Shakespeare in the Alley

Show eight -- myths



Dylan debunks the false myths of “true love” in “Love Sick”  and  American righteousness in "With God on Our Side,” seeking those true myths which lead to salvation and seeks to promote true myths which help us find our place in the eternal rather than the immediate.

The "true love" myth of 50's love songs is discussed in chapter one of The Artist in the Marketplace, my dissertation on Dylan's poetics. This chapter is online. Click on the title.




Welcome back, gentle listeners.  We’ve spent a couple of shows on Dylan’s love songs and a couple on his ballads.  I wanted to look at these forms to challenge some of the sterotypical images of Dylan.  Dylan has objected many times to the way people view him.  On the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks he does it in “Idiot Wind”:

People see me all the time and they just can't remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.
Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at,
I couldn't believe after all these years, you didn't know me better than that
Sweet lady.


Certainly Dylan has protested repeatedly against being labeled a “protest singer.”  In his 2004 memoir Chronicles Vol. 1 he looks back on his early years in the Village.  He writes this:
The term “protest singer” didn’t exist any more than ther term “singer-songwriter.”  You were a performer or you weren’t, that was about it—a folksinger or not one.  “Songs of dissent” was a term people used but even that was rare.  I tried to explain later that I didn’t think I was a protest singer, that there’d been a screwup.  I didn’t think I was protesting anything any more than I thought that Woody Guthrie songs were protesting anyting.  I didn’t think of Woody as a protest singer.  If he is one, then so is Sleepy John Estes and Jelly Roll Morton.  What I was hearing pretty regularly, though, were rebellion songs and those really moved me….  The rebel was alive and well, romantic and honorable.  (83)

Dylan is right, of course: he was and is a rebel.  Because of this, it sometimes comes as a surprise when I say that nearly half his songs are love songs.  When viewed within the perspective of American popular music in general, however, it is actually unusual that  half are NOT love songs.   Even today, most popular songs your hear on the radio are about the love relationship in some way.  But it was even more so before Dylan emerged on the scene. In 1955, when Dylan entered high school, nearly 85% of all popular songs concerned different stages in the "drama of courtship."   The remaining 15% were of  many kinds including dance songs such as  “Let’s do the twist,”  general narrative ballads on love themes such as Marty Robin’s  “El Paso,”  a ballad recounting in first person the tale of a love-struck cowboy who kills a rival and then dies trying to return to the arms of his “Mexican maiden” in Rosie’s cantina.  A few were religious songs  such as “I Believe,” and a few were comic songs about such things as “Flying Purple People Eaters.” 

By 1966, however, only 65% of popular song hits concerned stages in the courtship process.  The remaining songs, according to a study published in Popular Music and Society, had lyrics which "reveal more specific concerns" and one especially:  the role of the individual in the conventional world.   Dylan, if not the cause of this shift, was certainly a major contributor and a major influence.  We can see that concern for preserving individual identity in “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”


Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don't steal, don't lift
Twenty years of schoolin'
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don't wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don't wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don't work
'Cause the vandals took the handles


Yes, jump down a manhole and light yourself a candle: that’s the poet’s way of saying preserve you individuality.  Besides the emergence of a concern about the individual's relationship to society, usually in songs which enjoin the listener, in the words of the study,  "to think for one's self, no matter what the consequences,”  the researchers also found a "second major shift" in the "attitudes towards alternative styles of courtship and boy-girl relations," a shift from "passive" waiting for a romantic relationship to "happen" to an active quest for a good relationship, a satisfactory one.  And that’s Dylan’s theme throughout his career.  In 1965 he tells Baby Blue
“strike another match, go start anew” 
1983 he asks,
PLAY “But what's a sweetheart like you doin' in a dump like this?”

So many of Dylan’s songs urge us to take an active role in life rather than passively accepting whatever happens.  Sometimes it’s as overt as “will you please crawl out your window,” but usually it’s more subtle, and sometimes ironic, as in the final song on the 2001 album Love and Theft

I've got my back to the sun 'cause the light is too intense
I can see what everybody in the world is up against
Can't turn back, you can't come back, sometimes we push too far
One day you'll open up your eyes and you'll see where you are

Sugar baby get on down the road, you ain't got no brains nohow
You went years without me, might as well keep goin' now

Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff
Plenty of places to hide things here if you want to hide them bad enough
I'm staying with Aunt Sally, but you know she not really my aunt
Some of these memories, you can learn to live with and some of'em you can't

Sugar baby get on down the line, you ain't got no brains nohow
You went years without me, might as well keep goin' now


Open up your eyes and see where you are: that’s been the theme of the poets and the prophets for thousands of years.   Dylan's songs transcend the specific and immediate situations and bring us face to face with something which is beyond words and yet isevoked by his words.  That’s the poet’s job.

