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By Douglas Thorpe
Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like "Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain" or "I Saw the Light"-that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.
It's almost like I heard it as a voice. It wasn't like it was even me thinking it. I'm determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not. And all of a sudden everything just exploded.
-Bob Dylan, Newsweek, October 6, 1997
Trust the story, not the teller.
-D. H. Lawrence
On a cold October night my thirteen-year-old daughter listens to this music as I stand at the kitchen sink washing the dishes. Dylan sings "Broke Down Engine," (so softly, so menacingly, briefly suspending the final word): Got blood in my eyes for ya babe, don't care what in the world you-do.
She's not impressed. What's he saying? She wonders. And why's he sing like that?
Like so awful.
I laugh. He's been singing like that for about thirty-five years, I tell her. Some people like it. I like it. I pause, looking out the window into the dark, thinking about this. Voice, I want to tell her, is like writing. It's not a question of pretty or nice; it's more a matter of showing up. It has to do with authenticity. Certainly it's a matter of timing and intonation-how Dylan holds the high melodic line, suspending the listener in some zone of utter tension before dropping back down at the end into a rhyme's completion; how he plays off the song's rhythm, holding a syllable back, rushing ahead-and certainly it's a matter of appropriateness, of serving the song. But all of this is just another way of saying that in that voice I hear some kind of truth that I cannot turn away from without knowing that I'm somehow lying to myself by doing it. When, for example, I listen to the live recording of "Like A Rolling Stone" from 1965, I hear something unreproduceable in print, and not because of obscenities. It is instead the place obscenities come from.
Even the bitterness is a road to walk.
My daughter at thirteen listens to Jewel. When I turned thirteen, in June, 1966, I asked my folks for a Dylan album; instead they bought me Simon & Garfunkel's Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. I liked the album fine but still went out and bought Highway 61 Revisited, for reasons that elude me but which certainly, I see now, had everything to do with being thirteen and needing to find out for myself. My mother was appalled but did not interfere, even when I went around nasally singing "They're selling postcards of the hanging," and "The Good Samaritan he's dressing / he's getting ready for the show / He's going to the carnival tonight / At Desolation Row." It may have been a bit over the top-humorous, really-but I wasn't kidding. Even at thirteen I understood something about hell. Even then I knew this place.
(More frightening was that I liked it there. I could not have named this at the time, but this music was my first evidence that hell is chosen. Those damned souls, as Dante tells us, are eager for the river crossing. Better that than facing that searing truth.)
Within a few months I took in everything Dylan had put out, including the just-released Blonde on Blonde. I loved it all: I loved the sense of knowing that permeated these albums, of being part of a long dark ride. I loved the sense of burning that ran through everything.
Baptized into the Presbyterian church that same year, it strikes me now as ironic that I felt nothing in church and plenty-of something real at least-in Dylan. In the triumphant "When the Ship Comes In," for example, a song I used to play endlessly through my head as I swam laps in high school:
And they'll raise their hands
Now this sounds like gospel, but how far is this triumph, really, from the "Gates of Eden" or "Ballad of a Thin Man"? It's all winners and losers, as Springsteen says; don't get caught on the wrong side of that line. But the real key to Dylan's work, I'm thinking, is to not get stuck on either side-to stop drawing lines entirely. What else does the music teach? Don't follow leaders. Trust the story. Trust the song: not simply the words but whatever unspeakable truth underlies the words. This Graceland has no gates.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
It's not a bad description of Dylan's work. Invisible guests come in and out at will. Some wind blows through and he boards that train and is off, disappearing again into that long, black coat. Like Hermes he's a shapechanger, a trickster, a thief in the night. Any attempt to claim him for a camp is bound to end in frustration. He will not stand still long enough even to pose for the picture.
There may be times when the songs don't always find their discipline, their deepest edge. But over the long haul what I appreciate in Dylan's career is that it's not a career at all but a vocation. This, perhaps, is what he himself discovered that night on the stage in Locarno that he describes in the Newsweek story. Like Luther he's determined to stand inside that deepening groove as it spins closer and closer to the silence at the center. The man does what he does and will do it, one senses, whether he's twenty or seventy, whether he's feeding five thousand or fifty. As he says in his notes to World Gone Wrong, "fame is a trick. Playing for time is only horsing around."
Whatever the outward label-Christian or Jewish or Pagan, rock, country, or blues-at his best he's playing for ultimate stakes. The subject doesn't matter: as he says about "Broke Down Engine," "it's about trains" but it's also about "mystery on the rails-the train of love. . . . It's about variations of human longing-the low hum in meters & syllables. It's about dupes of commerce & politics colliding on tracks, not being pushed around by ordinary standards. It's about revival, getting a new lease on life, not just posing there."
