Did Bob Dylan sell out?

Submitted by AWL on 30 July, 2007 - 12:18

A talk by Mike Short at the AWL London Forum

on 8 December, 2005

The implication of the initial question is that Bob Dylan was a committed, full-time member of the early 60s movement that we will call ‘folk protest’; and then later on he sold out, abandoning his left-wing principles in the name of making different types of music – more personal songs, a rock and roll style.

Well, clearly as the 60s progressed, Dylan moved away from protest songs and made many different types of music. But far too many histories of the era take a very, well, dialectical perspective, based on two types of Dylan: one, the author of Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, and all the rest; and the other, the cool, disengaged rock and roller of the mid sixties, who dismissed his earlier songs as “finger-pointing songs”, a phrase calculated to upset the likes of us, and rejected all that they represented.

This way of looking at things rules out so many important factors – including his pre-Greenwich Village life, and the almost four decades since he played those shows with The Hawks and caused such outrage, and most importantly, the reasons for and the nature of the shift that undeniably took place. I think implicit in the question of whether Dylan sold out is another question – ‘Did Dylan buy in?’ If we can look more honestly and realistically about where Dylan was coming from in the early and mid sixties, we can make a more meaningful assessment of that ‘selling out’ era.

As a general point, I find it best not to be surprised, or too disappointed, when my musical heroes don’t agree with me politically. I have always felt that it was best not to judge my musical heroes, with left-wing tendencies, by the same standards as I would judge say, members of the same political party as me, or colleagues of mine in the trade union I work for, or people who explicitly claim to be something like a socialist, a Marxist, or whatever.

Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, none of them have ever claimed to be proper socialists. Bragg comes close; Earle even closer in some ways, claiming he is a borderline Marxist, but although I think he is head and shoulders above those others, politically, I am not sure he fully knows what that means. Anyway it is far better to have low political expectations of your musical heroes. Then when they do good, solid left-wing things, it’s a bonus.

A comment from Mike Davis on the blurb of Mike Marqusee’s book on Bob Dylan caught my attention. He says that Marqusee “rescues” Dylan “from the condescension of his own later cynicism”. Now, apart from being one of those smug, patronising statements that turn people away from your cause, this quote demonstrates what I am talking about. Dylan doesn’t need rescuing!

Left-wing readers may need rescuing from Dylan’s later cynicism; his protest songs themselves may even need rescuing from the same thing, so that they can still be enjoyed as what they were – among the greatest left-wing protest songs ever written. But to say that Dylan himself needs rescuing is breathtakingly arrogant, because it suggests that whoever is saying it knows the mind of Dylan better than Dylan himself. Has he listened to Blood on the Tracks? Or Time Out of Mind? Or any number of Dylan’s other great albums? The rest of us struggle to understand the workings of Dylan’s mind, and so we are in no position to second-guess him, although I’m about to try. But Dylan does not need rescuing from himself.

So let’s get down to the question, or rather the two questions as I’ve interpreted it – did Bob buy in, and did he sell out. First, some basic facts, which I think these days are beyond debate.

Bob Dylan started off as a teen rock and roller with no politics or folk music in his work. He played Little Richard numbers on his piano, he rarely played the guitar, and it took a long time before he started writing songs.

Once in New York, he became part of the burgeoning folk protest movement, and in 1962 and 1963 made two albums, Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are A-Changing, which helped begin the definition of a generation. I don’t think I am engaging in hyperbole when I say that. These albums were full of acoustic protest songs which need no introduction – songs which were at once directly political and wonderfully poetic. ‘Blowin in the Wind’, ‘Masters of War’, ‘The Lonsesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’. These songs had some effect, though it’s impossible to say how much, in galvanising and broadening the appeal of the civil rights and peace movements of the early 60s.

In the mid-sixties he left the folk scene behind, wrote songs about a variety of less political and more personal topics, and made more electric rock and blues music. Subsequently, he has made great albums in many genres – older-style folk, country, rock and roll, blues…Dylan is such a great songwriter that he transcends genre. Since the mid 60s, bar the odd political song and a flirtation with born-again Christianity, he has stayed out of politics, and these days seems comfortable performing for the Pope and selling an old live recording through Starbucks.

