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Bob Dylan's Chronicles Volume One


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Dylan, Bob: Chronicles Volume One, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2004, ISBN 0-7432-2815-2, 293 pages, $14.00 (paperback)


(Swans - October 10, 2005)   As accustomed as we have become to the hyping of Bob Dylan over the years, it might come as a surprise to discover that volume one of Chronicles, now available in paperback, deserves all the accolades it has received. Named as one of the best books of 2004 by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the London Guardian and other prestigious newspapers and magazines, it demonstrates that Dylan still has enormous talents although arguably singing and songwriting are no longer among them.

With the arrival of the paperback version of Chronicles and Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home on PBS this year, it is a good opportunity to reevaluate this seminal figure of the 1960s. Given Dylan's propensity for superciliousness, irony and evasion (bred no doubt by early encounters with a hostile and ignorant press,) Chronicles is a good place to start since it is marked by a gentle wit, graciousness and warmth.

Although volume one only deals with the very beginning of Dylan's career and episodes from his more recent and lackluster years, it gives the reader a very good sense of the creative process, which is always something one expects from an artist's memoir, but is frequently missing. We learn about the sources of Dylan's art as well as how he transformed these influences. His ability to understand and document this process makes for a stunning portrait of the creative process. Dylan writes:

I can't say when it occurred to me to write my own songs. I couldn't have come up with anything comparable or halfway close to the folk song lyrics I was singing to define the way I felt about the world. I guess it happens to you by degrees. You just don't wake up one day and decide that you need to write songs, especially if you're a singer who has plenty of them and you're learning more every day. Opportunities may come along for you to convert something -- something that exists into something that didn't yet. That might be the beginning of it. Sometimes you just want to do things your way, want to see for yourself what lies behind the misty curtain. It's not like you see songs approaching and invite them in.

These words preface a discussion of the Industrial Workers of the World folksinger and martyr Joe Hill, who Dylan learned about through the anthem I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill after arriving in New York and who he describes as a "Messianic figure who wanted to abolish the wage system of capitalism." (This phrase and countless others like it belie a sympathy for a radical politics that supposedly Dylan had parted company with decades ago. We will explore this question in greater depth later in this article.)

After weighing the merits of protest songs like I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill and others like it, Dylan explains how he would have gone about writing his own version:

I fantasized that if I had written the song, I would have immortalized him in a different way -- more like Casey Jones or Jesse James. You would have had to. I thought about it two ways. One way was to title the song "Scatter My Ashes Anyplace but Utah" and make that line the refrain. The other way to do it was like the song "Long Black Veil," a song where a man talks from the grave ... a song from the underworld. This is a ballad where a man gives up his life not to disgrace a certain woman and has to pay for somebody else's crime because of what he can't say. The more I thought about it, "Long Black Veil" seemed like it could have been a song written by Joe Hill himself, his very last one.

In essence, this is what marked Dylan apart from his contemporaries in the folk music revival of the early 1960s. He was looking for a fresh way to address "topical" questions. As pointed out by Irish folksinger Tommy Makem in Scorsese's film, a Dylan song would often sound both contemporary and several centuries old at the same time. "Masters of War," a song that appears on the 1963 album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," is a case in point as the concluding verses would indicate:

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

The words "I will follow your casket in the pale afternoon" have a profound, almost Elizabethan resonance. At the same time they evoke "Stagger Lee," the song performed by blues and folk musicians alike:

Stagolee stood on the gallows, head way up high
Twelve o'clock, they killed him, we were all glad to see him die
That bad man, cruel Stagolee

And all the while, Dylan is evoking the fears that the post-WWII generation was feeling toward the threat of nuclear war. This is how Dylan remembers that period:

