It’s all protest music: Bob Dylan at 80

23 May 2021
Dougal McNeill

“If you want to remember you better write down the names”, runs a line from “Murder Most Foul”, Bob Dylan’s incantatory, delirious, visionary riffing from the Kennedy assassination to the nightmare of the United States, and the rest of the song conjures its world, through a running loop of borrowed, stolen and reworked phrases taken from across the American songbook. Sinatra rubs up against Stan Getz, Howlin’ Wolf against Patsy Cline, Black freedom traditions against white Tin Pan Alley jingles.

“Murder Most Foul”, with its re-imagining of the United States and its myths—Kennedy’s Camelot as a liberal age most obviously, and what Jordy Cummings, in a brilliant reading, calls “the monstrosity that is American society”—arrived in the middle of last year’s lockdown, the gloom and grime of its topic and tone matching the moment just as the exhilaration of its music (and the reminder that Dylan was still here, still creating, still urging us to “stay safe, stay observant”) delivered relief from the claustrophobia and fear of those weeks. The song builds, across more than fifteen minutes, from a murder ballad and survey of the wreckage of “the American century” into a self-referential guide to listening to Dylan’s music itself, a way of working his own poetry into a self-generated tradition:

Play “Misty” for me and “That Old Devil Moon”

Play “Anything Goes” and “Memphis in June”

Play “Lonely at the Top” and “Lonely Are the Brave”

Play it for Houdini spinning around in his grave

Play Jelly Roll Morton, play “Lucille”

Play “Deep in a Dream”, and play “Driving Wheel”

Play “Moonlight Sonata” in F-sharp

And “Key to the Highway” for the king of the harp

Play “Marching Through Georgia” and “Dumbarton’s Drums”

Play darkness and death will come when it comes

Play “Love Me or Leave Me” by the great Bud Powell

Play “The Blood-Stained Banner”, play “Murder Most Foul”

The insistent, repetitive imperatives that structure this stanza give it a ritualistic power. But notice too what Dylan conjures. Jazz and blues, creations of Black America, are evoked by Bud Powell, Jelly Roll Morton, Big Bill Broonzy, and brought into aural connection with white musicians transformed by jazz (Sinatra) and classic songs (“Misty”) that have become part of Black and white songbooks alike. “Marching Through Georgia” is a Union song from the revolutionary Civil War, while “the blood-stained banner” is a phrase that once evoked the Confederate rag and, more recently, has become a key phrase for Christian devotion in Black spiritual music and Christian missions for working-class social reform, union rights and migrant rights’ organising.

Dystopian lyrics of death, murder and loss somehow produce a utopian image of anti-racist unity in American sounds; just as “Marching Through Georgia” promised that the Union struggle would “bring the jubilee” in its defeat of southern slavery, “Murder Most Foul” offers a way into a musical tradition, one it creates. It’s the sound of freedom itself.

If this sounds contradictory, it is: Dylan, like his inspiration Walt Whitman, “embraces multitudes”. For the past 25 years his albums have been developing this uneasy, heady combination. Song after song draws on, acknowledges and immerses itself in the music of the Black freedom struggle—from “If You Ever Go to Houston” (2009) and its borrowings from “The Midnight Special”, to “High Water” (2001) and its homage to Charley Paton, the early twentieth-century Delta Blues musician, to last year’s “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”.

Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020), Tempest (2012), Together Through Life (2009), Love and Theft (2001) and Time Out of Mind (1997) create the soundtrack to an imagined America, stuffed together with half-remembered lines, redolent images, sounds echoing from the half-forgotten sources in folk songs, white and Black, country music tracks, poems and phrases from the movies.

From Emmett Till’s murder in The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964), to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, when a white mob carried out a pogrom in the city’s “Black Wall Street” in Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020), Dylan’s is a moralist’s recording of America’s racist brutalities and cruelties. Nothing from the culture is lost in Dylan, and nothing fades; like Shakespeare’s Ariel in another Tempest, he has the ability to make it suffer a sea change “into something rich and strange”. Borrowing, reworking, re-imagining, projecting connections: this is a constant now too across 60 years. The first track on Dylan’s first album, after all, covers Jesse Fuller’s “You’re No Good”, while his most famous song, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, draws on the Black spiritual and response to slavery, “No More Auction Block”.