So far, so uncontroversial.

Now I would just like briefly to cover the argument that Dylan going electric, and all of the hoo-ha that accompanied it, was a political sell-out. Many of you will have seen the footage and read accounts of the set with the Butterfield Blues Band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and his 66 tour with The Hawks. These moves were of enormous historical significance for music, but not for politics.

For an acoustic folk singer, as Dylan was then seen, to go electric was a huge deal, not least because at the time he was subject to a hell of a lot of criticism. But that was because many people felt that electric meant pop. Years later, we know that serious messages can come from electrified music. From a political perspective, we shouldn’t dwell on Dylan going electric. You can sing political and non-political songs both electric or acoustic.

‘Folk’ does not mean ‘left-wing’. Before Pete Seeger ever played a guitar, people were singing folk music about their washing lines. And some great left-wing music has been recorded with electrification. So although at the time many people did equate an abandonment of acoustic music with selling out politically, it’s not a good argument.

Whether he sold out is a legitimate question, but using Dylan’s switch to electric music as justification for arguing that he did so doesn’t hold up.

Before Dylan wrote and played his outright folk protest songs, he was already playing what you might call that authentic, older-styled folk music. The quintessentially American music that everyday people would play to each other around the camp-fire, in their homes in the country, in the fields – music which could be about anything; not necessarily even vaguely political. Music chronicled by Alan Lomax and Harry Smith, usually based on either blues or country.

Dylan went back to this music not long after the Greenwich Village days, when he recorded the Basement Tapes with The Band in Woodstock; and he has returned to that music many times since, on record and in concert. One thing seems clear: Woody Guthrie, who was an exponent of both political and what might be called “pre-political” folk music, was an early hero of Dylan’s. Not just in terms of the politics: Dylan was attracted to Guthrie’s story-song style; his finger-picking techniques; his travelling hobo persona (to the extent that Dylan invented tales of his own travels); and his politics, which were very much for the common person, against oppression, and for a fair deal.

But maybe Dylan only paid lip service to each of these aspects of Guthrie’s personality and life. The young Dylan never travelled in the same way that Guthrie did; he wasn’t satisfied with sticking to the story-song spoken blues, let alone acoustic finger-picking; and, in terms of politics, while Guthrie was a sometime member and long-time supporter of the Communist Party, who dedicated the latter half of his life to the struggle, Dylan never went anywhere near that far.

So exactly how political was Dylan?

Richard Farina, with whom Dylan lived in the early 60s, characterises the politics of Dylan at the time as feeling “the intolerability of bigoted opposition to civil rights”. Fairly bland in itself. But Farina goes on to say that Dylan found opposition to such basic rights as an absurdity, and consequently he found it easy to write songs about it. The issue was open-and-shut, and so good material for songs; especially when there were specific, horrific case studies at hand – natural topics for songs like The ‘Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, and ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’. The nuclear bomb situation seemed similarly obvious and clear-cut to Dylan – hence Masters of War.

Even then, Farina points out that it was always the music that mattered to Dylan, not the politics. Not that he didn’t believe in what he was singing about; in that sense he was very much a part of the civil rights movement, and an important one at that. But artistically speaking, the political issues were being used by the songs, not the other way round.

And Dylan has always – always – been an artist over and above anything else. And just as Dylan’s songs made use of the issues, in a general sense Dylan himself made use of the folk protest movement. Fame was not an end in itself – but Dylan was wily enough to realise that without it, he would not get the opportunity to practice his art with as much freedom as he wanted.

But as I hope I have made clear, I don’t believe that the exploitation here was all one way. Dylan did believe in the politics he was singing about – as I have said, it was the very fact that he believed them so strongly that made him put them in song. And the exploitation that went on was two-way, as Dylan used the movement to a degree, and the movement used him.

