In Praise of Bob Dylan
by Will Brennan Page 2
We listened respectfully to the whole thing, commenting over
it sparsely, just sitting, listening. I felt like I was grounded to the floor, melded to it as if by a bolt of electricity. This was some alien, a human unlike the ones I knew of, singing a litany of clues to our very existence. It wasn’t smooth or polished, it wasn’t happy pop music played for the purpose of forgetting the problems of the world – this was ragged, pained, dark, joyful, strong, exultant music that sounded as old as a prairie wagon, as old as a rusted wheel beside a falling down barn. This was as real as it got, as far as I could tell at the time.
I would later discover that Dylan in fact had studied his sources with the painstaking attention of a archivist, an archeologist, and was for that reason able to recreate the authentic sound of the blues singers
of the cotton fields, the wandering folk troubadours, including grand statements made in the shadow of his musical and intellectual mentor, Woody Guthrie. All at twenty-one years old. He had somehow assimilated countless acres of a vast, centuries old American musical landscape, as well as incorporating the European ballad tradition.
And by then, by his second record, Dylan had come to surpass even his own mentor, by writing the song,"A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall,” drawing from sources as diverse as the Scottish ballad “Lord Randall” and surrealist imagery. It was a weird, a timeless prophecy painted in stark chiaroscoro and fragmented word puzzles. Allen Ginsberg said that when he heard “Hard Rain,” he wept, understanding that this young man had appeared from nowhere and succeeded in bridging poetry and the popular song in a way no one had before, or has since.
I understood none of this at the time, of course. It was the voice that riveted me.
A voice old, wise, weathered, tired – young, vibrant, bursting, booming, all at the same time. I knew this was something completely new, as if the world had split for one second and released a cleansing blaze of timeless reality, then closed back up, because that was all we could accept for now. I did understand this, or something like it, even at eleven. I understood that this was the real thing. Little did I know that the reality of it, as Bob recently wrote, had too many heads. Too many for me to be aware of.
Dylan became the darling of the folk crowd. Everyone sang his songs, youth across America embraced him as a spokesman for their beliefs, they could point to Bob and prove to their elders that the current youth had depth and compassion and hope, yet a deadly serious outlook toward their own future. Bob was a folk messiah, he carried the banner of Purpose and Change and Freedom and the only problem was, Bob wasn’t a political person, and while he cared deeply about human rights and the betterment of people’s lives, he didn’t care about politics and the processes that create political change, except as an outsider, an observer who could smell the wind and tell us all what was blowing in it. Bob confounded his legions by abdicating the throne and concentrating on being what he was, an artist, a craftsman, a songwriter.