For the week of December 2 thru December 8, 1998  

Thinking of Bob Dylan, poet and phenomenon

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH


For most of my life and all of my adult life Bob Dylan has been the troubadour poet of the American experience, the American dream and the American nightmare.

Musician, songwriter, singer, poet, social commentator/critic and seer, Dylan’s music and words have been an integral part of the national consciousness, social fabric and cultural dynamic since he ‘arrived’ in the early 1960s.

Bob Dylan (born Bob Zimmerman) has created an enormous body of work, most of which meets the standard of good poetry as defined by his namesake, Dylan Thomas: "A good poem is a contribution to reality," Thomas wrote. "The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and world around him."

Bob Dylan’s work has done that. In spades. In hearts, too.

Those tuned into Dylan’s work, find the universe, the world and their selves both shaped and made more knowledgeable by his words, his music, his stories and messages. Those who hear in Dylan only a nasal voice and incomprehensible poetry need read no further. Please.

A few personal (and random and far from comprehensive) reflections on Bob Dylan the poet and phenomenon:

The first time I became aware of Dylan I didn’t know it was Dylan. In 1963 a line in a song Joan Baez was singing riveted me with its distillation of the heart of some personal and social turmoil in my life. The line, "I give her my heart but she wanted my soul" appears in my journals that year with a commentary on its meaning to me. I didn’t know its author’s name. It comes from the song "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right," which can be heard as the story of a man leaving a self-centered woman; or it can be interpreted as a man dropping out of the rigidly conforming value system of mainstream society; and, of course, it can be (and has been) both. Years later, I heard Arlo Guthrie introduce the song by saying, "This is a song I wish I’d written." High praise.

There are probably a few other Dylan songs Guthrie would like to have written, and he is not alone among song writers and poets.

In 1967 I was a graduate student teaching freshman English at the University of Nevada, and I gave my classes some of "Mr. Tambourine Man" to punctuate and write a theme about what the words inspired in them.

"Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind

Down the foggy ruins of time far past the frozen leaves

The haunted frightened trees out to the windy beach

Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow

Yes to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free..."

Freshmen students at Nevada in 1967 were not fertile ground for Bob Dylan, but the experiment was helpful in my decision to abandon my path into the depths of academia and to return to the mountains. I’ve written elsewhere that "…the only bigger depressions of my English-teaching career were the times I asked my students to write themes on their feelings, thoughts and ideas about capital punishment and Viet Nam." As I’ve written, they "…made Bill Calley seem like a misunderstood saint who’d had a little bad luck along the shining road to illumination."

In 1969 students at the University of California at Berkeley demonstrated against the university’s plans to pave over for parking an area near Telegraph Avenue known as "People’s Park." It was an unruly demonstration in a time and place of disorderly demonstrations. Unfortunately, the governor of California in 1969 was Ronald Reagan, who only liked demonstrations of approval. He was intolerant of civil disobedience, particularly from university students who were young, smart, educated, articulate, unafraid, socially conscious, morally motivated, ethically informed, unarmed and possessed of a sense of humor. Lacking these attributes himself, Reagan called in the National Guard to join the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department to quell the demonstration. Before it was over hundreds of students along Telegraph Avenue had been tear gassed from helicopters, several were beaten, and one innocent man had been shot to death by a policeman.

That led to one of the biggest demonstrations in Berkeley’s grand and honorable tradition of demonstrations. It was called "People’s Park." A group of us living in Yosemite came down to Berkeley for the festivities and to lend our support to the occasion. Fifty thousand people marched in the streets of Berkeley that day. There were enough armed police and guardsmen in those same streets to start a war, and it was evident that some of those with arms wanted to. Nevertheless, a festive, irreverent atmosphere prevailed over a serious situation, largely because monitors with portable loudspeakers roamed the crowds exhorting the people to "stay cool" and to "have fun" and not give those with arms any excuse to use them. And at the corner of People’s Park was a van with a loudspeaker blaring Dylan’s "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again," over and over and over.

"Grandpa died last week

And now he’s buried in the rocks,

But everybody still talks about

How badly they were shocked.

But me, I expected it to happen,

I knew he’s lost control

When he built a fire on Main Street

And shot it full of holes.

Oh, Mama, can this really be the end

To be stuck inside of Mobile

With the Memphis blues again."

Dylan’s words rang true in Berkeley then as they would (and possibly do) in the violence of Bosnia today. His poetry, whether in the benediction of "Forever Young:"

"May your heart always be joyful,

May your song always be sung,

May you stay forever young,"

or the cynical warning of "With God On Our Side:"

"If God’s on our side

He’ll stop the next war,"

continues to change the shape and significance of the universe and to extend our knowledge of ourselves and of the world we live in.

 

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