Not dark yet

Today is the birthday of Minnesota native son Bob Dylan. He turns the ripe old age of 83. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there. I want to celebrate him as long we’re both still around to enjoy the occasion. He is a remarkable artist, self-invented, deep in the American grain.

A few years back I visited Dylan’s old home at 2425 7th Avenue East in Hibbing. The house is a small two-story residence with a one-car attached garage on the side. The house is exactly two blocks from Hibbing High School, Dylan’s alma mater. A Dylan fan must be somewhere in the chain of title. The garage door had the cover of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album painted on it.

Howard Sounes’s Dylan biography Down The Highway does a good job of capturing the Hibbing period of Dylan’s life. Sounes’s research is impeccable, including his discussion of Dylan’s teen-age friendships with Larry Kegan and Howard Rutman in the Twin Cities.

I wonder how Dylan could have absorbed all the strains of American popular music in a town as remote as Hibbing. The radio was apparently Dylan’s indispensable source, but the development of his gifts seems incredibly unlikely. How could he have formed the ambition to become “Bob Dylan” from his roots in Hibbing? The town must have provided some encouragement, even if it also provided the impetus for him to move on and not look back. The people he left behind there remain incredibly nice.

In his illuminating City Journal essay on Pete Seeger — “America’s most successful Communist” — Howard Husock placed Dylan in the line of folk agitprop in which Seeger took pride of place. Husock’s essay is an important and entertaining piece. Dylan is only a small part of the story Husock has to tell, however, and Husock therefore does not pause long enough over Dylan to observe how quickly Dylan burst the confines of agitprop, found his voice, and tapped into his own vein of the Cosmic American Music. Looking back on his long career, one can discern his respect for the tradition as well as his ambition to take his place at its head.

On 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ album, Dylan looked back and “apologized for past misdemeanors” (as Sounes puts it), but also looked ahead to his break from the folk movement in “Restless Farewell,” the album’s closing song. (Joan Baez sings it in the video above.)

The song represents Dylan’s take on the Scottish folk song “The Parting Glass.” Appropriating the tradition for his own uses, Dylan announced: “I’ll bid farewell and be down the line.” Later that year he turned his songwriting in a personal direction with Another Side of Bob Dylan, his last folk album.

Ben Macintyre notes:

Dylan set words to music in a way that no one had done before. He refused to be pigeon-holed by the folkies, the protesters or the rockers. He borrowed and synthesised from the literary, artistic and actual worlds like a musical magpie, and he skillfully evolved his own mystique. And he kept going, even when his listeners booed or complained or, like the enraged Pete Seeger in 1965, threatened to chop off his sound cable with a hatchet at a folk festival in Newport because he had defected to electric sound. At a British concert, we see a furious folkie leaping to his feet and shouting “Judas!” Dylan is defiant: “You’re a liar…Play it ****ing loud,” he instructs the band.

The Pete Seeger story is somewhat twisted, but that last moment comes from Dylan’s legendary concert of May 1966 documented on Volume 4 of Columbia’s Dylan Bootleg Series (and can now be viewed on YouTube). The concert was misattributed to the Royal Albert Hall when it surfaced on bootleg albums in 1970, though it has now been identified as having taken place at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall — in the interest of history, of course.

Macintyre briefly sums up Dylan’s self-education:

In 1960 Robert Zimmerman, a gawky Jewish boy from Minnesota, hitch-hiked to New York City. He came to join the burgeoning folk music circuit, but he also came to read, hunkered down on the sofas of his bookish new friends in Greenwich Village. “I read all of Lord Byron’s Don Juan and concentrated fully from start to finish,” he wrote later [in Chronicles: Volume One]. “Also Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan.’ I began cramming my brain with all kinds of deep poems. It seemed like I’d been pulling an empty wagon for a long time and now I was beginning to fill it up and would have to pull harder. I felt like I was coming out of the back pasture.”

Gogol, Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, Thucydides (“a narrative which would give you chills”), Tennessee Williams, Bertolt Brecht, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells: all were piled into the wagon, alongside the music of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, and the films of Marlon Brando and James Dean. He spent nights studying the American Civil War at New York public library and consuming newspapers: “What was swinging, topical, up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry driving steel…this was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.”

By the time of Highway 61 Revisited in 1965, Dylan was singing: “I need a dump truck to unload my head.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone back in the ’70’s Dylan identified Elvis’s take on “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” (video below, originally buried on the Spinout soundtrack) as his favorite cover of any of his songs. He told Rolling Stone it’s “the one recording I treasure the most.”

He might not answer the question the same way today. Indeed, he identified the recording of “Positively Fourth Street” by Johnny Rivers as his favorite cover in Chronicles: Volume 1 (2004). Dylan has written hundreds of songs and other artists have covered his songs thousands of times since then. You can’t go wrong with this one, however, adapted from the arrangement Odetta gave it on the first album of all-Dylan covers in 1965 (other than an obscure 1964 album by Linda Mason, as Richie Unterberger reminds me). On Elvis’s cover you can hear strains of folk, country, blues, and gospel music. You can hear America singing.

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