Socialist Worker

Bob Dylan: reluctant hero who spoke for his generation

Chronicles, the new book by Bob Dylan gives an insight into the writing of folk music, says Roger Huddle

Issue No. 1932

“A song is like a dream, and you try and make it come true. They’re like strange countries that you have to enter. You can write a song anywhere, in a railroad compartment, on a boat, on horseback – it helps to be moving” – Chronicles, p165.

This is a book about music and learning the craft of songwriting. It is an autobiography of an artist, and concentrates on those things that inform and shape his art.

Dylan knows what people expected from his book and gives them the opposite. It is not a rock star’s tale, or a gossip rant. Unlike his only other book, Tarantula, (1967), it is not experimental or obscure.

It sets out to right no wrongs. There are no photographs from his family album or of him performing with the famous.

Nor is the book a narrative of a life. In fact it only covers a few years – moments that Dylan sees as points of change. The opening and closing parts concentrate on his time in New York in 1961, before making his first album, before becoming “Bob Dylan”.

The middle tells the tale of his fight to remain sane and find a refuge from fame. It was a time when he tried to raise his family in peace, pushing his early years away, denying that he was any kind of leader, that he held the secrets of the universe.

He overstates his non-involvement, but given how people broke into his home just to be there, the constant house moves to find obscurity, and the demonstrations on the street outside his house demanding he lead assaults on the government, you can understand his reluctance.

The centre of the book is the making of the album Oh Mercy in 1987. From each of these moments he writes about his early life, characters he knows and the music business.

The late 1950s and early 1960s – my teenage years – were dominated by the Cold War, the atomic bomb, the rise of the civil rights movement and, slowly, the Vietnam War. I first heard Dylan in 1963, when a friend came to my house clutching The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, telling me I had to hear it.

It was unlike any other music I had heard. The songs – “Oxford Town”, “Masters of War”, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” – went directly to the issues of war, racism, the lunacy and hypocrisy of society’s dominant ideas.

There were songs about love and loss, “Corrina, Corrina” and “Girl From the North Country”. Dylan fitted, like a glove, the awakening consciousness of my friends and myself.

Later, as I became politically involved, I found thousands who felt the same. During the next few years Dylan produced eight albums that changed the structure – both the sound and content – of this kind of music. Those years are not covered in this volume.

He writes in Chronicles, “These songs were written under different circumstances never to repeat themselves.” He writes that other artists, in touch with the feelings and temperament of their times, would write songs that will “see it for what it is and reveal it with hard words and vicious insight”.

This was in 1987, and as an example he sites rappers like Kurtis Blow, Ice-T, Public Enemy and NWA: “These guys definitely weren't standing around bullshitting.”

The two major influences on Dylan are folk music, particularly Woody Guthrie, and the blues, particularly Robert Johnson. But it is clear from Chronicles that he also listens to everything else.

When you tell people you like folk music you usually get this odd grin of condolence. But the music, traditional music, is fantastically rich and varied wherever it comes from. Dylan meets the great bebop pianist Thelonius Monk in 1961, who asks what he plays. Dylan answers, “Folk music,” and Monk responds, “We all play folk music.”

In traditional music every immigrant brings with them his or her music. This folds into the new culture, and is reborn in changed landscapes and changed times.

This folk music of Thelonius Monk and Dylan is rural and urban, black and white. It is this great multicultural canvas on which Dylan creates his art. He sings songs of the “glory of man not his defeat”.

In Chronicles he writes about his love of the music and the America it represents. This is clearly another America to the one of Bush, imperialism and war. That’s why I always laugh at those who say to oppose US oppression is to be anti-American.

Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume 1, is published by Simon and Schuster (£16.99)

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Sat 18 Dec 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1932
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