee sets out to dismantle the myth that Dylan first embraced then forsook leftist politics, but he doesn’t shrink from portraying Dylan at his equivocating worst, quoting an exasperating interview Dylan gave to folk magazine Sing Out in 1968 in which despite being repeatedly pressed for his views on Vietnam, he not only refused to state that he was against the war but even went so far as to suggest that he might in fact be for it. Even given Dylan’s established reputation as a cagey, cranky, and contrary interviewee, whose innate irascibility was known to flare up into open aggressiveness when provoked, this is shameful stuff.


On the other hand, Dylan had an overwhelming desire not to be pigeonholed or adopted as anybody’s mascot. When he was presented with the Tom Paine award by the establishment liberals of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963, he didn’t so much throw them a curve as suck them into a spiraling vortex of outrage, delivering a drunken speech in which he claimed, only weeks after JFK’s assassination, that he saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald.  For Dylan, the political was always personal, and Marqusee makes the excellent point that his more personal, “bitter-sweet, love-hate songs” were composed in the same vein as the political ones: “moodily aggrieved and tenderly utopian at the same time.”


The critical and commercial resurgence, which Dylan has enjoyed in the last decade or so, has thrown up many treasures. This perceptive, elegantly written book is one of them. In exploring Dylan’s “complex and inextricable linkage to the riptides of the ‘60s,” Marqusee demonstrates that while Dylan’s art can provide a window into the 1960s, the decade and the “cultural and political tumults of the times” can also be used as a prism through which to view all of Dylan’s later work.


Dylan was never as politicised as his more politically engaged fans took him to be, but neither did the political sensibility, which had informed the protest songs, ever really leave his work. It can be felt in such mid-sixties classics as ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ or ‘Tombstone Blues’, and not only did the Weathermen take their name (and a slogan or two) from a ‘post-protest’ song, but when Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale founded their Black Panther newspaper, they did so to a constant soundtrack of Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’.


As Marqusee says, the early protest songs were not just an immense achievement but also “the foundation of Dylan’s subsequent evolution.” And it’s one we can follow all the way through to a song such as the recent ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’, of which everyone, from the ECLC to Huey Newton to the people at Newport, would surely have approved.

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