His songs question authority, confront institutional thinking with skepticism, mock the all-knowing.
If I had to distill Bob Dylan’s “message” to a single sentence, it would be this: Think for yourself. His songs could be characterized as an instructional manual in critical thinking, except he’d cringe at the idea that he is anybody’s teacher, let alone their savior, as he was once called. His songs question authority, confront institutional thinking with skepticism, mock the all-knowing. They punch up, in the voice of a poet who sounds like a dirt farmer.
The endless hype about Dylan from diehard fans, English professors, critics and other nerds (I’m guilty as charged) is enough to prompt eye-rolls from those who never got it, who can’t get past the voice, the wordy songs, the cryptic lyrics. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. Dylan never thought of himself as a crowd-pleaser or a universally beloved pop star. Inconvenient truths mean forgoing such comforts.
Instead, he challenged our conception of how a singer should sound and what a song could say. And he dared to think pop music could be art. His influence flows through everyone from the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix to Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce. Yes, Kendrick Lamar, who upon the release of his 2015 masterpiece, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” declared, “I wanted this record to be talked about the same as Bob Dylan was talked about.” Two years before, Pharrell Williams had described Lamar as “this era’s Bob Dylan.”
Cover art for Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” album.
And how about Beyonce? She was citing Dylan and quoting his lyrics as an inspiration as she was preparing her 2013 album, “Beyonce,” a feminist celebration that changed the course of her career. “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours,” she posted on Instagram back then, crediting Dylan’s 1963 song “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”
More than 50 years ago, Dylan was invading the dreams of the folk movement. By the time he was 23 he had written songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and the folk establishment was anointing him as its savior. Then something strange happened on the way to the coronation. Dylan started asking questions in his songs instead of providing answers. He rebelled against the rebels.
Murray Lerner, a young director with a poet’s heart, documented Dylan’s reinvention over three consecutive appearances at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963-65 in the extraordinary documentary, “The Other Side of the Mirror.” Dylan never looked back, but his transformation of protest music endures.
Today, there’s another wave of protest music upon us, as young artists channel their anxiety, sadness and rage over the state of things into songs that dare us to change the world, or at least think differently about it. Songs such as Run the Jewels’ “Walking in the Snow” and Shamir’s “In This Hole” to Angelica Garcia’s “Jicama” and SAULT’s ”Sorry Ain’t Enough” report from the front lines and raise a series of questions: “Who are we?” “How did we get here?” “What kind of people do we want to be?”
Kendrick Lamar didn’t have all the answers in “Alright,” but the 2015 song turned into a soundtrack for the emerging #BlackLivesMatter movement because it so eloquently voiced a community’s anxiety and pain: “Wouldn’t you know, we been hurt, been down before/When our pride was low/Looking at the world like ‘Where do we go?’”
Earlier this year, Dylan resurfaced with another album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” that asked much the same question. “How much longer can it last?”
It’s a reminder that Dylan in many ways paved the way for the generations of artists since he arrived who define themselves by speaking up.
Dylan’s contemporary voice is a rasp, but then it was never particularly pleasing, nor was it intended to be. The young Dylan at Newport has a bit of what Walt Whitman, in his poem “Song of Myself,” called the “barbaric yawp,” the voice of the untamed, the “untranslatable.” It’s very much a product of the singer’s northern Minnesota upbringing, an adaptation of the voices from the worlds of rock ‘n’ roll and gospel that he beamed in from faraway radio stations as a kid late at night.
Most of all, Dylan’s voice — both sonically and artistically — can’t be understood without first taking in “The Anthology of American Folk Music,” a compilation of 78 r.p.m. recordings issued commercially from 1926 to ‘34 and compiled by collector Harry Smith in a 1952 box set. It contained 84 songs, most sung in voices expressing deeply-embedded visions of trauma and salvation that still sound positively otherworldly. The profound influence these songs had on the emerging folk movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s can’t be overestimated. Dylan himself was gobsmacked.
It was not lost on Dylan that the singers on the anthology were the children and grandchildren of those who had endured, fought in or in many cases died in the Civil War. Their songs had a gravitas unmatched by contemporary music. This, he concluded, is what he needed to do. “Back there,” he wrote in his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One,” “America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected. There was nothing synthetic about it. The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write.”
Rock ‘n’ roll seemed ill-equipped to take on serious issues, still celebrating teen romance, cars, surfing and the latest dance craze. That is, until Dylan came along.
