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Dylan@82: The impossibility of unravelling the ‘song and dance man’

A selection from Bob Dylan’s writings to try open a window to his thoughts on an array of topics like God, religion, movies and his first love, America

Shantanu Datta Published 23.05.23, 09:18 PM
November 20, 1961: First recording session for Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album. When it was released in March next year on Columbia Records, it sold very few copies. The album was considered a failure.

November 20, 1961: First recording session for Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album. When it was released in March next year on Columbia Records, it sold very few copies. The album was considered a failure. Instagram: bobdylan

As Bob Dylan turns 82, the questions keep piling up. Why is he still on the road? And why is he hiding behind a piano on stage while singing his songs? Why, why, why? Who? When?

Will we ever know? No.


He told us long before with his Ballad of a Thin Man: Something’s happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones? But we keep trying, looking for clues to what’s going on in his mind; in his songs of course, but also in his books, Philosophy of Modern Song (2022), his first since Chronicles: Volume One (2004).

A long time ago, he called himself “a song and dance man”. We may claim to know of his songs. But the dance? Here’s a selection from Dylan’s writing to try and unravel some of the inner workings of his mind, the waltzing of his thoughts on an array of topics that are all very close to his heart: youngsters of today, God, religion, movies and his first love, America; but starting with the “great betrayal”, his electrifying turnaround in the sixties.

On turning back on the folk community.

As for me, what I did to break away was to take simple folk changes and put new imagery and attitude to them, use catchphrases and metaphor combined with a new set of ordinances that evolved into something different that had not been heard before. Silber (Irwin, editor of folk magazine Still Out!) scolded me in his letter for doing this, as if he alone and a few others had the keys to the real world. I knew what I was doing, though, and wasn’t going to take a step back or retreat for anybody.

On generation gap.

We all rail at the previous generation but somehow know it’s only a matter of time until we will become them ourselves… Each generation seems to have the arrogance of ignorance, opting to throw out what has gone before instead of building on the past.

Every generation gets to pick and choose what they want from the generation that came before with the same arrogance and ego-driven self-importance that the previous generations had when they picked the bones of the ones before them.

On God and religion.

One of the reasons people turn away from God is because religion is no longer in the fabric of their lives. It is presented as a thing that must be journeyed to as a chore __ it’s Sunday, we have to go to church. Or, it is used as a weapon of threat by political nutjobs on either side of every argument.

On religion and science.

Sometimes the difference between religion and science can be measured in the distance between the unanswered and the unanswerable question. People live in fear. For instance, at the end of the day when the sun disappeared people were afraid it might never come back. Religion calmed them with a solution to the unanswerable question __ the Greek god Helios dragged the sun across the sky every morning in a golden chariot. It was his job, he would do it every day, and that calmed the fear of living in darkness.

Time passed and science made discoveries and unanswerable questions began to get answered. The Earth spun on its axis and revolved around the sun. Helios retired.

On technology and its many ironies.

Today it is commonplace to stream a movie directly to your phone. So, when you are watching Gloria Swanson as faded movie star Norma Desmond proclaim from the palm of your hand, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” it contains layers of irony that writer/director Billy Wilder could never have imagined.

Of course, someone streaming something to their phone is most likely watching something even shorter (than a movie) and faster paced on TikTok, certainly not anything in black and white with a running time of 110 minutes.

On America as a melting pot.

America has always been a great melting pot but there are a few things that have been created here and then given back to the world. As much fun as it is to drive a Ferrari, Detroit will always be the automobile’s home. As good a player as Stephane Grappelli is, you have to go back to King Oliver, Buddy Bolden, and Louis Armstrong to find the beating heart of jazz. Likewise, Fellini. Kurosawa, and their counterparts around the world have made some terrific movies but we all know where the film industry got its first slap on the ass and drew its initial breath.

People keep talking about making America great again. Maybe they should start with the movies.

On life yesterday, today and tomorrow.

That we are always deep in a gigantic, colossal mess, and some big idiot is telling us to push on.

On the power of the song.

But so it is with music, it is of a time but also timeless: a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself. Though we seldom consider it, music is built in time as surely as a sculptor or welder works in physical space. Music transcends time by living within it, just as reincarnation allows us to transcend life by living it again and again.

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