Don’t follow leaders: Bob Dylan in China and Vietnam

Bob Dylan.

This article has been published in Solidarity.

Bob Dylan recently performed in China and Vietnam for the very first time, prompting critics to denounce him for “selling out” – and not for the first time.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd led the charge. In a recent column she denounced the singer, ending with these powerful lines:

Maybe the songwriter should reread some of his own lyrics: “I think you will find/When your death takes its toll/All the money you made/Will never buy back your soul.”

Strong stuff indeed.

But of course Bob Dylan wasn’t writing those lines about “protest singers” who had betrayed their values.

He wrote them about the arms industry, the merchants of death who profit from the world’s wars, in his song “Masters of War.”

I doubt if anyone seriously believes that Dylan is somehow the moral equivalent of mass killers.

And did any of the critics bother to check what songs Dylan did choose to perform – songs that he admittedly submitted to censorship by the Communist regimes?

The second song on his Beijing set was “It’s all over now, baby blue” – widely understood as anti-Vietnam war song. The tenth was the powerful anti-nuclear war song “A hard rain’s a gonna fall”. The set ended with other 1960s-era classics including “Ballad of a Thin Man” with the famous refrain,

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

This is certainly true of the critics who single out one or two Dylan songs from his early years that were not performed.

“The times they are a-changin’” is given as an example of the kind of song Dylan would have sung — if he’d had any courage.

But has anyone listened to that song since it was first recorded nearly a half century ago? It’s not about fomenting a popular uprising in a totalitarian country like China. It is full of specifically American content, such as a call on Senators and Congressmen to heed the voices of protest.

To an audience living in a completely unfree society with no free press elections or parliament, such a song might have little impact.

But the more complex, poetic language of songs like “A hard rain’s a gonna fall” might well resonate.

The last stanza of that song contains a powerful celebration of dissent and protest:

I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’

To understand why some critics have got it completely wrong you don’t really need to know Dylan’s biography. He was never really all that political, as his friends and colleagues have pointed out. He never wanted to be – and probably never really was – the voice of a generation.

But even if you knew nothing at all about him but his songs, you’d understand the problem with the critics.

Dylan’s lyrics are often deeply subversive, even when they don’t seem to be about politics at all.

And some of his weakest songs are the ones that are most explicitly political. (For example, none of the critics are suggesting that he sing one of his most political songs – “George Jackson” – which is regarded as one of the worst he ever wrote.)

Finally, why do Dylan’s liberal critics assume that any political message he’ll want to deliver is one they would want heard?

In a career spanning a half-century, Dylan has not fit into anyone’s neat boxes, and some of his most explicitly political songs would actually be an embarrassment to some of the liberals who are now criticizing him.

For example, would they want him to sing the bitterly ironic 1983 song “Neighborhood Bully” with its explicitly pro-Zionist message?

Singing that song in Tel-Aviv when he performs there in June will not require much courage. But maybe the real test would be if Dylan sings it two days earlier, when he performs in London?

1 Comment on "Don’t follow leaders: Bob Dylan in China and Vietnam"

  1. Is there another man on the planet who knows so much about both trade unions and Bob Dylan?

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