In the love song shows I pointed out how Dylan's love songs go beyond rejection of the phony "True Love" myth and express a realistic view of human love.  In some of them,  the man-woman relationship becomes a metaphor not only of Dylan's relationship to his audience but of the artist-audience relationship in general.  I discussed his 1965 treatment of this theme in “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” where he seems to be warning us of the coldness of the world:

Now the wintertime is coming,
The windows are filled with frost.
I went to tell everybody,
But I could not get across.
Well, I wanna be your lover, baby,
I don't wanna be your boss.
Don't say I never warned you
When your train gets lost.

It runs throughout his career and it is still there on Love and Theft in 2001.  If you haven’t heard this album, prepare yourself for something different (but then we’ve almost come to expect something different from this artist):

The seasons they are turning and my sad heart is yearning
To hear again the songbird's sweet melodious tone
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone

The dusky light the day is losing
Orchids, poppies, black eyed susan
The earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone

The air is thick and heavy all along the levee
Where the geese into the countryside have flown
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone


Yes, we see here the artist in the marketplace, this Shakespeare in the alley, asking us, his audience, to meet him.  He’s said it so many times before, and he’s still saying it.   He is asking us to look with new eyes, to rebel against the false myths which have been sold to us. 

The exploding of false myths which lead us astray is a central concern running through Dylan’s songs.  Just as his love songs challenge the true love myth, his other songs challenge other myths, but the point of “Moonlight” is that he can’t expose those phony myths unless we will meet him in the moonlight, alone.  That’s what this series of shows trys to do: point the way to where Dylan the artist waits for us, in the moonlight, alone.

Well, I'm preaching peace and harmony
The blessings of tranquility
Yet I know when the time is right to strike
I take you 'cross the river, dear
You've no need to linger here
I know the kinds of things you like

The clouds are turning crimson, the leaves fall from the limbs 'n
The branches cast their shadows over stone
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone


Only when we meet him there can he begin to recreate those true myths, the myths which give life meaning.  The word "myth" is especially appropriate because its usage reflects one of Dylan's central concerns, the loss of meaning in modern life.  Myths, the real ones, at one time reflected the spiritual way to understand the meaning of life, the organic view of the universe for communities of people.  They came under attack as superstition by the rational thinkers of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.   By the nineteenth century the word “myth” was often used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictonary puts it, "a purely fictitious narrative . . . embodying some popular idea."  This depraved idea of myth still dominates, as is demonstrated by our common use of the word.  You’ve seen it in book titles and newspaper articles used to mean the opposite of "reality".  But the real myths have a quite different definition.  Philip Wheelwright defines myth as "a story or a complex of story elements taken as expressing, and therefore as implicitly symbolizing, certain deep-lying aspects of human and transhuman existence."  (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics).

Dylan rebels against the "True Love" myth of much popular music because it fails to reach those deep levels on which myth proper functions, because it creates a superficial and therefore sterile vision of human existence.  The love songs which Dylan and I grew up on in the 50s are in general selling a phony myth.  They evoke a strong emotional response for those of us were coming of age with them.  I still get sentimental when I hear the Platters singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” or the Everly Brothers singing “Wake Up Little Suzie,” but most of those pre-Dylan love songs are so phony. 

Further, some of them degrade our common metaphor for the transhuman existence:  these are lines from “My True Love” by Jack Scott in 1957:  "I prayed to the Lord to send me a love,/ He sent me an angel from heaven above."

 This kind of false myth obscures one's vision of both romantic love and that more universal love the Greeks called agape.  It is because of its pretensions to myth, because it replaces something of spiritual significance with something trite, that I use the word "myth" in signifying that illusion which popular music calls "True Love."  That’s not what we see in Dylan’s love songs. Sometimes he tells us this quite plainly, as in the opening song on the 1997 Time Out of Mind.