In 1951 I was going to grade school. One of the things we were trained to do was to hide and take cover under our desks when the air-raid sirens blew because the Russians could attack us with bombs. We were also told that the Russians could be parachuting from planes over our town at any time. These were the same Russians that my uncles had fought alongside only a few years earlier. Now they had become monsters who were coming to slit our throats and incinerate us. It seemed peculiar. Living under a cloud of fear like this robs a child of his spirit. It's one thing to be afraid when someone's holding a shotgun on you, but it's another thing to be afraid of something that's just not quite real. There were a lot of folks around who took this threat seriously, though, and it rubbed off on you. It was easy to become a victim of their strange fantasy. I had the same teachers in school that my mother did. They were young in her time and elderly in mine. In American history class, we were taught that commies couldn't destroy America with guns or bombs alone, that they would have to destroy the Constitution -- the document that this country was founded upon. It didn't make any difference, though. When the drill sirens went off, you had to lay under your desk facedown, not a muscle quivering and not make any noise. As if this could save you from the bombs dropping. The threat of annihilation was a scary thing. We didn't know what we did to anybody to make them so mad. The Reds were everywhere, we were told, and out for blood-lust. Where were my uncles, the defenders of the country? They were busy making a living, working, getting what they could and making it stretch. How could they know what was going on in the schools, what kind of fear was being roused?

It was Dylan's role to become a bard to people coming of age in the late 1950s and early '60s. By synthesizing the folk music revival with the new politics of that period including civil rights and peace, Dylan created a self-awareness that would help to shape the New Left that would begin to take form a few years later.

The folk music revival was the link between that generation and radicals of the 1930s, who had been pushed to the margin by the witch-hunt. Dylan's early career was marked by interaction with a number of the important figures who were cognizant of these ties, perhaps to a greater extant than he was.

In the Chronicles, Dylan writes with great fondness about Dave Van Ronk, a key figure in the folk music revival who served as a kind of mentor to him. Van Ronk, a Marxist who shunned commercial success, succumbed to colon cancer on February 10, 2002. Although Van Ronk's verdict on Dylan was somewhat mixed in his own memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dylan did not hold this against him, as should be obvious from the tribute to Van Ronk in the final chapter of Chronicles. It is this note of generosity, repeated across the board to figures as diverse as Johnny Cash and Archibald McLeish, that makes this memoir such a pleasure to read:

His pieces were perversely complex, although very simple. He had it all down and could hypnotize an audience or stun them, or he could make them scream and holler. Whatever he wanted. He was built like a lumberjack, drank hard, said little and had his territory staked out -- full forward, all cylinders working. David was the grand dragon. If you were on MacDougal Street in the evening and out to see somebody play, he'd be the first and last vital choice of the night. He'd towered over the street like a mountain but would never break into the big time. It just wasn't where he pictured himself. He didn't want to give up too much. No puppet strings on him ever. He was big, sky high, and I looked up to him. He came from the land of giants.

Van Ronk was a pivotal figure in the folk music revival. With his political savvy and his rough-hewn voice, he commanded the authority of newcomers like Dylan. Born in 1936, Van Ronk was old enough to have memories of the earlier radical movement that still retained considerable influence in his formative years. This was a radical movement very much synonymous with the Communist Party, as Van Ronk freely admits:

The New York branch of the folk revival was strongly influenced by the Communist outlook, and one of the effects of this was that, along with performing traditional material, a lot of singers began composing topical songs based on folk models. Such urban, folk-styled creations were essentially a new music, consciously and often carefully crafted, politically motivated, and in many ways a quite different animal from anything that had come before... By 1939 this movement had its nexus in a sort of commune on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village called Almanac House. The residents included at one time or another, Pete Seeger, Alan and Bess Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell . . . the list is long and impressive. All were songwriters to one degree or another (many collaborations and collective efforts here), but Guthrie was by far the most talented and influential of the lot. Taking pains to conceal his considerable erudition behind a folksy facade, he became a kind of proletarian oracle in the eyes of his singer-songwriter associates, who were, of course, incurable romantics. With Guthrie exercising a very loose artistic hegemony (Seeger and Lampell seem to have done most of the actual work), Almanac House became a kind of song factory, churning out topical, occasional, and protest songs at an unbelievable clip, as well as hosting regular "hootenannies."

