Dylan: Knowing the Unknown

Bob Dylan: Archetypical Troubadour Hillbilly Rabbi Minstrel Mischief Maker National Treasure

Article 42 Dylan: Knowing the Unknown

This article is inspired by listening to Bob Dylan singing with friends including Donovan in London. What immediately follows is a lightly edited email to an old friend who runs a news aggregator website: https://sitrepworld.info/ on which was a link to the song ‘It’s all over now Baby Blue:’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyN-ya3rCPw&list=PL7B7E250ABE8B4E64&index=69

The email to my friend:

Interesting how different Bob D was to Donovan. Made him look so clean-cut and lower level.

I just watched a Netflix video (or part of it!) about how Dylan turned Brian Jones onto LSD. He also turned the Beatles onto marijuana apparently, so Bob is actually one of the patriarch’s of of that era’s psychedelic culture. At the time for some reason I thought him as not part of that whole thing, a sort of American folk singer type or something. Totally wrong!

In any case, what I find interesting about him over the years and still today – among many facets – is that he has both lasted and continued to change and develop and yet always remains unmistakably Dylan. His album Modern Times from about ten years ago is truly fantastic, albeit it is no longer psychedelic style rather some sort of blend of art, blues-rock, old man’s hard won wisdom and poetic mastery. If you ever heard his radio show “Theme Time Radio Hour” he provided a survey of American music – folk, blues, jazz etc. – going back to the turn of the twentieth century that is truly masterful in scope and commentary. He is without doubt a national treasure of 20th century America and thus far more than merely a brilliant Jewish boy masquerading as a rural hillbilly type flying high on 1960’s drugs and CIA_sponsored over-promotion.

Indeed, Joni Mitchell says that Dylan is a total phony. With all due respect to her, I think she mistakes the fact that his songs and performances are not a sincere expression of the inner Bob Zimmerman, in other words not of whomever he thinks of as ‘me’ when he is thinking of me – and sometimes one wonders if he indeed he ever thinks that way, so disassociated with any ‘me’ is that poetic voice. Put another way: neither his public persona when performing nor the voices articulated through the songs are solely a ‘me’ expression, rather each song has its own voice and he is merely their composer and singer. As a singer, yes, he has a distinctive and often very personal voice; but the songs stand on their own and are not necessarily expressing the singer’s personal view.

Which is perhaps why more than any other performer he is the voice of that generation and its culture, even for the English who had the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and many other gifted contemporary pop and rock stars.

This is because the place where those Dylan voices come from – as well illustrated in that clip you sent – is inscrutably unknowable. You can’t even say what the song means – at least I can’t. But every line is visually and emotionally arresting.

From: “It’s all over now, Baby Blue” by Bob Dylan:

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you

Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore

Strike another match, go start anew

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

Anyway, a real artist.

(End of email)

Every generation has some but not much more than a handful. There may be many highly entertaining celebrities like the great stars of the forties and fifties when the English-speaking world was still so culturally homogeneous but few of them lead people into new ways of thinking and feeling. Dylan is one such.

There is a price for such artistry and influence: not only must it be hard to craft one’s own truly personal journey in the midst of such fame – though Dylan seems to have bitten that bullet in his forties and figured it out somehow – but also those of a previous generation who did not get exposed will find themselves a tad separated from those who did get the transmission. Especially since even those who did get such transmission have little or no idea what it is or was!

Here is another example of his lyrics, from his song Visions of Johanna:

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial

Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while.”

It all fits together perfectly. It seems to make sense. But what is it saying, what does it mean?

Personally, I have no idea but it does express some sort of perspective which both contains and transcends classical western cultural reference points. Consider the words such as museum, infinity, trial, salvation; these are all sober, civic, academic, religious and ordinary words. There is nothing especially hallucinogenic or revolutionary about them, no hint of anarchy or social change.

Yes, there are logical connections you can piece together if you are taking time like now to read through the lyrics rather than simply hearing them being sung. Museums store objects from the past which put timelessness on trial somehow; and voices in this situation echo, presumably from the past, what something must be like after a while, i.e. over time. And that something is salvation. So actually it all fits together quite well; it’s not gibberish at all. Although what it means exactly will forever remain inscrutable.

That said, they somehow express that there is a different view of things, something beyond, something which the listener shares, a message the listener is receiving, a transmission – and maybe also something reminiscent of Secretary Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns!’

It seems this blog is exploring these ‘known unknowns.’ Sometimes it is highlighting various invisible forces or influences we all encounter in life and yet often don’t stop to examine. But this principle manifests in many ways so hopefully it will be enjoyable to explore them, sometimes in the form of intellectual analysis, sometimes as stories or little cultural speculations such as this piece.

Published by The Baron

Retired non-profit administrator.

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