“Love Sick” from time out of mind

               I'm walking,
through streets that are dead
walking with you in my head

               My feet are so tired
My brain is so wired
And the clouds are weeping

               Did I,
hear someone tell a lie
Did I,
hear someone's distant cry

               I spoke like a child
You destroyed me with a smile
while i was sleeping

               I'm sick of love
That I'm in the thick of it
This kind of love
I'm so sick of it

               I see,
I see lovers in the meadow
I see,
I see silhouettes in the window
I watch them 'til they're gone
and they leave me hangin' on
to a shadow

               I'm sick of love
I hear the clock tick
this kind of love
I'm lovesick

the silence can be like thunder
I wanna take to the road of plunder

               Could you ever be true?
I think of you and I wonder

               I'm sick of love
I wish I'd never met you
I'm sick of love
I'm tryin' to forget you

               Just don't know what to do
I'd give anything to be with you

Yes, Dylan conveys the problem with false ideas of love and he still says “It Ain’t Me Babe,” but in a more complex way.  He challenges us on these recent album even more than in earlier ones. 

But "True Love" is by no means the only false myth which Dylan is rebelling against.  There are two false myths which are strongly associated in most people's minds with the social turmoil of the sixties:  one is the myth of White Superiority, the other the myth of  American Righteousness.  These myths led to the major social movements of the sixties:  the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement.   Dylan came to New York just as the rebellion against these false myths was emerging, and his songs of rebellion against these myths led to the label “protest singer” which he also rebelled against.  The sixties proved to be a pivotal decade in American history, a decade of rebellion against these false myths which dominated the American psyche.  Dylan attacks the myth of white superiority in a number of songs, but one of the most significant ones was written shortly after the assisanitation of Medger Evers in Mississippi.  In it Dylan looks beyond the murderer himself to the underlying causes, and says that the killer is “Only a Pawn in Their Game.”  

So I’d like to turn now to his attack on the myth of American Righteousness.  Sometimes this gets confused with patriotism.

            It is important to note that Dylan does not simply reject these false myths but gets at the core of their destructiveness by revealing their impingement on the self.  Myths help define us, so a false myth will help to create a phony sense of identity—in essence, destroying identity.  False myths destroy authentic identity by creating phony roles which we must play.  That’s what has happened to Ramona:

I've heard you say many times
That you're better 'n no one
And no one is better 'n you.
If you really believe that,
You know you got
Nothing to win and nothing to lose.
From fixtures and forces and friends,
Your sorrow does stem,
That hype you and type you,
Making you feel
That you must be exactly like them.

The hype has caused Ramona to lose part of her own identity.   It doesn’t matter if it’s left-wing hype or right-wing hype, once you try to be a part of a world that just don’t exist, you lose your sense of reality,  your sense of identity.  One of Dylan’s earliest attacks on the myth of American Righteousness comes in his ironic review of American history, history being, as they say, the story told by the winners. "With God on Our Side" is one of his most celebrated anti-war songs from the early sixties, but it’s more than just that.  The opening verse, by effacing self, reminds us of the personal level which is always omitted in the history books:

FIRST VERSE of “With God on Our Side” from AS:
Oh, my name it is nothin',
My age it means less,
The country I come from
Is called the midwest,
I's taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side.

As the song progresses the contradictions pile up and the speaker becomes increasingly disturbed.   It’s interesting to note that the young Dylan, the pre-folk era Dylan, the high school Dylan, had wanted to become a military officer. But this is a later Dylan looking back on that naïve youth.  He keeps the relationship of political perspective to the personal perspective before us by use of the personal pronoun, creating a narrative with which we can all identify:


               Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.

               Oh the Spanish-American
War had its day
And the Civil War too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I's made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side.

               Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side.

               When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side.

               I've learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side.

The rhetorical strategy of the song emerges in the next two stanzas : after beginning with a naïve and nameless narrator who “accepts it all bravely,” Dylan moves from the first person singular, the ‘I’ to first person plural, the ‘we.’  This has the effect of forcing us to identify with the narrator so that in rejecting the false myth  as articulated by this narrator we are forced to question our own view of American history.  The effect is to make the listener question the phony picture of American history as presented in school history books and by our politicians.  The song doesn’t ask the questions for the listeners but makes us ask the questions of ourselves, thus creating what the psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we're forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God's on your side.


Had Phil Ochs written the song he would probably have stopped here.  The  protest is complete, and Oches was in fact a “protest singer.”  Dylan adds two more verses which bring us back to the personal level, back to the self which must contend with this social myth and maintain an identity:

In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as hell,
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell.
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor,
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.

