If you think that human lives are supposed to be defined by consistency and logic, then Bob Dylan is the enigma you’ll never crack.
At various points Dylan has been both an activist and a despiser of politics, a poet of the sacred and the profane, a celebrant of Black Panther heroes and a quoter of Confederate poets.
He’s played virtually every genre of popular music and produced both epic political and personal statements and seemingly inconsequential ditties at every phase of his long career, which recently included becoming the first musician to win a Nobel Prize in literature.
But what if glorious contradictions are not signs of lack of integrity but a condition of 20th- and 21st-century life to be embraced?
Dylan has said that you can learn everything there is to know about him through his songs — if you know where to look.
I think he’s right. You can make sense of Dylan’s journey — and why that journey has become the soundtrack of countless thousands of lives, across multiple generations — from as few as three key lyrics from his vast treasure trove.
1. Questions: Bob Dylan broke into the public consciousness in 1962 with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and he’s still playing the tune today. Here’s the second verse:
“How many years can a mountain exist, before it is washed to the sea? / How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free? / How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
These are lines so familiar it’s easy to forget that they’re actually questions — about why injustice exists and why it persists, that can be explored — and were explored by Dylan.
His first answer mirrored conventional left-liberal thinking of the early 1960s. He brilliantly unpacked the structures of midcentury Southern racism in “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and exposed the military-industrial complex in “Masters of War.”
But before long he concluded that the answer ran even deeper, more systemic, and involved not only the so-called bad guys but the supposed good guys too. Injustice and the cheapening of human life are so deeply embedded in the social order that it would be foolish to imagine that a simple idealism could counter it.
That’s the message of 1964’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” his most full-throttled critique of American society and its delusions. It closes with the unforgettable line, “If my thought dreams could be seen / they’d probably put my head on a guillotine.”
2. Busy being born and keeping on keeping on: To the activist left’s disappointment, the takeaway line in “It’s Alright, Ma” wasn’t a call to political revolution, but its deft observation that “he not busy being born is busy dying.” Dylan’s strategy for avoiding the guillotine was to affirm life by steering clear of the machinery of power, start a family and follow his art wherever it would take him.
Having jumped in and out of the rock ’n’ roll scene in 1965 and 1966, Dylan revisited the entire back catalog of the American folk tradition, aligning himself with Johnny Cash and country music, and writing songs about family and parenthood — which soon turned into songs about the heart-wrenching pain of an epic divorce.
That pain was filtered through lyrical structures that defied linear conceptions of time and conventional narrative form. Consider “Tangled Up in Blue,” once described by Dylan as a “song about three people all in love with each other at the same time.” Dylan recorded it in September 1974, and kept rewriting it for his concert performances until his 2015 tour, during which he yet again introduced new lyrics.
Fundamentally the song is about the power of endurance. When everything falls apart, the only thing Dylan knows how to do is “keep on keeping on like a bird that flew.” He survived his storms with a little help from on high.
3. Pressing on: In the wake of his divorce, Dylan staged a worldwide big-band tour — and then found Jesus, to the bewilderment of many fans. Never did Dylan sing with more conviction or naked honesty than in the gospel tours of 1979-’81. The cathartic moment is the second verse of “Pressing On.” You can feel Dylan’s soul quiver when he sings: “Shake the dust off of your feet, don’t look back / Nothing can hold you down, nothing that you lack.”
At my first Dylan show, as a college student in 1991, I couldn’t quite believe that the middle-age guy on stage was the same person who wrote all those songs I’d absorbed. But then the band went away and it was just Bob, guitar and harmonica, performing “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a courtroom drama with a Black Lives Matter theme, with as much conviction as the day as it was written. I knew I was seeing the same man, and felt carried back to 1964. In Dylan’s hands, past, present and future all blend together.
Dylan has had an artistic revival, including most recently the 2012 song, “Pay in Blood,” an apocalyptic takedown of America’s crimes against black humanity. But he’s never strayed far from the agenda laid out in “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
The constant rebirths and reinventions have kept him from dying — artistically and probably literally. Rather than see the Nobel Prize as a final honor, Dylan will see it as just another joint on the road — and keep on keeping on until he reaches the next one. S
Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and the former director of the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.