But one of the things that impressed me most about Martin Scorsese’s recent documentary about those years was that he wasn’t painted either as an all-out left-wing firebrand or as an unbelieving and cynical user. Cynicism may have come on later, but at the time, Dylan did go far beyond what he needed to do if he was only in it to advance his own career. And Scorcese’s film makes that point with its footage of Dylan, with only an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, playing songs for black sharecroppers in a field in the Deep South.

That footage was from Dylan’s trip, along with Theo Bikel and Pete Seeger, to a voter-registration drive in Greenwood, Mississippi – the kind of gradualist method for improving civil rights that President Kennedy approved of. The trip in itself proved that Dylan had some sort of belief in, and commitment to, the protest movement of the time, and the footage made quite an impression on me personally.

The trip was to be a significant one in other ways too. He debuted ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’, a superb song telling the story of the murder of Medgar Evers, an NAACP activist. Also at the time, Dylan had long conversations with Jim Forman, the Secretary of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and Dylan was impressed by what Forman had to say – questioning the effectiveness of the slow-moving Kennedy reforms, expressing outrage at Kennedy’s refusal to protect vote-registration workers, and favouring more direct action.

Nearly all chroniclers of Dylan’s career at that time accept that Dylan, Joan Baez and the rest were an integral part of that gradual approach – basically taking up the baton from Kennedy’s inaugural address and taking it to the people. Forman and SNCC rejected their approach. And in ‘Only a Pawn’ Dylan seems to lean towards Forman’s views – the murder wasn’t simply the white murderer’s fault – “it ain’t him to blame” – he is only a pawn in their game. There was a real structural problem here which required a more dramatic approach than the non-confrontational methods favoured up to that point.

Around the same time, Dylan wrote an apology to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, for making a speech (which you may remember from the Scorsese documentary) when he accepted the group's Tom Paine award, where he compared himself to Lee Harvey Oswald and attacked bald politicians for being bald, and bourgeois Negroes for wearing suits on the platform at the Great March on Washington, and “generally pissed on liberalism” as Dave Marsh puts it. But what is interesting is that his apology makes it crystal clear that his treatment of the ECLU event was not because he was rejecting left-wing politics; in actual fact, his behaviour represented a radicalisation, offering support to the Black Panther position that direct action led by black people, not white people, was the only solution to civil rights problems. The only thing he rejected was the liberal, white-led folk protest movement.

Dylan did perform at the March on Washington, despite Jim Forman discouraging attendance. But by this point his protest days were numbered. Dylan was increasingly struck by what the folk protest movement had or rather hadn’t achieved, its naivete, and as Marqusee points out, the authoritarian and hence hypocritical way in which it was run. He faced a choice: break off from the musical-political movement that had given him fame, and embrace a more direct form of political action; or, still break off from the musical-political movement that had given him fame, and retreat into himself, artistically.

Either way, events, lack of progress and the influence of others had helped persuade him that a new direction was required. And this is where we go back to a point I made earlier: above all else, Bob Dylan was and is an artist. So of those two choices, with hindsight, there can have been little doubt about which he would choose. And there should be no surprise. Such complicated political feelings as he was going through at the time would not make good song material.

I’ve had a look at the discussion on the Workers’ Liberty website, and the point is made that, from 1964 onwards, after the album The Times They Are A-Changing, Dylan still wrote political songs, damning critiques of the political elite, big business, inequality, and so on. His very next album, Another Side Of, contained some of these songs – like ‘Chimes of Freedom’. And not too long afterwards he wrote ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, one his most lyrically brilliant songs, and a superb indictment of modern society.

I think Mike Marqusee’s central thesis is that Dylan’s post-acoustic songs of the mid-sixties – during that run of three magnificent, magnificent, albums – were actually full of social and political comment: ‘Maggie’s Farm’ is a class-based cry of rage against wage labour; ‘It’s Alright Ma’ is a damning indictment of a hypocritical, greedy and corrupt society. And there are more examples.

It is certainly true that Dylan didn’t retreat totally into himself, pulling back from any social awareness. But while we don’t have time to pick lots of songs and albums apart here, I’m not sure I’m with Marqusee all the way.