"Jack-A-Roe" he sings in 1993, as out-of-date and timeless as John Wesley Harding seemed in 1968, as "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1965. This is news, as Ezra Pound said of poetry, that stays news. "The song cannot be categorized," he writes, "is worlds away from reality but 'gets inside' reality anyway and strips it of its steel and concrete."
And this, of course, is what he's about: he gets inside. He may encourage accidents wherever he plays, chasing spontaneity and risking mistakes, but it's because his house is open. He's willing to let it ride. He knows by feel, by experience, and knows, ultimately, where it goes, even when he hasn't a clue about what's around the next bend.
"ABOUT THE SONGS (what they're about)" he redundantly titles his liner notes to World Gone Wrong, this 1993 acoustic recording of old blues and folks songs, as if in mockery of those days when everybody was asking him that question. The answers, of course, are usually cryptic, closer in spirit to Jesus with Nicodemus than to any literary critic or politician. But the point is always clear: what they're about is salvation. They're about truth. And in case we don't get it he ends World Gone Wrong with "Lone Pilgrim." "What attracts me to the song," he writes, "is how the lunacy of trying to fool the self is set aside at some given point. Salvation and the needs of mankind are prominent and hegemony takes a breathing spell. 'my soul flew to mansions on high' what's essentially true is virtual reality." [SIC]
Christian music? After listening to "Lone Pilgrim," or "Not Dark Yet" on Time out of Mind, Dylan's latest CD, the very idea of the term makes me laugh. It's a tomb is all it is, and we know how well that works at keeping the truth in. I can call Slow Train Coming and Saved Christian albums, but at their best these are no different from everything I'd been hearing long before and long since. In all of them the end is constantly upon us. We're called to justice and mercy, which are just words for the same reality. "Does this song have rectitude?" Dylan asks himself of "Delia;" "You bet. Toleration of the unacceptable leads to the last round up."
If you want to know what Dylan's songs have been about all these years, read Greil Marcus's old Mystery Train, which isn't much about Dylan at all, and then his new book, Invisible Republic, which says that it is even though much of it isn't, although indirectly it always is.
In a few quick pages Marcus reminds us that the folk revival out of which Dylan arose was itself "part of something much bigger, more dangerous, and more important: the civil rights movement. . . ." These forces met in the summer of 1963: the Newport Folk Festival closed with Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, Peter, Paul, & Mary, and the Freedom Singers hymning "Blowin' in the Wind" and then "We Shall Overcome" (an old Baptist hymn rebaptized as the anthem of the movement); three weeks later all those present on that stage were gathered before the Lincoln Memorial as Martin Luther King took the Old Testament, Lincoln's second Inaugural Address and, as Marcus writes, added "a New Testament sunburst that still sounds like a miracle unfolding, a waking of the dead."
In perhaps the most striking section of the book, Marcus then explores the meaning of Dylan's explosion of the folk movement-the injection, essentially, of the mysteries of rock and roll and Rimbaud into a world of social protest. Comparable to Ralph Ellison's anatomy of the "Brotherhood" in Invisible Man, Marcus suggests that in the folk movement there was room for ideology but little for individuals. "Art," he comments, "was the speech of the folk revival-and yet, at bottom, the folk revival did not believe in art at all." Art was to serve the people, who, paradoxically, remained abstractions except inside the real art.
Art is always suspect because it does not-cannot-follow party lines. (Neither, surely, does Jesus.) Whatever the Party is, it wants to control the message, but without the freedom of the imagination-that open house Milosz describes-the art lacks depth and perspective, that gift of the shadows.
Truth is a complicated issue, as twenty centuries of Christian theology would suggest. We're told it's simple, straight, and narrow, and maybe from the inside it is. Yet we always seem to step outside it-and what's worse, we try to pronounce on what's inside from out here. We know it inside when we see it, but then we get like Peter, whose logical mind short-circuits the faith that carried him out of the boat and across that water. We can't resist the fear. Is this for real? Just what is this truth? How do we know we know it? And how do we know that someone else doesn't? We start sinking under the mystery of it all.
Better, sometimes, just to get up and dance with it.
