Bob Dylan's journey matches a changing America

The singer is performing the best he has in years

American songwriter Bob Dylan accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. AFP

The Nobel laureate may have turned 80 this summer, but in many ways it is still Bob Dylan’s America.

The singer-songwriter bounded onto the stage in Washington last Thursday with astounding energy, engagement, bonhomie and performative power. His singing was his best in decades – robust, precisely phrased, often delicate and almost always clearly intelligible, the last often not true in recent years. The Covid-19 lockdown was clearly good for his long-suffering larynx.

Dylan delivered a dazzlingly noteworthy and timely set of songs steeped in “Americana”, a musical genre he essentially invented in his legendary, and long-withheld, 1967 recordings known as The Basement Tapes.

Americana was more broadly popularised by the 1968 album released by The Band, Dylan’s then backing group, entitled Music from Big Pink (the nickname for the house in which Dylan’s “basement tapes” were recorded). Those recordings were so consequential that they totally reoriented the careers of many well-known performers, such as the British musician Eric Clapton. Along with Dylan’s closely related and stripped-down 1967 album John Wesley Harding, these “tapes” established a robust alternative to the (arguably overblown) psychedelic rock music of The Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and innumerable imitations.

Another and still-ongoing Dylan deep-dive into the American songbook and cultural bayou decades later in his career commenced with his 2001 album Love and Theft. That title, tellingly, was adopted from a book by the historian Eric Lott that investigates how white Americans have engaged with, mimicked and suppressed black culture, especially music. That’s a theme close to Dylan’s own career and concerns. After all, the young Dylan began as both a champion of African-American civil rights and a keen student and, indeed, thief, of blues songs and styles (among countless others).

On Thursday night, his songs were largely performed in the “Chicago blues” musical style, which he hasn’t employed so powerfully since his earliest electric performances highlighted by Chicago blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Would a young Dylan be denounced and cancelled for appropriation if he repeated that career path today? Perhaps. But clearly the old man is beyond such attacks.

In his early 20s, Dylan emerged as a symbol of the budding counterculture of the early 1960s. Then he famously alienated much of his folk music and left-wing fan-base by morphing into a rock musician specialising in highly personal, often obscure, songs that did little to inspire social protest.

In a 1966 Manchester show, a spectator notoriously summed up the outrage over this supposed betrayal by shouting “Judas” at Dylan before he and his band launched into a blistering version of Like a Rolling Stone, his new hit at the time and arguably his most vicious song of contempt. For a songwriter steeped in Biblical symbolism, though to an extent not recognised yet then, “Judas” was a pointed barb indeed.

From then, Dylan performed innumerable self-reinventions while remaining the artist of his generation most successfully expressing and shaping American culture and also straddling popular and fine arts.

Yet, he remains mysterious. In Brownsville Girl, one of his best songs of the 1980s, he wrote: “The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter.” Much the same can be said of the man born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, and has been a master of personal obfuscation ever since. The only thing we know for sure about him is that his name isn’t Bob Dylan.

Like many American heroes, Dylan exemplifies the archetype of self-reinvention, except that he, along with a few others, has adopted it as a continuous process. Just when you think you have him figured out, “the carpet too is moving under you”, as he explained in his key 1965 song It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

Dylan’s most startling metamorphosis came in the late 1970s, when he horrified much of his established audience by re-emerging as a fundamentalist, literalist and apocalyptic born-again Christian.

Initially, he even refused to perform his earlier works and harangued stunned audiences with fire-and-brimstone sermons about an immanent day of judgement and the agonising eternal punishments awaiting infidels. Yet, those concerts, and some of the songs, were among his best, and well-attuned to the era of then president Ronald Reagan, if not his pre-existing fan-base.

These fundamentalist passions appeared to fade, along with record sales, after a few years, and under heavy pressure from his recording company, Columbia. Yet, a strong Biblical pretext was evident in the album John Wesley Harding, and a more overtly Christian legacy has been very slowly re-emerging in Dylan’s more recent releases.

This was unmistakable at the Washington concert. In perfect sync with America today, the show might as well have been entitled “The Sacred and the Profane”, as Dylan carefully oscillated between songs with worldly and identifiably Christian themes. This pattern fits perfectly into the zeitgeist of an America that is torn between politically empowered fundamentalists and a largely moderate and secular public.

Among the more unusual aspects of the concert – not only for Dylan but for any well-established performer – was a striking lack of any classics, hits or golden oldies. The lone exception, perhaps, was Gotta Serve Somebody, one of his best Christian fundamentalist songs, but which was probably included more for thematic than nostalgic purposes.

The set showed Dylan far more upfront about his distinctively Christian sentiments than at any time since the early 1980s, but thankfully without the fundamentalist tones. The ongoing American racial reckoning, religious passions and ambivalence, and the ageing yet often surprisingly robust quality of American society, were all enacted on stage by this now-elderly savant.

In the early 1960s, in many ways Dylan was America. And, decades later and in many other ways, he still is. Sixty years ago, an almost impossibly young Dylan seemingly emerged from “nowhere” – geographically and culturally – to express and define a suddenly transforming national culture. He retains an uncanny ability to channel a reviving, and as he portrays it, dynamic and still potent America.

Dylan’s Washington concert seemed anything but a swansong. Instead, it felt like another new beginning for one old man and the country he still seems able to instinctively express and embody.

Published: December 5th 2021, 2:52 PM
Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National