Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art
There used to be a time when Dylan was meaningful, when each of his albums, of his songs, was eagerly awaited by a growing cohort of fans. He disturbed them, challenged them, opened up their minds, and refused to lead them. He was their poet, not their leader. With him, rather than through him, they looked at the world and at themselves. Perhaps they changed the world, certainly they changed themselves. Then, after an uninterrupted series of flawless LPs, Dylan ceased to be infallible. He started to alternate gems and mediocre songs and he lost his grip on his generation. He turned into a great artist, one of a few, but he was no longer the ultimate musical and poetical genius of his time.
It is this early period of Dylan's life and music that Marqusee explores, namely six years and eight albums, from 1962 to 1968, from Bob Dylan to John Wesley Harding, through Freewheelin', The Times They Are A-Changing, Another Side, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. Marqusee is representative of a rather new trend of writers on music. Whereas until recently monographies tended to concentrate on the biographical and the aesthetical, they increasingly encompass a historical perspective. Take for instance, also in this month's instalment of Cercles reviews, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, by Devin McKinney, or Neil Nehring's opus on the Sex Pistols. This is precisely the task Marqusee has embarked upon: relocating Dylan's golden years' production within a specific historical, and social context, and tracing its roots in time and place so as to pay a better homage to both the political insights and the artistic achievement of a man Marqsee calls "a navigator." The political culture of the United States in the 1960s was marked by "the weakness of socialist traditions..., the absence of mass parties, the centrality of racial oppression, and the reality that America had become an empire"[p. 3]. The author's thesis is that Dylan's work succeeded in translating these years' political and cultural dynamic complexities. Far from delivering messages, Dylan provided inspiration, lessons, warnings at most. But time has elapsed, events have become forgotten, or misrepresented, their import blurred by conflictual, contradictory interpretations. Hence the need to reassess and examine critically Dylan's songs both as a succession of stylistic and political transmutations with which his followers tried to apprehend the world, and as a single, solid body of work, produced by a versatile but coherent artist. In this respect, how appropriate is the choice of Chimes of Freedom for a title, a track that can be considered as much as the last protest song and "the first of those comprised of 'chains of flashing images'"[p. 93].
Marqusee's method owes more to cultural history than to cultural studies. The latter's emphasis on theory (preferably French) is rejected in favour of a limpid, unassuming, but powerful reading of Dylan's most memorable songs, his vocal and song-writing techniques. At most, he indulges in a discussion of Greil Marcus's analysis of the Basement Tapes in his recent opus, Invisible Republic, or borrow information from Robert Shelton's and Clinton Heylin's bios. Particularly impressive are the pages on "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "With God on Our Side," "Like a Rolling Stone," "The Times They Are A-Changing," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" or "Highway 61 Revisited," (where Marqusee would have been well advised, for his biblical analysis of the song, to refer, along Kierkegaard and Auerbach, to Gil Bailie's analysis of the sacrifice of Abraham; the way Bailie relocates the sacrificial gesture within the context of mimetic violence and blind obedience to religious dictates is one of the most profound and illuminating I have read in recent years). Marqusee follows a chronological order (the "protest songs" period, the post-protest days, when Dylan launched into a radical critique of political involvement as such, the in/famous Newport '65 Festival, the years of reclusion) which enables him to deal with Dylan's response to the major events of the 1960s (the emergence of the New Left and the SDS, of CORE and SNCC, of Black Power and the Weathermen, the civil rights movement, the assassination of Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the 1968 Democratic Party convention, etc.).
Marqusee counterbalances the emphasis on texts (albeit relocated in time and space) by mapping the musical and political background of Dylan's formative years, particularly the folk and beat context (Allen Ginsberg, the Almanac Singers, the Kingston Trio, Woody Guthrie, The People's Song, Harry Smith's anthology for Moe Asch's Folkways label, or Phil Ochs, his contemporary). In recent years, marked by a bluegrass revival and the success of films like the Coens' O Brother, much as been written about the early days of American country music, in an attempt to recapture an idealized past, and strip the music of its political connotations. As a result, political folk, protest song, "chanson engagée," have been pushed back to the outer borders of musical essays. Writing about musics tainted by a socialist subtext must have seemed passé and utterly non-commercial. Is it purely coincidental that Marqusee is an American expat (currently put up by Britain)? Hence the value of books like Chimes of Freedom, which revive the hopes, dreams, and struggles of a whole generation of artists.
In the course of his essay, Marqusee grapples successfully with such tricky and essential concepts as "authenticity" in its complex relationship with the folk movement. As he writes, "Folk music promised a healing of the breach between production and consumption, performer and audience. It promised community and continuity"[p. 37]. Marqusee explores what Adorno derided as "the jargon of authenticity," an illusory, self-indulgent, and futile attempt to evade the dissatisfactions of capitalist society. Was the adoption by Dylan of Guthrie's persona, the very mask of authenticity, the signal that we had entered, as Baudrillard would put it, "the realm of the fake-authentic?" Wasn't it the beginning of an unending process which characterizes popular music, whereby new artists challenge established ones in the name of authenticity? Focusing on Dylan's cooptation of both white political folk (Guthrie) and roots blues (Robert Johnson, or Leadbelly), Marqusee demonstrates how Dylan achieved a level of authenticity, which whatever its depth, enabled his fans to relate to the various issues and struggles of the early 1960s, but also allowed the artist to step out of what was after all just a mask through irony and distance. For Dylan, the dilemma was indeed to retain street creed in an industry that packaged the true product of the street. As French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa has brilliantly argued in his essays, the irony is that the new mass anti-consumerism was propagated by the instruments of consumerism. "This here ain't a protest song or anything like that, cause I don't write protest song" was the standard introduction to "Blowin' in the Wind," which eerily prefigures how Bono would years later introduce "Sunday, Bloody Sunday."
should also praise Marqusee's erudition and free spirit which allows
him to trace Dylan's connection to genres as remote from folk as
soul, reggae, punk, rap, drum-and-bass, or even acid house. The
book itself is a pleasant, no frills but well conceived object,
with useful select bibliography, website listing, and discography,
lengthy notes and an index. One could perhaps merely object to Marqusee's
pessimistic conclusion on the rise of an aggressive new American
empire. After all, as Emmanuel Tood suggests, aren't the recent
manifestation of American power, but the ultimate efforts of a country
whose hegemony is slowly waning in face of rising European, Asian,
and Russian blocs? Come on, Dylan, "There must be a way out
of here." You got a clue?