It seems to me that by the mid-sixties, Dylan was taking pot-shots against all manner of people and groups. He’d sweep in, condemn someone poetically, brilliantly and concisely, then move off somewhere else. And that would be that. Just like in the past, the ideal, the opinion, served the song; not the other way around. But now he would publicly deny any politics – ok he answered hecklers with “come on man, these are all protest songs”, but they weren’t. They were commentary. As he said to folk singer Phil Ochs at the time, “The stuff you’re writing is bullshit…the only thing that’s real is inside you. Your feelings. Just look at the world you’re writing about and you’ll see you’re wasting your time. The world is, well – it’s just absurd”.

You could say that while Dylan still ruled the counter-culture, he provided its apolitical, its personal direction – not its political direction. From a political perspective, the songs became increasingly less specific, less pointed, and with less purpose. He wrote for himself, and never even attempted to use them externally – and nor would he dream of licensing others to do so. One of the most memorable instructions on the 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home was this one: “don’t follow leaders”. He included himself among those leaders. He was moving away from the movement.

And in many ways, from the same album, It’s Alright Ma’ sums up most of what Dylan has ever tried to get across in song. The tension between the peaceful, folky style of protest on the one hand, and the more direct and possibly violent solutions on the other hand is made clear with these lyrics:

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don't hate nothing at all
Except hatred.

And while presidents, advertising and various other ills of modern liberal democratic capitalistic society are condemned, Dylan constantly refers back to his individualistic outlook, and implicitly his rejection of collective action to solve the problems he’s mentioned:

An' though the rules of the road have been lodged
It's only people's games that you got to dodge
And it's alright, Ma, I can make it.

And finally, he admits to the presence in his mind of what would be seen as impure and unworthy thoughts by his former folk protest comrades:

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine
But it's alright, Ma, it's life, and life only.

Later on in Dylan’s career, there was the occasional direct protest song. In 1971 he released the single ‘George Jackson’, about the death in prison of the Black Panther; and more importantly, in 1975 he wrote and recorded ‘Hurricane’ – a long and detailed exposition and critique of the miscarriage of justice surrounding the boxer Reuben Carter, wrongly convicted of murder.

Dylan sings with urgency, anger and conviction. But even this song reads like a tacit admission of the failure of the folk protest movement: “if you’re black, you might as well not show up on the streets”. So much for voter-registration; inequality runs a lot deeper than that, as we know. In any case, these songs were isolated instances.

So, bringing all of this together so as to answer the original questions. Did Dylan buy in? Dylan bought in to an extent. He was a part-time member of that folk protest movement – he just happened to be by a long way its best songwriter and hence an invaluable asset to it. He did far more than he needed to if his only goal had been to become famous, cynically, on the back of the movement.

As he became more involved in the movement, he came to question it, and as a result he drifted away from it. He continued to write what from most other songwriters would be called dangerously revolutionary songs, and he continued to work and perform with well-known left-wing artists – Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez again in the 70s – but once the songs were written, that was it. He would play them live, sure, but as songs at Bob Dylan concerts, not as statements.

So did he sell out? Unless you live in the world of pigeon-holes and mass over-simplifications, then the answer has to be no. Just as he had gone into the folk protest movement both for reasons of expediency and belief, he came out of it both because he questioned where it was going and also, and moreover, because it was where his art was going. That last point is one too huge to examine here, but let us not forget that it is the central point: within two years of Another Side Of, Dylan had recorded probably the best three consecutive albums recorded by one person – Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing it all Back Home, and Blonde on Blonde. As Bruce Springsteen said in a recent interview (one which was very revealing, both musically and politically), “Trust the art, not the artist”. So did he sell out? Not really – he just moved on.

Mike Short

December 2005


Submitted by USRed on Mon, 19/12/2005 - 19:38

One of the few truly intelligent commentaries on Dylan that I've seen lately.

I thought Billy Bragg was very overtly a "proper socialist," though. Was I misled?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 22/12/2005 - 12:46

In reply to by USRed

I saw a quote from Bragg once where he said something along the lines of if he believed everything the Militant believed he'd join the Communist Party instead of the Labour Party.

So I'd tag Bragg as (1) Old Labour (2) Politically confused.

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