This is a review of Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art, by Mike Marqusee that I wrote recently for American Studies Today Online.
In July 1963 Bob Dylan performed in a field in Greenwood, Mississippi in support of an SNCC voter registration drive that was floundering, beset by white racist violence. Three weeks after the murder of Medgar Evers, the local NAACP field secretary, Dylan unveiled his response – ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’.
A month later, at the March on Washington, Dylan sung it again. On a day when everyone else was singing about freedom and deliverance and unity, Dylan presented a class-based analysis of racism:
The South politician preaches to the poor white man,
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.
You’re better than them,
You been born with white skin”
At this point, Dylan is the icon, the voice, of the mass movement for civil rights and social change that has emerged in sixties America, responsible for the two keynote protest songs of the year – ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. Then, three weeks after the assassination of John Kennedy and four months after the March on Washington, in the eyes of the folk-protest fraternity, Dylan throws it all away.
In December 1963 he attends the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee annual Bill of Rights dinner to receive their Tom Paine Award for services to the cause. Dylan had been drinking heavily when he stepped up to accept his award with an incoherent speech that offended the audience and signalled his frustration with the protest singer identity as a burden and creative straightjacket. Amongst the more polite observations Dylan came out with as he looked down on his audience of political veterans that night were:
It’s not an old people’s world…I look down to see people that are governing me and making my rules – and they haven’t got any hair on their head – I get very uptight about it…I’ve never seen one history book that tells me how anybody feels…And it don’t help me one little bit to look back.. There’s no black and white, left and right to me anymore…
In this book, Mike Marqusee traces Dylan’s trajectory from king of folk-protest to his reluctance to be pigeonholed, his rejection of the confines of protest politics, and his turn to electric rock. Marqusee puts the case that, even in his ‘post-protest’ phase, the three masterworks of the mid-1960s – ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’ – themselves reflect changes in counter-culture politics from the public to the personal.
Marqusee skilfully sets Dylan’s emergence on the New York folk scene in the early 60s within the context of the political and cultural forces that shaped the folk movement from its roots in the popular front of the thirties, with its emphasis on mobilising American identity for progressive purposes (for example, Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’), the continuation of attempts to promote left-wing politics in the postwar period through the Peoples Songs group (who proclaimed, “the people are on the march and must have songs to sing”), and the key role played by folklorists such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax and John Hammond (who later signed Dylan to Columbia).
Marqusee shows how these influences shaped the outlook of Dylan and a whole generation. Above all, the civil rights movement, with the importance it placed on songs (both CORE and SNCC published volumes of freedom songs, and Folkways put out albums) was a defining factor. From his first protest song – ‘The Death of Emmet Till’ – and in a good number of the two hundred original compositions that followed in the next two years, Dylan explores America’s racial divide, but always in his own unique fashion.
In songs such as ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, what spurs his writing, argues Marqusee, is ‘racist violence, the brutality and madness of the white backlash’ – not dreams of interracial harmony.
Another strand in the sixties ferment was the movement against nuclear war. The Student Peace Union had, within a year of its formation in 1959, chapters on a hundred campuses and in 1962 drew 5,000 to a Washington protest march, the biggest since thirties. Dylan, too was swept along in this current, but then came to define it. When the folk-protest magazine Broadside was launched, his ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’ appeared in the first issue, followed shortly by ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, ‘Masters of War’, ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’ and ‘With God On Our Side’.
Marqusee notes perceptively that these songs “burst the boundaries of the soft-focus pacifism of previous anti-war songs…concerned not merely with the imminence of war, but with its deeper causes, with the forces that promote and profit from fear and violence”.
In the weeks following the March on Washington Dylan wrote ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. “At this moment, in this song”, writes Marqusee, “Dylan seems to believe that this movement can and will rise to the challenge of bringing justice to an unjust society”. But Dylan moves on, scorning the conservatism of his audience at the Tom Paine award gathering and, 18 months later, outraging traditionalists at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by going electric, singing ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’.
Marqusee explains that Dylan was never an activist: “He absorbed his politics, like much else, by osmosis. His contribution to the movement was limited to a small number of personal appearances, a few donations – and the songs. These, however, were an inestimable gift”.
But did Dylan’s work cease to be political from this point? Marqusee suggests otherwise. Dylan, who had been in the vanguard of the social protest movement, now led the way to the next development that defines cultural change in the sixties – the turn away from the regimented politics of the left towards the private politics of expressive individualism. In two further chapters Marqusee brilliantly demonstrates how the folk tradition, modernism, pop culture and political insight are fused in Dylan’s masterworks of the mid-1960s, ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Blonde on Blonde’.
What Dylan does in his post-protest songs, argues Marqusee, is “to offer a critique of politics itself as a field of human endeavour”. In ‘My Back Pages’ he translates the incoherence of his Tom Paine award rant into art, rejecting the simplicities and certainties, the self-righteousness and authoritarianism in movement politics:
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.
This shift from the public to the personal was a defining element of the sixties’ legacy. Dylan’s political disillusionment reflected “not only the stresses of revolt and reaction, but also the relentless packaging of experience and identity in a consumer society”; listen:
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That nothing much
Is really sacred…
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.
This is not only one of the best books on Dylan, it is also – particularly in the first three chapters – a brilliant and incisive reflection on the sixties counter-culture and its roots. The remaining chapters, which assess ‘The Basement Tapes’ and ‘John Wesley Harding’ are less incisive, but as a whole this is a book that should be read by anyone interested in the currents that swirled through America as the whole wide world was watching.
Mike Marqusee has also written Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, a historical analysis of Ali’s role as a symbol of dissent and a companion to the current volume in that it seeks to understand the man as a way to understanding the era.
“Keep a good head and carry a light bulb.”—Bob Dylan’s response to the question “What is your advice for young people?” London 1962.