CHIMES OF FREEDOM: The Politics Of Bob Dylan's Art
review by Andrew Darlington
Mike Marqusee recounts how Dylan checks into London's Mayfair Hotel on 18th May 1962 to tape a small role in a BBC-radio play... without telling us its name was The Madhouse On Castle Street, broadcast the following January. Have any Bob-cats out there got a tape of that? But, own up, the 'Bob Dylan' part of the title is a flag of convenience. For this book is more a finely researched musico-historical chronicle of the Folk underground, and the odd leftie-subversive, socialist-agitational groups that supported, or sometimes contradicted it. The Unions, Syndicalists, Bohemians, Trotskyite Workers League, innovators and archivists, the activists and fellow-travellers who shaped the environment into which a young Robert Zimmerman stumbled, to discover, adapt and invent his own style. Yet it was through this strange social melting pot that the 1960s' subculture found its political consciousness. Cut adrift from both the Communist left and the McCarthyite right, it elided new solutions, of which Dylan's "high-strung endlessly fidgeting personality" was both a product, and a catalyst.
Marqusee gives the game away early by explaining how his own sixties Dylan experience "set me off, perhaps too often, looking for the aesthetic in the political and the political in the aesthetic." Some of the results of his quest will be familiar to those with a passing knowledge of the genre. Woody Guthrie, Bukka White, Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Folk archivist Alan Lomax, producer John Hammond. The Gerdes or the Gaslight Coffee Houses, the Hootenanny scene - and, in the UK, the CND. Then there's detailed histories of the actual events underlining Dylan's political songs - the real Emmett Till (recounted in his first-ever protest song), the assassination of Medgar Evers in Jackson Missisippi, as well as Hollis Brown and Hattie Carroll. Plus Oxford Town which decries white students, police and regional officials colluding in a vicious white supremacist oppression to block black James Meredith enrolling at the University of Mississippi.
Marqusee also documents Dylan's furtive thefts from earlier songs. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Falltakes its question-form from the Child-ballad Lord Randal, Blowin' In The Wind borrows from the slave-song No More Auction Block, Corrina Corrina lifts lines from Robert Johnson ("I got a bird that whistles..."), while he adapts Martin Carthy's Scarborough Fair into Girl From North Countryand Dominic Behan's Patriot Game into With God On Our Side. And yes, even though it's now blunted by repetition, Marqusee manages to reignite the relevance of "how many times can a man turn his head" in the light of the Civil Rights struggle. "In retrospect... timeless, abstract, naïve," not so when the segregation battles were filling US television screens with images from Birmingham, Alabama where thousands of marching black children were attacked by police with dogs and fire hoses. Or "how many times must the cannonball fly" in "the face of a prospective nuclear holocaust." Dylan absorbed influences like "blotting paper. He soaked everything up," with no time to waste and nothing to lose.
Yet far from being an astute career-move, as Marqusee perceptively points out "Dylan didn't sugar-coat the pill. He lacquered it with astringent," and in the pop scene of the time, such talents could hardly be considered a commercial advantage, "the politics he embraced in these songs were fashionable only among a small minority. That minority, however, was linked to a movement on the rise." Until - carried along by "the sheer velocity of events," there's electric Newport, July 1965, with its year-zero attitude. Dylan, who had first "helped make activism cool" by tightening the focus of previous anti-war songs into acute finger-pointing attack, now "helped make it uncool" too. From vision, into revision. While others were radicalising further out into the Yippies, or the Black Panthers, he was evolving away from the political, into the personal, "politics had been injected into the theatre of consciousness, and consciousness had become the theatre of liberation." And although his obsessive fan-loyalty diminishes album by album into the 1970s, moving on to Phil Ochs and... ahem, Bruce Springsteen, Marqusee's analysis remains as contentious. The target of Like A Rolling Stone, he claims... is Dylan himself! While Dylan's father was Abe Zimmerman, so when he recasts Genesis 22:1-3 into "god said to Abraham - kill me a son" (on Highway 61)... who, exactly is the 'son'? And even for post-motorcycle-accident albums Dylan's magpie-technique persists, I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine reconfigures the 1936 worker-activist song Joe Hill.