It gets tricky, even with Jonathan Edwards. "The way [Edwards] delivered his sermons," Marcus writes, quoting the great Puritan scholar Perry Miller, "is enough to confirm the suspicion that there was an occult secret in them: no display, no inflection, no consideration of the audience. . . . As Edwards delivered his revival sermons. . . the people yelled and shrieked, they rolled in the aisles, they crowded up to the pulpit and begged him to stop, they cried for mercy," but "Mr. Edwards . . . looked straight forward." One congregant said "he looked on the bell rope" hanging from the roof at the far end of the church "until he looked it off."
What was he looking at? He had got his eye on it, it was absolutely clear and straight to him-and yet how to get it across? How to define it? "An occult secret," Miller says; it is a great light, and a fearsome and awful truth. Rock and roll is no religious revival, but a curious echo lingers in the air of this description, especially as we read of the shock of Dylan's audience in 1965 when "Blowin' in the Wind" turned into an electric "Tombstone Blues." Something is happening and I know it, but I also know it doesn't match the simple pieties of the Young Life camp songs I heard as a kid. Truth? It's when I hear Robert Johnson or Howlin' Wolf, Blake or Whitman, or even Edwards (not just "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" but those ecstatic responses of his to the natural world) that I suddenly remember what I'm about, even though I couldn't easily explain what that was. It's a field, as the Sufi poet Rumi says, out beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing. At thirteen I certainly couldn't find it, but I sure as hell knew it was there.
You used to be so amused
And I looked up through a pain so intense now that the air seemed to
As it is in Ellison, so it is, word for word, in Dylan. In both works it's an astonishing moment. Everything has been cut away. Into this strange underworld that Highway 61 leads there are at last no secrets. You're invisible now, you're transparent, and you know it, and that knowing is a kind of freedom. You know that you have never been seen, and have not seen yourself. It's like a match struck in the darkness: you know at last where you are.
The way up is the way down. Ellison's narrator in this moment of emptiness saw a glittering butterfly circle three times around my blood-red parts. And he laughs: he's seen through it all. It's a new birth, that seeing, the end of hibernation-the claiming of a voice. We hold the novel in our hands as proof.
So too, at its best, do we sense in the work of Dylan. The songs are like deep wells: you cannot see all the way down into that darkness, but you can taste the truth in what comes up.
This truth, I see now, was the point all along of the first great breakthrough album of the 1960s, starting off with "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (an homage to Ellison?) passing through "Gates of Eden" and ending with "It's All Right Now, Baby Blue": You must leave now . . . . But it wasn't simply about departure; it was a deeper return. Bringing It All Back Home he called it, and meant exactly that.
In comparison, I fear that much Christian music misses the point entirely. It may sing about Jesus but the Jesus that I know is long gone from that box. It's not exactly wrong; it just simplifies things. It's like my students who write reassuring papers about some child dying of AIDS and how much they learned from him and how it's all right because he's in heaven with Jesus now. How can I argue? And yet such reassurance angers me. It feels like the writer hasn't yet gone down. The writing misses something. It misses all the weight.
And what else is Incarnation but this weight of life and death? The birth requires the death: it's the way of things, even, it seems, inside the infinite.
Popular Christian writing (at least as I see it reflected in my students) assumes so much: above all, it assumes we all know what it means to be saved, to know Jesus, as if this were the clearest thing imaginable. It assumes a kind of easy notion of God that Jesus himself exploded in Jerusalem as thoroughly as Dylan exploded an idea of folk music at Newport.
What Dylan once said about true folk music applies as well to Christ, who in one sense is absolutely simple (pick up your cross and follow me) and in another sense is an absolute and final mystery (pick up your cross and follow me). "All the authorities who write about what it is and what it should be," Dylan says, "when they say keep it simple, [that it] should be easily understood-folk music is the only music where it isn't simple. It's never been simple." He goes on:
I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There's nobody that's going to kill traditional music. All those songs about roses growing out of people's brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels-they're not going to die. . . .
Obviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you'd think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery is a fact . . . traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn't need to be protected. Nobody's going to hurt it. In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player.
As Greil Marcus notes, these comments could have been liner notes to the first side of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, an immensely influential collection of blues, folk, and country songs assembled in 1952, at the height of McCarthyism, which was also, coincidentally, the year that Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man. (It's also a scant two years before Elvis Presley first recorded an old Blues tune, "That's All Right" and then backs it with a Bill Monroe bluegrass number, "Blue Moon of Kentucky.") Smith not only reveals the hidden groundwater that fed the apparently separate streams of Black and White music; he further aligns this underground American culture with the centuries-old alchemical tradition, using as cover art for the LPs pictures garnered from a "Robert Fludd compendium on mysticism," as if, Marcus says, "Pythagoras, Fludd, and the likes of Jilson Setters, Ramblin' Thomas, the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, and Smith himself . . . were calling on the same gods."
