MUSICIAN AND songwriter Bob Dylan may walk away with a National Book Critics Circle award on March 18 for the first installment of his “autobiography” Chronicles, Volume I. Chronicles has topped national bestseller lists since its release and was ranked the second-best book of 2004 by in the New York Times Book Review.
Many book critics figured Dylan would never deliver the book, which had been delayed more than a year from when it was first announced by his publisher. Dylan has a lousy track record, putting off for years an early book deadline signed when he first burst on the music scene in the 1960s, and then delivering the entirely unintelligible Tarantula to get the publisher off his back.
And Chronicles only barely qualifies as autobiography. Don’t expect a chronological narrative or a reliable narrator. At times, Dylan clearly plays with the reader, and you can’t take what he says at face value. Chronicles, Volume I jumps from his arrival in New York City in 1962 to three seemingly random slices of his later life, and back to New York in the early 1960s again.
But with Dylan there is usually a method in the madness, and the trip is well worth the ride. Along the way, Dylan offers some fantastic insights into the artists and ideas that shaped his art and worldview. And, at times, the language in Chronicles is as moving as any of his early prose poems.
In describing his youth in the mining ranges of northern Minnesota during the hysteria of the Cold War, Dylan writes, “As far as communists went, there wasn’t any paranoia about them….Mine owners were more to be feared, more of an enemy, anyway.”
Dylan describes various influences on his political and intellectual awakening once he arrived in New York to pursue his dream of making it as a musician. He recounts going to see a dance performance with his girlfriend of the time, Suze Rotolo.
“It was presentation of songs written by Bertolt Brecht, the antifascist Marxist German poet-playwright whose works were banned in Germany, and Kurt Weill, whose melodies were a combination of opera and jazz. I went there to wait for Suze and was aroused right away by the raw intensity of the songs.”
Dylan would later try to learn from Brecht’s song craft, just as he would from that of Woody Guthrie, whose work and mannerisms he would quickly master, as well as countless other folk and blues musicians. But Dylan also immersed himself in the writings of Montesquieu, Clausewitz, Milton, Rimbaud and Shelley.
He would spend days in the New York Public Library reading the writings of the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and newspapers from the Civil War. And at the Folklore Center, in downtown New York, the radical folklorist Izzy Stone gave Dylan pamphlets on the revolutionary labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill.
“He led a bare and meager life,” Dylan writes, “was a union organizer out West in about 1910, a Messianic figure who wanted to abolish the wage system of capitalism–a messianic, musician and poet. They called him the workingman’s Robert Burns.”
“He was an organizer for the Wobblies, the fighting section of the American working class…Joe’s beloved by all workingmen nationwide–miners and meat cutters, sign painters and blacksmiths, plasterers, steamfitters, ironworkers–whoever they were, he united them and fought for the rights of them all, risked his life to make things better for all the under-classed, the disadvantaged–the most poorly paid and mistreated workers in the country.”
Dylan’s meditation on Hill begins with hearing the popular folks song, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill.” “As far as protest songs went, I had heard a few. The Leadbelly song ‘Bourgeois Blues,’ Woody [Guthrie]‘s ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Ludlow Massacre,’ ‘Strange Fruit,’ the Billie Holliday song, some others–and they were all better than this one. Protest songs are difficult to write without making them come off as preachy and one-dimensional. You have to show people a side of themselves that they didn’t know is there. The song ‘Joe Hill’ doesn’t even come close.”
In many ways, Dylan’s artistic breakthrough came by rejecting the narrow confines of “folk music” as it existed in the early 1960s, with its sect-like approach to form and politics. Even before he caused controversy among some in the folk community by “going electric,” Dylan came musically and politically from a whole other world.
Dylan, in fact, “went acoustic” before “going electric.” He started off playing electric rock and roll as a teenager in Duluth, Minn., imitating Jerry Lee Lewis and admiring Black blues musicians he heard on the radio. And Dylan always had his eye on the wider popular music scene, which the folk purists rejected.
Dylan courted criticism for daring to even write his own songs, such as “Song to Woody” and “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” (which he told audiences was a Weavers’ song), and including “New York Town,” his own composition, on his first album. The folk music journal Little Sandy Review called his second album, the path-breaking The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “a great disappointment.”
“His melodies bear more relation now to popular music than folk music,” the editors objected, describing “Masters of War”–perhaps the greatest protest song ever written–as “dull and monotonous” and his epic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as “bad beatnik poetry.”
No wonder that Dylan quickly learned to reject not only the diktats of folk orthodoxy, but to show contempt for those who would set limits to his art. And thankfully, for much of his long and brilliant career, he has done just that.
Of course, Dylan’s work has been profoundly frustrating and inconsistent, particularly during a bizarre period of Christian fundamentalism (which nonetheless produced some brilliant songs) and through the lost decade of the 1980s, and he has made unconscionable decisions, like his appearance in an ad for Victoria’s Secret. But at every point that critics have written Dylan off, he has returned with songs and performances that are without comparison in modern popular music.
After he said he would no longer write “finger-pointing songs,” Dylan not only wrote the damning song “Hurricane” about Rubin Carter, but organized concerts, including one with Muhammad Ali, to free the wrongly jailed boxer. He also released a single in tribute to the slain Black Panther leader George Jackson. And in recent years, Dylan has sung songs like “Masters of War” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with a rage that rivals their first performances.
At the same time, he has returned to the well of his first artistic influences to produce two excellent albums of folk covers and two even more outstanding albums, Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft that remake that tradition anew yet again. As Bruce Springsteen said in inducting Dylan to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “Dylan was a revolutionary…He showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual. He had the vision and the talent to make a pop song that contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve and changed the face of rock and roll forever.”
Writer and activist Mike Marqusee rightly makes the case in his book Chimes of Freedom that it is impossible to understand Dylan’s art without understanding the social movements and upheavals of the 1960s. Dylan was a part of the process of radicalization that so many went through then.
Even if Dylan himself sees little hope of us collectively changing, as he describes it, a “world gone wrong,” he has inspired countless others who do. And he has redefined how artists can express politics in their art.