Folk songs defined the early ‘60s counter-culture in response to the civil rights movement, the alarm over the Cuban missile crisis and the inexorable march into the Vietnam War. Rock ‘n’ roll seemed ill-equipped to take on these serious issues, still celebrating teen romance, cars, surfing and the latest dance craze. That is, until Dylan came along.
The stark, minimalist black-and-white documentary “The Other Side of the Mirror” doesn’t try to explain Dylan. There is no narration and scant commentary, only the music, divided into three acts: Dylan at the most revered of folk festivals, in consecutive years, 1963 to ’65. He arrives in ’63 with topical songs and the folk movement literally surrounding him with worshipful gazes. In ’64, Joan Baez — the queen of the folk revival — is doting on him like an indulgent older sister, draping a guitar over his neck and harmonizing cheek to cheek with a singer who didn’t even look like he was old enough to shave. By ’65, Dylan was trading his acoustic sound, topical songs and work shirt for an electric guitar and a leather jacket, a rocker with hurricane hair and compositions steeped in abstraction. In that whirlwind transition he changed 20th Century music.
Before he died in 1964, the great soul singer Sam Cooke understood what Dylan was up to. One would think that Dylan’s voice would’ve been a turnoff to an artist raised in the Chicago neighborhoods where Mahalia Jackson sang, who toured with Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples. But when Cooke heard “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he was deeply moved that this white kid from Minnesota somehow understood a black man’s pain: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?”
“From now on,” Cooke said, “it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.” In response, Cooke wrote his greatest song, the civil-rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Dylan probably could have kept on cranking out protest songs for many more years. Heaven knows there was plenty to rail against as African-Americans struggled for equality and presidents sent tens of thousands of young men to fight and die in Vietnam.
But it wasn’t to be.
The larger story told by “The Other Side of the Mirror” is that Dylan freed himself from the protest song, and redefined the notion of “rebellion.” Instead of writing songs that pointed fingers at easy, if undoubtedly contemptible targets — masters of war, crooked politicians, racist grifters — he turned inward, and made his revolt one of self-interrogation, an aesthetic choice that wasn’t so much about “betraying” a cause as finding a context in which he could grow as an artist.
Dylan saw the finger-pointing topicality of folk as a dead end. Instead, he infused folk with electricity, ambiguity and mystery. Was it even folk music anymore? That was among the questions raised by his Newport appearances, but Dylan was uninterested in such hair-splitting.
“Folk songs are evasive,” Dylan wrote in “Chronicles.” They are “the truth about life, and life is more or less a lie.”
At Newport in ’65, he was coming off six months in which he would reinvent his sound. Half of “Bringing It All Back Home,” released in March, was electric. On July 20, he released “Like a Rolling Stone,” with its whip-crack opening drum beat snapping everyone to attention, Mike Bloomfield’s barbed-wire guitar fills shooting sparks through each verse and Al Kooper’s organ chords enveloping it all in a surreal swirl. “How does it feeeeel to be out on your own,” Dylan snarled, stretching each syllable. He wasn’t singing a song so much as delivering a reckoning. But to whom? And for what?
Lots of questions. At Newport on July 25, 1965, a few days after the song started blasting on radio stations across the land, the audience felt the same way as Dylan took the stage, turned to a band with whom he’d had one rehearsal that afternoon and commanded them: “Let’s go!” One of his new electric songs, “Maggie’s Farm,” galloped out of the gate. It was followed by “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Kooper’s carnival-from-hell organ dominates the mix, with Bloomfield slicing and dicing in and out, like a boxer counterpunching with Dylan’s harmonica. The band lurches like a drunk and then lashes out, a demeanor that suits Dylan’s cutting delivery. How does it feel? The audience response verges on confusion; some boos are clearly audible but mostly it’s just an unsettled din, the sound of innocent bystanders witnessing an accident.
Dylan returns for an encore alone with his acoustic guitar, as if to reassure the fans yearning for the Bobby of Newports past. “You might like this one,” he says as the audience agitation morphs into shouts and pleas. He plays “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” as a kind of peace offering. The audience consternation turns into a tsunami of full-throated cheers, voices hoarse with relief and appreciation. But Dylan wasn’t clinging to his past and his audience’s expectations. He was saying goodbye to them. “Whatever you wish to keep,” he sang, “you better grab it fast.”