This song seeks to put a stake through the heart of the American Righteousness Myth.  Some might tend to say this is a song which questions patriotism, but that would be to use a false definition of patriotism.  This song is the ultimate patriotic outcry of one who wants the fair damsel of America from her chains.  Dylan is so patriotic, so bound to his American identity, that anything which keeps America from being who she is meant to be is an issue for him.  In show four about the ballads I discussed his portrayal of America as “the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains.”  This is in “As I Went Out” on the John Wesley Harding album.  Likewise for other ballads,  “Motorpsycho Nightmare” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” in which America is the central theme.  At his 1966 Paris concert Dylan had a fifty foot American flag hung behind him, shocking the French audience, many of whom were highly critical of American values and especially the Vietnam War (which in a sense we had inherited from the French).  Dylan was also a rebel against many of these values, but he didn’t want to be seen as anything but what he is: a strongly patriotic American.  [He has said xxx find quote .]  It is American music that he draws on, the blues and folk traditions more than rock,  along with the English and Scottish ballad background behind much American folk music.  There is a strongly conservative streak in Dylan which can be seen in many places, perhaps best expressed in his performance of a piece of Americana in his 2004 film, Masked and Anonymous:

But in 1963 Dylan was identified with the left.  Songs like “With God on Our Side” led the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee to award Dylan their Tom Paine award in November of 1963.  Dylan, already beginning to resist the narrow categorization as "protest singer" into which he was being boxed.  It was shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, so many were offended when Dylan in his speech spoke of finding something inside himself that identified with Lee Harvey Oswald, suggesting that Oswald too was perhaps another pawn in their game.  Many in the audience booed him from the room and sought to have the award returned.  Afterward Dylan wrote the ECLC:

When I spoke of Lee Oswald, I was speakin of the time

I was not speakin of his deed if it was his deed

the deed speaks for itself
but I am sick
so sick
at hearin "we all share the blame" for every
church bombin, gun battle, mine disaster,
poverty explosion, an president killing that
comes about.
it is so easy t say "we" an bow our heads together
I must say "I" alone an bow my head alone
for it is I alone who is livin my life.

That aloneness which Dylan speaks of is what I have called radical solitude in earlier shows.  Acceptance of this kind of aloneness is a prerequisite for coming together for the better rather than for the worse:

I hear the thunder an I can't avoid hearin’ it
once this is straight between us, it's then an
only then that we can say "we" an actually mean
it ... an go on from there t do something about

This acceptance of aloneness, this understanding that no one else can provide the answer for you—these are the things which free us of false myths.  False myths are created and sustained by people with something to sell to people who are afraid of that aloneness.  In 2001 he calls them bootleggers:

Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff
Plenty of places to hide things here if you want to hide them bad enough
I'm staying with Aunt Sally, but you know she not really my aunt
Some of these memories, you can learn to live with and some of 'em you can't
Sugar baby get on down the line, you ain't got no brains nohow
You went years without me, might as well keep goin' now

Dylan’s almost stream-of-consciousness sequence of lines can be quite puzzling at times, but when seen within the context of the themes which run through his work, the puzzle makes sense.  The bootleggers are those who pass off false myths to those who have things to hide, selling their wares to those who don’t want to face up to the truth about life.  They are in contrast with the Huck Finn figure who knows Aunt Sally is not really his aunt—and who, rather than hide, faces up to the memories—even if some you just can’t learn to live with. 

False myths work because so many people are seeking to escape the freedom of finding their own answers, of facing their own memories.  These people seek to identify themselves with a group in order to avoid facing themselves.  They buy bootlegged myths which allow them to create a false identity:  a role.  The "True Love" bootleg myth provides the formula for playing the role of  Romeo.  In “Desolation Row” we get a glipse of this Romeo who speaks in popular song titles:  "You Belong to Me I Believe, " he says, linking the Dupree’s hit “You Belong to Me” with “I Believe,” a sentimental religious hit of the 50s.

The American Righteousness bootleg myth provides the formula for playing the role of patriot, as seen in the farmer in “Motorpsycho Nightmare”:

I said, "I like Fidel Castro,
I think you heard me right,"
And ducked as he swung
At me with all his might.
Rita mumbled something
'Bout her mother on the hill,
As his fist hit the icebox,
He said he's going to kill me
If I don't get out the door
In two seconds flat,
"You unpatriotic,
Rotten doctor Commie rat."