When Dylan arrived in New York in January 1961, he had two goals. One was to become part of the new folk music movement. The other was to meet with Woody Guthrie, who had become his idol and who now lived in a veteran's hospital incapacitated by Huntington's disease. When Dylan first heard Guthrie records in the summer of 1959, the effect was galvanizing:

All these songs together, one after another made my head spin. It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. I had heard Guthrie before but mainly just a song here and there -- mostly things that he sang with other artists. I hadn't actually heard him, not in this earth shattering kind of way. I couldn't believe it. Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto. He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs. His mannerisms, the way everything just rolled off his tongue, it all just about knocked me down. It was like the record player itself had just picked me up and flung me across the room.

When Dylan arrived in New York, he was basically a Guthrie imitator. He tried to cast himself as a hobo or an itinerant laborer, even claiming that he had arrived on a boxcar. When the press discovered that he was a middle-class Jew, it had a field day. They would refer to him as Bobby Zimmerman, despite the fact that he had changed his name. One wonders if there was an element of anti-Semitism in the same way that Stalin's henchmen used to refer to Trotsky as Lev Bronstein.

Van Ronk scoffs at this attempt to challenge Dylan's bona fides since the folk singing profession involves a certain element of artifice at its foundations:

Another thing that worked very much to Bobby's advantage was his populism, the romantic hobo thing. He had that Guthriesque persona, both on and off stage, and we all bought it. Not that we necessarily believed he was really a Sioux Indian from New Mexico or whatever cockamamy variation he was peddling that day, but we believed the gist of his story, and even what we didn't believe was often entertaining. I mean, one night he spent something like an hour showing a bunch of us how to talk in Indian sign language, which I'm pretty sure he was making up as he went along, but he did it marvelously. And when we found out that a lot of his stories were bullshit, that didn't really lower his stock all that much. It was an old showbiz tradition -- everybody changed their names and invented stories about themselves. So we kidded him some, but nobody held it against him. I don't think Bobby ever understood that. He never really got the fact that nobody cared who you had been before you hit town. We were all inventing characters for ourselves. Look at Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who had grown up as a Jewish doctor's son in Brooklyn and then gone out west and become a cowboy and Woody's hoboing buddy.

Between 1961 and 1964, Dylan's career skyrocketed. After being signed by the legendary John Hammond at Columbia Records, who had discovered Billie Holiday and who had crusaded for racial integration in the music business, Dylan began to perform on college campuses and recital halls all around the country and internationally. Despite (or perhaps of) his unlovely singing voice, he captivated his audiences with well-written tunes that adopted a new approach to lyrics.

They also began to think of him as a prophet and a political spokesman, a role that Dylan was uncomfortable with. To his dismay, Esquire Magazine put a collage of faces on its September 1965 cover under the title "4 of the 28 who count most with college rebels" consisting of Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro and Bob Dylan. Two were already assassinated and the other was a frequent and highly publicized target of CIA assassinations. This was not likely to ease the mind of somebody as anxious as Dylan to start with, all the more so now that he had begun to take lots of drugs.

The first sign of a growing disenchantment with the left occurred in 1963 after the National Guardian, a radical weekly newspaper with strong ties to the New Left, categorized him as a spokesman in sycophantic terms: "...Dylan utilizes the most trenchant weapons at his command -- a poetic imagination and contempt for injustice -- to denounce those who want to run it for him, whether they hide behind a KKK hood or a stockmarket ticker..."

In No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan, Robert Shelton describes Dylan's reaction:

The National Guardian piece exasperated Dylan. Publications beyond his command were now tailoring his image. Dylan felt he was being pushed, as Guthrie had been, into being a troubadour of the Old Left, a puppet laureate who would respond on call with a song for each cause. He tried with a song for each cause. He tried to pull back from the messianic role followers were thrusting at him, asking him to speak not only for the young folkniks but for all youth. Suze [Rutolo, Dylan's girlfriend] empathized with Bob's struggle for ideological independence. What Baez later oversimplified as Dylan's "retreat from responsibility" was considerably more complex. Dylan did not want his every word carved in stone, even though he sometimes seemed to walk around with a mallet and chisel in his hip pocket. I asked Suze why Bob appeared to be souring on the Left:

"I don't think he really soured on it, I think he always saw things personally. The Left opened a door to him, but he just saw more little boxes behind the door, factions that wanted something else from him. I remember just how he felt when he read that National Guardian story. It all came out as 'Our Spokesman.' Even then, he didn't want that. Everybody does that when they write something -- they turn it around to fit for them. Dylan wasn't Joe Hill then, or ever, and he did not want to be Joe Hill, then or ever. That kind of stuff turned him off."