This too is part of what Marcus means by the "Invisible Republic." Not just American, although clearly taking a deeply American flavor, this music is seen as part of the so-called perennial philosophy that Christian alchemists in the fifteen and sixteenth centuries (Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, and others) found in the teachings of neoplatonists and in the Jewish Kabbala.
Smith's anthology, recently rereleased and beautifully repackaged on CD by Smithsonian Folkways, appeared in those conservative days as "a seductive detour away from what, in the 1950s was known not as America but as Americanism. That meant the consumer society, as advertised on TV; it meant vigilance against all enemies of such a society and a determination never to appear as one. . . ." "The Anthology," Marcus concludes, "was a mystery-an insistence that against every assurance to the contrary, America was itself a mystery."
A mystery. The Anthology does draw curious connections. Bluegrass-seemingly as white as music can get-coming out of both Celtic and African American rhythms and instruments. Western swing rolling out of jazz as much as it does country, and rock and roll of course, mining and stealing everything. Ellison riffs off of Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Rushing as deeply as he does Dante and Dostoyevsky. Harry Smith himself will end up teaching at the Buddhist-based Naropa Institute along with Allen Ginsberg, who also comes up out of the groundwater of the fifties, and who will, on more than one occasion, share a stage with Dylan. (One look at Dylan's Desire, to which Ginsberg adds liner notes, will remind us that Dylan too shares roots in the literary underground of the ninteeenth and twentieth centuries.)
It's all there, all right; but I sense that for Dylan the mystery we hear on Smith's Anthology is not to be nailed down inside any tradition, whether it's the arcane, metaphor-filled vision of the alchemist or the inerrant literalism of the fundamentalist. There is no nailing down here, but not because there is no death. Instead the line runs right through death. As Marcus concludes of the music that Smith anthologized, "It's as if they're lining out an unspoken premise of the old Southern religion; only the dead can be born again."
It's never, finally, a question of liberal or conservative, of left, right, or middle-of-the-road. If anything, it's about a return to a radical vision-radical in the sense of rooted, as someone like Wendell Berry understands it. What we hear in the music is a return to roots in this sense. It's not even a particular form or style; it's instead a profound openness, a door that the form (whether it's blues or country, Orthodox chant or African drumming) helps to incarnate. It's there for us to walk through. Call it the radical Jesus, if you like, just remembering that he's exploded the name before you finish the third syllable.
It does not simply mean, then, a return to the roots that Smith explores in alchemy and then discovers in American "folk music," although in Dylan's case it's clearly connected with this, because these are his roots, even as they are part of the nation's roots. This music is simply one of the ways this root flowers in this country. Instead, inside any particular song, Dylan seems to suggest, we hear the deepest root of all: a dark and deep and indefinable truth. We hear in the song a kind of match lit in the darkness, which does not mean an answer so much as a knowing. We taste something here.
"Toleration of the unacceptable," Dylan writes, "is the only thing that is finally intolerable." Call it the sin against the Holy Ghost. But what exactly is this sin? In the tradition of this music (and of the literature and life that lies behind it), I'd call it a sin against the imagination, which is also a sin against love. It's the closed heart and closed mind.
The truth is light but it's also profound, as in pro-fundus, meaning something like before the bottom. This God precedes both light and dark: there's mystery enough for anyone.
In this music, Marcus suggests, "is a mystical body of the republic, a kind of public secret." Here "[t]he ruling question of public life is not that of the distribution of material goods or the governance of moral affairs, but that of how people plumb their souls and then present their discoveries, their true selves, to others. . . ."
This is what I would call Christian music, whether it's practiced by John Tavener or Bruce Cockburn, by Hildegard of Bingen or U2. It knows the great refusal, and knows that implicit in the refusal is the possibility, somewhere, of acceptance. Above all it knows the choice. It knows what Ishmael knows, and what Ahab knows. It's the music of Melville as it is of Edwards, of Staggerlee as of Mother Maybelle Carter. It's the music of John Coltrane and Bessie Smith, of Waylon Jennings and Elvis, of Hank Williams and Little Richard. It's the music of Johnny Cash, right from "I Walk the Line" to his song from Dead Man Walking: "One foot on Jacob's Ladder and one foot in the fire / and it all goes down in your mind."
This is, every single bit of it, Dylan's inheritance, as it is our own.