Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Duluth Dylan Fest: Religious Themes Pervaded His Life's Work

Wailing Wall by Daniel Botkin
Back in the late Sixties or maybe early Seventies (someone may remember this and even have the article) I saw an article about Bob Dylan predicting that he would one day become the center of a new religion, much like Jesus or Muhammed or Buddha. Much like the label "voice of a new generation," it's a sure thing he'd have distanced himself from that expectation as rapid as any other defining epithet. What prompted that early prediction was the earnestness of the religious themes which permeated his songs.

This memory was brought to mind yesterday when I read one of the countless "Happy Birthday" articles wishing him the best on his 75th birthday today, Jeffrey Salkin's article suitably titled, "Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan!" from the Religion News Service.

This is all especially interesting because we've lived in a era where one of the fundamental givens of our time is that humanity evolved from lower life forms and that we are simply a bi-product of countless millenia of stimulus-response experiences. Many would cite that Capitalism is soulless by nature (survival of the fittest, he who has the most toys wins, etc.) and philosophical materialism declares that there is really is nothing more than a Material world. Our politics, too, reflects this in its own way, At least at its higher levels it appears Machiavellian to the core, power brokers committed to gaining and maintaining power at any cost.

Into this contemporary stew, Bob Dylan became a prophetic Voice. He was like a voice crying in the wilderness. A hard rain's gonna fall. His songs addressed issues of injustice, covetousness, greed, pride, and the need for a moral vision that included justice, temperance, faith, hope and charity.*

Today in Duluth his fans are celebrating Bob Dylan's 75th birthday by unveiling a marker in front of his birth home here in the Central Hillside. (3:30 p.m. @ 519 East Third Street). For years I have felt that the city should do more to honor its native son, the way the other cities have done with their "offspring." But as Jesus himself stated, "A prophet is without honor in his own country."

So it is that a handful of people have been laboring to bring greater recognition to Dylan's significance to and in this Northland region, something more than acknowledgement, more in keeping with his stature. And yet, how acknowledge Dylan without turning these touchpoints into shrines? But it becomes quite the dance, because Dylan himself would not wish to be enshrined. Or worshiped. Dylan's life was about something higher.

Dan Botkin discusses his work with WDIO reporter.
Last night Chicago artist Daniel Botkin gave a talk in which he explained his various paintings and the meanings behind the images. Religious themes pervade Botkin's work because religious themes pervade Dylan's lyrics, not just the early ones. (c.f. The Dark Side of Dylan, Christianity Today column about Tempest.) Even when painting the passing of a guitar (symbol of carrying the music to a next generation) Botkin uses a scene from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where the finger of God touches Adam's finger, transmitting the spark of the divine. In this case, it is Woody Guthrie handing Dylan the guitar from a cloud where he is perched with "Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly, too."

It's been a fascinating week as the world tries to find creative ways to pay tribute in an authentic way, while attempting to avoid mythologizing. But maybe mythologizing can't be helped when you try to place any man on a pedestal. There are so many new stories being told and the mythologizing starts to feel so thick you can cut it with a knife.

It's an exciting time here this week, though. People who knew Bob when he was growing up are in the circle of admirers paying respects, looking back at photos on display at Karpeles, for example.

Today there will be music, a mayoral proclamation, prayers for good weather, and a birthday cake. Some of it (like the birthday cake) is probably normal for any 75 year old with a family or friends. The mayoral proclamation is not. And if you're in town, the CD release party is at The Rex tonight, Duluth Does Dylan IV, featuring many of the bands from Duluth's previous CDs on the same theme. It'll be a memorable birthday bash, I'm sure. Especially if you're there.

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Afterword

There were news stories last week about the auction of a 1980 letter in which Bob reveals his Christian faith.  Here's a second on the same letter from Toronto. What's apparent here is his earnestness. The opening lines from one of my own poems comes to mind at this point.

We're a complicated people,
a mixed and crazy breed.
We can always blame our parents,
for we're all of Adam's seed...
The future remains unwrit.

Here's my salute to Bob on his 75th. Happy Birthday.
And my tip for long life: Keep having birthdays!
Stay busy being born, and you will never get bored.

*See Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Vision of Sin

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