Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The de-historicized 60s and Bob Dylan

Some people of my generation in the 60's famously said "Don't trust anyone over 30".  Thus was dismissed all human history up to that moment. Utopia had arrived, for the first time.

Bob Dylan resisted being labeled the "voice of his generation".  And now I think I understand why, in a way I couldn't understand back in the 60's.  To my own de-historicized mind at the time, Dylan's music was born out of the void, it had no ancestry, except perhaps for folk music.  To some extent, Dylan played into this de-historicized image by jettisoning his own roots: he replaced his family name, Zimmerman, with Dylan.  He did not present himself as a Jewish man from Northern Minnesota, but as a rootless wanderer, a descendant of the hoboes, of Woody Guthrie, a born again Christian. He was a self-made man, ironically, in the best Euro-American tradition of the New World where anyone can become whoever he wants to be. Each time he played, and plays, one of his songs, it is re-arranged.  He never plays quite the same song twice.  Always morphing, there is no static tradition or history in Dylan the man or in his work, except for the tradition of denying, or transcending, tradition.

Those of us who thought a new world was being born in the 60's have been undergoing a long and sobering morning after.  Events have proven far more complex and unpredictable than we could have imagined, defying understanding or categorization.  On one hand, we have seen as much or more violence in the world as ever.  We have seen a resurgence of the political right wing, of terrorism and reactive nationalism, of poverty, economic inequality, and social injustice.  Some of what has developed in a positive way is a legacy of the 60's; the Civil Rights movement has made lasting, if limited, changes in race relations in the United States.  The Women's Movement and Gay Rights have made undeniable, if again limited, progress. Some of what seems negative to someone of my political persuasion can be seen as continuous with the ethos of the 60's, in particular the anti-authoritarianism and individualism of the 60's seems continuous with the current, long-standing, resistance to government interference, of the present moment.

Looking back, it was incredibly and embarrassingly arrogant of some of us to think we could do better than any previous generation, that we could make a clean and radical break with the past.  Perhaps some of that arrogance was necessary to accomplish some of what is proving to be of lasting value.  Now when I listen to the various incarnations of Bob Dylan I hear echoes not only folk music, but of the blues, rhythm and blues, and something uniquely Dylan-esque, or perhaps Zimmerman-esque.  I hear the legacy of African-American slavery, a Jewish sensibility, a Euro-American faith in self-reinvention, a refusal to be confined by tradition with deep roots in tradition.  And I'm sure I'm not hearing the half of it.