On December 13, 1963, Dylan was to receive the Tom Paine Award at the annual fund-raising dinner of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC), a group set up to defend victims of McCarthyite repression. Dylan began drinking early in the evening and by the time he got up to make some remarks, he was in no mood to satisfy the expectations of a roomful of old CPers in formal wear. He delivered a stream of consciousness rant that shocked the audience, including the statement that he identified with Lee Harvey Oswald! Dylan seemed to write off political action, stating, "There's no black and white, left and right to me anymore; there's only up and down and down is very close to the ground. And I'm trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics," he also made sure to express his solidarity with Cuba, which was now under the gun as a result of the JFK assassination. He said, "So, I accept this reward -- not reward, award in behalf of Phillip Luce who led the group to Cuba which all people should go down to Cuba. I don't see why anybody can't go to Cuba. I don't see what's going to hurt by going any place." (Ironically, Luce would eventually break with the left and become the David Horowitz of his time.)

Clark Foreman, the ECLC Executive Director, wrote Dylan on November 2, 1964 asking for $6,000, the estimated amount lost from outraged attendees. Dylan wrote back offering to pay any amount that was deemed lost to his intervention there, but he would not take back his words. As Dave Marsh, long time radical music journalist, reported on Counterpunch, Dylan's letter of apology confirms his radical sympathies despite his own conflicted attempts to detach himself from a movement that was pigeonholing him. Marsh writes:

Most important, perhaps, it is not so much a farewell to protest politics but extremely political in a different way: His allegiance to the radicals of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], and to the kids in the Venceremos Brigade, which I presume is what he means by "the folks who went to Cuba." Note that he mentions Selma almost eighteen months before Bloody Sunday -- a message to those who believe Dylan paid only lip service to his civil rights involvements. ([James] Foreman spoke to me in late 2003 about having actively recruited him as an ally for SNCC and several SNCC people, notably Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Reagon emphasized that Dylan remained close to them after his protest apostasy.)

Quarrels with the left continued with Irwin Silber's open letter to Dylan in the pages of Sing Out magazine in November, 1964. (Silber would subsequently become the cultural editor of the National Guardian and the founder of Line of March, a Maoist group active in the 1970s and '80s.)

Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, innerprobing, self-conscious -- maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion. And it's happening on stage, too. You seem to be relating to a handful of cronies behind the scenes now -- rather than to the rest of us out front.

Now, that's all okay -- if that's the way you want it, Bob. But then you're a different Bob Dylan from the one we knew. The old one never wasted our precious time.

Perhaps this letter has been long overdue. I think, in a sense, that we are all responsible for what's been happening to you -- and to many other fine young artists. The American Success Machinery chews up geniuses at a rate of one a day and still hungers for more. Unable to produce real art on its own, the Establishment breeds creativity in protest against and nonconformity to the System. And then, through notoriety, fast money, and status, it makes it almost impossible for the artist to function and grow.

As he transformed himself into a rock musician, Dylan's songs became much more elliptical and surreal. This process was fostered no doubt by the "psychedelic" turn of the 1960s, as musicians like the Beatles and others began to explore inner dimensions of the psyche rather than examine society. Dylan's crowning achievement was the 1966 "Blonde on Blonde" record that explored themes of alienation and a search for identity. "Like a Rolling Stone," viewed by some as the greatest rock song of all time, begins:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall"
You thought they were all kiddin' you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin' out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Shortly after this record was made, Dylan injured himself in a motorcycle crash (the full extent is open to some question) and retreated from performing for a number of years. The records he made afterwards were inferior to earlier efforts. He also went through some bizarre religious conversions that left his fans bemused if not disgusted. Fortunately, he seems to have put all that behind him with the publication of Chronicles, volume one, which embodies good sense and a commitment to social justice.


· · · · · ·
Dylan, Bob: Chronicles Volume One, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2004, ISBN 0-7432-2815-2, 293 pages, $14.00 (paperback)

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Published October 10, 2005