The title sounds imposing. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. But such oblique pieces have their place. September 26-30 was “60s Week” on WHYY. Bob Dylan and his music were highlighted by the famed film director Martin Scorcese in the documentary No Direction Home. It was a good film. But, like this article, it covered only a postage stamp of Dylan’s career which is still alive and well.
When I considered writing a brief article on Dylan, I thought immediately of how much he differed in appearance and style from, say, The Beatles, who were not without admiration for the man and his music. But the two were very different items. Dylan was the Bohemian artist; The Beatles, despite their very earthy beginnings in Germany, were polished, incomparably original (despite their synthetic musical habits), visually captivating, snappy. The differences could go on and on. The Beatles were not anchored in the American folk medium, even though they may have been familiar with it tangentially. Their medium was, clearly, a hard and fast rock and roll. Dylan experimented after a fashion with rock and roll, mostly to the consternation of his dedicated folk fans.
“You can tell the man has the Holy Ghost in him,” said one admirer. Others have conceded that he was the voice of a generation. Jung’s “collective unconscious” is evoked to capture Dylan’s raw talent for singing what millions were pondering. “Genius” also pops up. He was undoubtedly an extraordinary artist. There has never been anyone even remotely like him.
Woody Guthrie was Dylan’s hero early on, but it did not take long for Dylan to surpass Woody, at least by the lights of most connoisseurs. Dylan bumped folk into a totally new world. While Woody thrived on simplicity and spontaneity and provincialism, Dylan was essentially urbane. He might act and sing a bit like a hobo, but he was foundationally a different animal. He was an intellectual.
Dylan downplays his intellectualism and even his songwriting abilities, but they are there in full force. And without them, Dylan would not be Dylan.
As an historian who has thought about the power of Jewish intellectuals in America and elsewhere, I can’t help but see Dylan as a kind of Einstein or Freud of the American folk medium. Dylan transformed folk music as surely and decisively as Einstein transformed physics and Freud transformed psychology. They, together with countless other Jewish intellectuals, have been responsible for revolutionizing both their chosen work and the world generally.
Last year, Yuri Slezkine published a book called The Jewish Century. The first sentence of the book is a tough act to follow: “The Modern Age is the Jewish Age, and the twentieth-century, in particular, is the Jewish century. Modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, intellectually intricate….” Bob Dylan’s music is an instance of witnessing Jewish genius applied to an otherwise “folksy” and “country” medium.
It is rumored that a highly annotated copy of Baudelaire was found in Dylan’s digs. I, for one, would find this rumor intellectually intuitive and historically consistent.
Stephen Gatlin is a history professor. Last spring he taught the capstone course, Beatles Music in Dreams and History.
No Direction Home is now available on DVD.