Too much writing on Dylan focuses on the 1960s themselves, by which time the artist’s project and outlook were basically set. Better, if we follow the music, to listen to all of this as a response to a formation in the “long”, radical 1950s: the decade of the Montgomery bus boycott, the murder of Emmett Till, Brown vs. Board of Education, the Birmingham campaign, the 1963 march on Washington (at which Dylan sang). The profound, mass radicalisation of a generation of Black workers, inspiring in turn solidarity responses from a layer of young white activists, changed American culture in lasting, generative ways.

The freedom tradition—from anti-slavery rebellion to the Civil War to civil rights sit-ins and marches—has always had music, culture and oratory bound up in its organising and agitation. And Black self-expression, from Miles Davis in jazz to Muhammed Ali in sport, showed performances of self-respect, dignity and confidence that couldn’t but have political resonance as signs of how freedom might live. This energy, explosive in its own right, leaped across stations, barriers and audiences too, making the music of Elvis Presley thinkable, shocking into life all the currents of modern and contemporary popular music.

Is it any wonder that a middle-class boy from a Jewish family in Minnesota, himself out of place in the WASP suburbs, and an outsider further still amidst the anti-Semitism of wider American society, might find this wild mercury sound electrifying? Of course, the coffee shops and the folk revival mattered too, and, via Woody Guthrie, some echoes of the old left and the popular front played their role in Dylan’s formation, but this can all get overstated. Folk music could never hold an artist’s attention in the decade of civil rights; you can’t dance to it, for one thing, and its deadening orthodoxies couldn’t accommodate the wayward energies that youth rebellion, anti-racist insurgency and shifting cultural allegiances required.

Dylan’s formal lyrics have, anyway, always been ambivalent politically, and “the answer is blowing in the wind” isn’t really a claim to get feet marching to a protest beat. Listen instead to the “wild mercury sound” and hear how, in Jordy Cumming’s words, “his protests weren’t for the movement, they were of the movement”. Cummings, in a nice phrase, calls him “a cognitive cartographer of the New Left”, his canny ear for stray and unhoused sounds and snatches of lyric mapping out an America that might be.

Or might be again. Dylan’s bringing together of working-class white cultural forms in country, hillbilly music and folk with the energies of the Black freedom struggle’s soundtrack in spirituals, blues and the idea (if not an audible affiliation) of jazz perhaps showed, in music, forms of unity and reconstruction that political struggle might recreate. The colour line, in music along with so much else in America, was created and enforced to serve racist business interests.

Country music was segregated in the imagination by an industry afraid of what “race music” might do to its audiences; contemporary Black country musicians like Rhiannon Giddens, Priscilla Renea and Leyla McCalla are reclaiming connections previously sundered, rather than moving into a “white” creative space. It’s telling too that some of the best interpretations of Dylan’s love songs—self-indulgent, misanthropic, often misogynist and boring in his own renditions—are from performers shaped by the freedom struggle: Nina Simone, Mavis Staples, Odetta, Betty LaVette, Miriam Makeba.

Never trust the teller, trust the tale: as with most massively wealthy stars, Dylan’s political pronouncements and formal views have, this past half century, ranged from the banal to the boorish (“all that foreign oil / controlling American soil”) to the reactionary. None of that really matters, though. We don’t look to political theory for experiences of life’s beauty, and we don’t approach music for strategic analysis. Listening in, instead, to the chimes of freedom flashing across 60 years of music shaped by the possibilities for vision given by the freedom struggle, we get a chance to hear a music giving an indictment, despite itself sometimes, of the America that is now and, in its elusive, slippery, rattling sounds, a promise of what a true liberation might be.

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