Saturday, July 22, 2017

Like His Hero Woody Guthrie, Dylan Spoke the Language of the Disenfranchised

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?
--"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

In the Old Testament story of David, there came a time when the young giant-slayer's reputation and honor was such that he became a threat to King Saul, who was a symbol of the established order. (See I Samuel 17-19.) After slaying Goliath David became part of the king's household, as armor bearer and poet/musician. Eventually Saul put him in command of a small army. David's achievements were heroic and greatly celebrated by the masses, public adulation that tormented Saul to the point that David's life was endangered, and ultimately David had to flee.

The young poet/musician took refuge in the wilderness, hiding in caves and moving about the surrounding hills. As word got around (even without social media or news corporations the buzz travelled fast) it is written that "everyone who was in distress, everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him." (I Samuel 22:2 KJV) The New Century translation of this verse states, "Everyone who was in trouble, or who owed money, or who was unsatisfied gathered around David, and he became their leader."

What comes to mind when I think of Dylan's early songs is how they resonated with the disenfranchised. In fact, Dylan used to cite this story of David while introducing his song "When the Ship Comes In." Longtime Dylan fans are familiar with the early live recording where he stated, "Nowadays there are crueler Goliaths who do crueler and crueler things, but one day they're going to be slain, too." It's a familiar story and a metaphor that captured something of Dylan's appeal in the Sixties.

Where did this attitude and sensibility come from?

It's well-known that young Bob Dylan identified with the folk roots of his hero Woody Guthrie. Guthrie's story goes like this:

"At the age of just 14, Guthrie and his siblings were left to fend for themselves while their father worked in Texas to repay his debts. As a teenager, Guthrie turned to busking in the streets for food or money, honing his skills as a musician while developing the keen social conscience that would later be so integral to his legendary music.

"Guthrie left his family in 1935 to join the thousands of "Okies" who were migrating West in search of work. Like many other "Dust Bowl refugees," Guthrie spent his time hitchhiking, riding freight trains, and when he could, quite literally singing for his supper.

"In 1937, Guthrie arrived in California, where he landed a job with partner Maxine "Lefty Lou" Crissman as a radio performer of traditional folk music on KFVD in Los Angeles. The duo soon garnered a loyal following from the disenfranchised "Okies" living in migrant camps across California and it wasn't long before Guthrie's populist sentiments found their way into his songs."*

Four times in the 1940s American author John Steinbeck was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature before achieving it in 1962 "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception." His novel The Grapes of Wrath poignantly tells the story of the disenfranchised for whom Woody Guthrie labored.

This mix of ingredients along with lessons learned growing up on the Iron Range permeated Dylan's early sensibilities. I think here of Hollis Brown, who "lived on the outside of town."

Even though a majority of the Boomer generation grew up in suburbia, which was supposed to be "the good life," many of the youth of that time felt an emptiness and confusion about the times they inhabited.

Early on Dylan keyed in to this generational angst in songs like "Hard Rain" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'," at a time with others were singing "He's So Fine" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." His music performed a role similar to the icebreakers on the great Northern Lake that was hugged by the port city where he was born. Carrying a torch that had been lit by his hero Woody Guthrie, his songs lit many other torches and in a few years we had "For What It's Worth" (Buffalo Springfield), "Ball of Confusion" (The Temptations), "Eve of Destruction" (Barry Maguire),  "Fortunate Son" (CCR) and more. By the early 1970s everyone was wondering "What's Goin' On?"

* * * *
Longtime fans and followers of Dylan's music and performances have commented to me that they're seeing a resurgence of interest in Dylan by growing numbers of young people attending his concerts in recent years. Some have wondered if it's simply a response to his "celebrity status," especially now having won the Nobel Prize. But there are others who have suggested that it's not that at all, rather that having grown up in homes where their parents listened to Dylan, they've now themselves begun to understand what he was singing about, and the lyrics are beginning to connect.

After a lifetime of hearing about the massive growth of our national debt, there's an unreality about it all for most Boomers. But there's no unreality for our young people about the high cost of health care, dental care, housing, taxes and even death (for those left behind) And then there's all that unpaid college debt, while being perpetually reminded that you're never too young to start saving for retirement.

The themes in It's Alright, Ma are as relevant to today's young people as when they were penned more than 50 years ago.

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing

And so it goes.

*Biography    

1 comment:

Phil T. said...

Excellent article. I hope you're right, and we see a generation sick of the consumerist mindset move us in a better direction.

Thanks for making my day with the Vonnegut sign off. As he said, "the only proof of God's existence I need is music."

Peace.