The bootlegged myth of white supremacy is perhaps the worst of all, for it leads its victim to murder, for the real victim in “Only a Pawn in Their Game” is not the murdered black man, Medgar Evers, but the killer:

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks,
And the hoof beats pound in his brain.
And he's taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide 'neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain't got no name
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

The bootleg myth provides a prefabricated role which tells the people who buy it how to act and what to feel, what to say and what to do. But it does not teach them to maintain real human relationships.  The true love myth, as William Blake pointed out long ago, makes marriage a prison.  Dylan wrote in free verse about this kind of prison:

clink sings the tower
clang sang the preacher
inside of the altar
outside of the theatre
mystery fails
when treachery prevails
the forgotten rosary
itself t' a cross
of sand
an' rich men
stare t' their
private own-ed murals
all is lost Cinderella
all is lost
--Writings and Drawings, p. 149-50

The American Righteousness myth provides a similar set of role responses in a different sphere, as does the myth of white superiority.  Dylan writes in his letter to ECLC,

I've been told about people all my life
about niggers, kikes, wops, bohunks, spicks, chinks
an I been told how they eat, dress, walk, talk
steal, rob, an kill but nobody tells me how any
of 'm feels . . . nobody tells me how any of 'm cries
or laughs or kisses.  I'm fed up with most newspapers
radios, tv an movies an the like t tell me.  I want
now t see an know for myself . . . .

Thus we can see Dylan in the albums of the mid-sixties speaking and singing more and more from the personal level, from the only place he knows for himself.  He agrees with Henry David Thoreau who wrote, "I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well."  From that personal level he rages against the false myths and the bootleggers who sell them.

Others too were raging against such myths, but Dylan soon found that a frequent pattern was the replacement of one false myth with another.  He began quite soon to rage against this exchange of one lie for its mirror image, as Ramona has done. 

I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
By worthless foam from the mouth.
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin' and returnin'
On back to the South.
You've been fooled into thinking
That the finishin' end is at hand.
Yet there's no one to beat you,
No one t' defeat you,
'Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad.

               I've heard you say many times
That you're better 'n no one
And no one is better 'n you.
If you really believe that,
You know you got
Nothing to win and nothing to lose.
From fixtures and forces and friends,
Your sorrow does stem,
That hype you and type you,
Making you feel
That you must be exactly like them.

When he looked out at the frocks and frills of the integrated ECLC audience at the award ceremony in 1963 he saw a living emblem of such an exchange of one false myth for another:

When I spoke of Negroes

I ws speakin of my Negro friends
. . . . . . . . . . .
The ones that dont own ties
but know proudly they dont have to
not one little bit
they dont have t be like they naturally aint
t get what they naturally own no more 'n anybody
else does
it only gets things complicated
an leads people into thinkin the wrong things
black skin is black skin
It cant be covered by clothes an made t seem
acceptable, well liked an respectable . . .
t teach that or to think that just tends the
flames of another monster myth . . . .

This concept of the “monster myth” can be better understood when contrasted with real myths.  The real myths speak to the universal condition of humankind; through them we find our relationship to the eternal.  A monster myth, on the contrary, imposes a role; it does not speak of a universal condition but of a social or cultural scenes, scenes in which people are caught.  In one of his free verse poems Dylan writes,

i talk t' people every day
involved in some scene
good an' evil are but words
invented by those
that are trapped in scenes.
--Writings and Drawings, p. 145

Dylan's songs are filled with trapped people.   There are the "Three fellas crawlin' on their way back to work" in “Three Angels” and the "Old Lady Judges [who] watch people in pairs" in “It’s Alright Ma.”  On his 2001 album there is Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.  There’s Ramona, amd Mr. Jones, and the woman who wears a necktie and a Panama hat in “Black Diamond Bay.  The list could go on and on. Sometimes the songs offer relief to those weary of scenes, as when the says  "Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?"

When your mother sends back all your invitations
And your father to your sister he explains
That you're tired of yourself and all of your creations
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?
Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?

Sometimes his songs give practical advice for self-preservation in a world of scenes, telling the kid in us all:

SECOND HALF OF SECOND VERSE of “Subterannean Homesick Blues”:

Look out kid
Don't matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
Don't try "No Doz"
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don't need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows

Some are hymns to that ideal which is sought, as when he speaks of "My love [who] speaks like silence,/ Without ideals or violence."  She, the undemanding and unjudging, does not have something to sell, to bootleg, like those traped people who play cloak and dagger games:\]

The cloak and dagger dangles,
Madams light the candles.
In ceremonies of the horsemen,
Even the pawn must hold a grudge.
Statues made of match sticks,
Crumble into one another,
My love winks, she does not bother,
She knows too much to argue or to judge.

