Mainstream, VOL LIV No 44 New Delhi October 22, 2016
Sunday 23 October 2016
by Saikat Ghosh
‘Dylanesque’ is not a word in the OED though anyone who is familiar with the enormous cultural upsurge of the global sixties will know exactly what it means. It pertains to the American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, though not in an entirely direct sort of a way. It refers to a climate of protest which brought a generation’s anger, despair, alienation and yet, an acute historical consciousness, alive in the age-old lyric tradition of Bluegrass music.
More than a hundred years before the birth of Bob Dylan, American Folk Music had become thoroughly creolised. The ballads brought home by Irish, Scottish and Welsh settlers from across the Atlantic had mingled promiscuously with the haunting Blues sung by the African-American slaves and the rough-hewn music of the Cajun folk. Before Jazz and Rock n’ Roll, this creole music—Bluegrass—gave the American people a shared cultural identity. Shared, yes, though the texture of this music and the drama in its lyrics gave too many of the contradictions away. Nothing to hide.
The fissures and faultlines in American society have always run deep but an official culture predicated on the individualistic pursuit of happiness and the deliberately puerile myth of the American Dream has tended to cast a veil over social and economic contradictions. Connoi-sseur Gatsbies of the Establishment promoted a consumer culture with faux sophistication which seemed shareable only among those who had ‘made it’ with a reassuring (to them) display of avarice, ruthlessness and hypocrisy. The law of the jungle determined access to this culture wherein the fittest were also the most exclusive. Outwardly, though, this culture celebrated fetishised notions of originality and cosmopoli-tanism refined to the state of ether.
The Depression-era and popular fervour for Roosevelt’s New Deal caused brief but interesting disruptions in the spread of the official culture. But the USA’s strategic participation in the Second World War secured its durability. Wars and war-profits crushed the New Deal while the race of arms-dealers, bootleggers and carpet-baggers secured oligarchic control over mass media and government. The end of history, in a manner of speaking, was already in sight.
Only a dialectical understanding of history can help explain the resilience of the Bluegrass tradition while the Gatsbies commanded all the resources needed to turn America into a whole Bible Belt. The origins of the sixties’ spirit lay in this resilience. For a while, Bluegrass became dialectics. Its mongrelised nature allowed and accomodated dialectical voices, and while Elvis was mainstream glitter, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Pete Seeger turned the unrefined soul of Bluegrass into a rough and ready vehicle of protest.
Bob Dylan later recalled his youthful fascination for this alternative tradition in words that register its dialectics:
The only beauty’s ugly, man
The crackin’ shakin’ breakin’ sounds
Are the only beauty I understand.
Dylan, along with Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, brought Bluegrass and Protest into the main-stream. Not at the behest of record companies but with a conscious application of their art to the political and spiritual needs of a generation of American youth. Dylan’s reputation as a live artist was made at the several benefit concerts held in 1962-63 to raise money for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which served as a platform for a mixed group of Marxists, Anarchists, Pacifists and Civil Rights activists. The lyrics of his early songs “The Ballad of Emmett Till”, “Oxford Town” and “Paths of Victory” brought home the urgency and immediacy of the Civil Rights Movement and mobilised a whole structure of feeling against a White-supremacist sense of entitlement. In early 1963, Dylan produced the two most memorably political songs that became synonymous with the anti-War and Civil Rights movements: “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Laced with searing irony, both songs encapsulated the wisdom of a generation that could see through the delusions propagated by the warmongering Truman Administration and call the bluff.
The SDS leaders who, in the famous Port Huron Statement, described Americans in a state of “withdrawal from public life, from any collective effort at directing their own affairs” and saw an America that had been emptied of “community” and “impusle” also recalled that Dylan’s tapes played nonstop in the basement as they worked on the Statement. They, as well as several founding members of the Black Panthers, regarded Bob Dylan as a prophet. However, Dylan himself remained unwilling to share this perception. Mike Marqusee, by far the most astute commentator on the cultural politics of Dylan’s songwriting, has written:
[R]eading the songs in their musical and political context, I don’t see them as transparent reflections of the times but as expressive objects fashioned by an individual in response to those times. Dylan was not a passive lightning rod, an impersonal conductor of great historic currents. Rather, he was a navigator of those currents. (Wicked Messenger, 2003)
In trying to retain his individuality, Dylan possibly lost his voice. His seventies avatar was so radically altered that his hero, Woody Guthrie, expressed a painful sense of betrayal at the new ‘Electric’ Dylan who was singing about Jesus to the Born-again Christians instead of lending his voice to protests. But the sixties had given way to several fragmented cultural trajectories that were appropriated and caricatured even as they emerged.
In today’s America where Bernie Sanders scripted the language of the Democratic presidential campaign and Donald Trump still hopes to appeal to a vicious public assumption of honesty in dishonesty, ‘Dylanesque’ is a word in need of revival. Though it may mean nothing in relation to yesterday’s superstar who is lost in the wilderness of his own complexities, it does conjure up the memory of a collective tradition and cultural purpose.
The significance of awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan does not lie so much in the acknowledgement of an individual’s poetic genius, as it does in reinstating the significance of the Dylanesque: a correspondent breeze to that last era in which ordinary people had vividly imagined revolutions and aesthetic utopias.
The author teaches English at the SGTB Khalsa College, University of Delhi.