Unlike a Rolling Stone: Why Bob Dylan, Troubadour of the Revolution, Turned Homeward

Article excerpt

In the cultural firmament of the 1960s few figures loom quite as large as Bob Dylan. During the early years of that tumultuous decade the young folksinger made all the right moves in establishing himself at the vanguard of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements. He performed at several benefits for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and took the stage with Joan Baez at the March on Washington. Later, he performed the songs "With God on Our Side" and "Only a Pawn in Their Game" for a few hundred black farm workers at a Greenwood, Mississippi voter-registration rally.

Despite his later assertions that he was "never a protest singer," these actions seemed calculated to establish him as exactly that. Dylan's songs from the period, which included "Masters of War" "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" "The Times They Are a-Changin'," and "Blowin' in the Wind" became the de facto soundtrack for the swiftly escalating countercultural insurgency.

This material--along with the more hedonistic "electric" songs from the mid-'60s albums "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde"--is still what most people think of when they think of Bob Dylan. Yet in 1967, at the very apex of the psychedelic '60s, a very different Bob Dylan emerged--one rooted in the "old songs" and the old ways. Some observers of a conservative bent, picking up on the singer's later avowed fondness for Barry Goldwater, have concluded that Dylan took a decisive turn toward the political right at this point.

That is probably a case of wishful thinking, insofar as Dylan has never displayed any kind of a coherent political philosophy. (Hillsdale College historian John Willson notes that the folk singer possessed "all the political savvy of Barbie" and Dylan himself writes in in his memoir, "I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics") We are on firmer ground in saying that Dylan, after leading the revolution for a time, recused himself from the movement and became something of a traditionalist--albeit an idiosyncratic one.

On a personal level this involved getting married, moving to the country, and having a lot of kids. For a time he gave up smoking, drinking, and the various other substances that had fueled his manic outpourings over the previous years and had almost led to his demise. Journalists and commentators at the time attributed this transformation to his convalescence following an alleged motorcycle accident in July 1966. Whether or not the accident actually happened (and there are no hospital records to corroborate it), the young songwriter used the story as a pretext to pull himself off the fast track.

Inevitably, with the downtime came introspection. "When I [moved to] Woodstock" Dylan wrote years later in his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, "it became very clear to me that the whole counterculture was one big scarecrow wearing dead leaves. It had no purpose in my life" This revelation brought with it some pretty serious implications for Dylan's songwriting. If the "spokesman of his generation" repudiated said generation, would he have anything left to write about?

The answer turned out to be a decisive "yes": He wrote enough to fill the albums "John Wesley Harding" "Nashville Skyline" "New Morning" and "Planet Waves"--what would be a career's worth for anyone else. Writing from a position of stability for the first time in his life, Dylan imbued his new material with warmth and melody. The incisive cruelty of such earlier songs as "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Positively 4th Street" gave way to the simple and heartfelt "If Not for You":

   If not for you my sky would fall
   Rain would gather too
   Without your love I'd be nowhere at all
   I'd be lost if not for you

This was not the most poetic or groundbreaking stuff Dylan had ever written, but it was real and pure. The new songs were also notable for their concision. Waking from the fever dream of "Desolation Row" with its ten verses crammed to overflowing with evocative nonsense, Dylan arrived at the poignant "Forever Young":

   May your hands always be busy
   May your feet always be swift
   May you have a strong foundation
   When the winds of changes shift
   May your heart always be joyful
   May your song always be sung
   May you stay forever young

To be fair, no one else has ever written anything quite like "Desolation Row" But "Forever Young" has a universality that reaches far beyond the earlier song's core audience of agitators, hipsters, and English majors. …