Within this context Dylan can be seen to be seeking the key to salvation.  He affirms the basic value of human life, drawing heavily on the Judeo-Christian tradition for his imagery while rejecting its bootlegged false myths.  Like Christ in the temple, he rants against the money changers and all other kinds of prostitution of that which is holy:

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn't talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony.


He chides the fake and rebukes the hypocrite while consoling the meek and mistreated, and while defending the down and out:

In the city's melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched
With faces hidden while the walls were tightening
As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin' rain
Dissolved into the bells of the lightning
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

But it is not only the conscious hypocrite who fools others with bootleg myths that Dylan rebukes.  Even more pitiful are those who fool themselves, who pursue empty dreams and phony goals. 

I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud,
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood,
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass.
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass.

To be self-deluded is even more pitiful than to be deluded by others.  Dylan promotes self knowledge which can only be found with honesty, only when all pretense is stripped away.

FINAL VERSE of “Like a Rolling Stone”
Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They're drinkin', thinkin' that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you'd better lift your diamond ring, you'd better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

If any line can be said to provide a reference point for all Dylan's poetry it is this from "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues:  "Don't put on any airs when you're down on Rue Morgue Avenue." 

When you're lost in the rain in Juarez
And it's Eastertime too
And your gravity fails
And negativity don't pull you through
Don't put on any airs
When you're down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They got some hungry women there
And they really make a mess outa you


What Dylan provided in in 1962 when his first original album, Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was released was a dose of reality.  His songs were a return to a sane world of personal values where death was accepted as a reality,  for we are all “down on Rue Morgue Avenue.”  Each of Dylan’s albums is an attempt to destroy the monster myths.  His songs express the singer's identity, not some phony role being promoted by Tin Pan Alley.  His lyrics share something basic and real from the singer’s own experience, not some concoction of platitudes written to sell.  He had turned to folk music from rock’n’roll because it had sold out to commercial interests and become no more authentic than the songs from Tin Pan Alley.  He reached Greenwich Village in 1960, just a year after what Don McLean called “the day the music died.”  The original impulse of rock’n’roll had been muted and popular music was dominated by imitations such as Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka and Ricky Nelson, no more real than the Monkeys of a few years later.  In 1965 Dylan told the Chicago Daily News:

I was playing rock'n'roll when I was 13 and 14 and 15 but I had to quit when I was 16 or 17 because I couldn't make it that way, the image of the day was Frankie Avalon or Fabian, or this whole athletic supercleanness bit, you know, which if you didn't have that, you couldn't make any friends.

By 1964 the Beatles were bringing a freshness to the scene but what were they singing? “I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND” The Beatles had a great sound but their lyrics were still juvenille.  This is what he’s talking about in the final verse of “I Want You” were Dylan has borrowed their flute:

LAST VERSE of “I Want You”: 
Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit,
He spoke to me, I took his flute.
No, I wasn't very cute to him,
Was I?
But I did it, though, because he lied
Because he took you for a ride
And because time was on his side
And because I . . .
I want you, I want you,
I want you so bad,
Honey, I want you.

So Dylan began with folk music which had not yet been corrupted by success and brought under control by the record companies.   The sudden popularity of folk music in the early sixties was the blossoming of a long-felt need among young white Americans who had been denied their roots and traditions.  In 1942, a year after Dylan is born, the the folklorist xxx Israel Young told the American Folklore Society what the problem was:
The fans want something different from what the machine can give them.  They feel they have been cheated by not being brought up in a folklore tradition-- they want to make their own tradition.

It was not the youth of the sixties, later labeled the "counter culture," who rejected tradition but their parents.  That was the generation who gave up fresh vegetables for canned, who gave up local musical traditions for the Tin Pan Alley songs on the radio, who gave up a living God for a dead, who gave up the man in manufacture for the mass in mass-produce.  Even the schools, as consolidation extended and standardized them during and after the war, became assembly lines for children, lines which soon reached past high school to the colleges and universities.

            This desire to escape from the machine which Israel Young finds in those trying to revive the folk tradition, and who Dylan found in James Dean on the screen, is also evident when we turn from folk culture to high culture, from folk music to modern poetry.  Just as popular music in America was cutting itself off from its sources in the people by turning the crank of the Tin Pan Alley machine to produce ready-made love songs, so poetry in the twentieth century, especially after the influence of T. S. Eliot became predominant, denied its communal roots, its source in the people, and retreated to the ivory tower.  "Modern" poetry became academic poetry.  To the young "growing up absurd" in mid-twentieth century America, poetry was first and foremost something which could be found in those museums of poetry, the  anthologies used in American universities.  As other media became accessible the artificial world of academic poetry became further and further removed from any natural setting so that even when there was value in the poetry, that value remained inaccessible to most people.  The audience of modern poetry became more and more restricted to professors and their students.  Dylan's six months in college left him with this impression:

Man, poetry is just BS, you know?  I don't know about other countries, but in this one it's a total massacre.  It's not poetry at all.  People don't read poetry in the country--if they do, it offends them; they don't dig it.  You go to school, man, and what kind of poetry do you read?  You read Robert Frost's "The Two Road," you read T. S. Eliot-- you read all that BS . . . .

Little wonder that he quit attending classes at the University of Minnesota to play in the folk clubs down in Dinkytown.  Not too much later, with his guitar and a copy of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory, he hit the road for Greenwich Village and Woody's bedside in Brooklyn.   It was his devotion to this man he called his “last idol” that inspired his first good original composition:

By 1965 he had begun to hang around with Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet, and had stopped calling himself a poet.  He told reporters who asked, " Some people work in gas stations and they're poets.  I don't call myself a poet because I don't like the word.  I'm a trapeze artist."

He had come to realize that for most people the word “poet” had the wrong connotations.  From the start Dylan seems to have been just as aware of the importance of "high culture" as he was of the negative effects of "mass culture," especially movies and popular music.  He rejected both the banality of Tin Pan Alley and the impotence of an elitist poetry which disdains the people.  Art had come to isolate itself even;  there was no longer a natural way for art and audience to be brought together.  Changing this is one of Dylan’s major accomplishments:  bringing art out of the classroom and museum where they are dead. 

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeeze
I can't find my knees"
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel


Dylan is just as aware of the importance of art to society as T. S. Eliot, and he is just as aware of his debt to the past, to "tradition."  He admits to having been influenced by a long line of artists from Biblical prophets to Beat poets:

Yes, I am a thief of thoughts

not, I pray, a stealer of souls
I have built an' rebuilt
upon what is waitin'
for the sand on the beaches
carves many castles
on what has been opened
before my time
a word, a tune, a story, a line
keys in the wind t' unlock my mind
an' t'grant my closet thoughts backyard air
. . . . . . . . . . .
hundreds thousands
perhaps millions
for all songs lead back t' the sea
an' at one time, there was
no singin' tongue t' imitate it)
t' make new sounds out of old sounds
an' new words out of old words
an' not to worry about the new rules
for they ain't been made yet
an' t' shout my singin' mind
Knowin' that it is me and my kind
that will make those new rules . . . .
-Writings and Drawings, p. 106.

And he has made those new rules.  That a song doesn’t have to be three minutes but can be as long as it needs to be.  That the rhymes don’t have to be moon-June-spoon but can be as strange and yet fitting as skull-capitol.  That the language doesn’t have to be limited to the 800 familiar words but can be as complex as it needs to be.  Just as Shakespeare took theater to a higher level, so has Dylan with song.  Just as Shakespeare borrowed from sources ranging from Greek tragedy a two thousand years old to folk sayings from the local countryside, so has Dylan borrowed from everything from Plato to the TV game show.  Just as Shakespeare worked in an entertainment field considered disreputable in his time, so does Dylan.  Just as Shakespeare’s works were first performed, then bootlegged, then finally published, so were Dylan’s.   Just as Shakespeare’s plays achieve a kind of poetic universality which touch us where we live, so do the songs by this Shakespeare in the Alley.

But our time is up.  Please join me again next week when I focus on Dylan’s quest for salvation.  As I’ve said several time in earlier shows, his was never a political but always spiritual.  We will explore a range of songs featuring god-figures such as Quinn the Eskimo, Senor, and Mr. Tambourine Man.  From the early folk period in 1962 to his 2006 album Modern Times his claim has always been “I’ll Be with You When the Deal Goes Down.”  Until next week, this is Bill King saying, I’m so glad you came around.”

Web page reference: Hayakawa

Web page

Reference Paul Goodman’s book on web page


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