The Mystery of Apolitical Bob Dylan

The apolitical Bob Dylan with Joan Baez, photo Roland Sherman

By Phil Hall

Prospero in his cell busy indwelling, might have time to ponder the mystery of the myth that is Bob Dylan. He is concealed behind a dark blue velvet curtain embroidered in gold; Dylan with a megaphone standing on a stool, blown up from Minnesota.

Dylan is not a poet. Dylan is a songwriter. If you want to know who should get the plaudits for the early musical political then it is not Dylan – not in the least. It is  Dave Van Ronk and Phil Ochs, names that, for all his attributions, Dylan doesn’t mention quite as often as Elvis and Little Richard. Bodies that he steps over as they sink into the mud.

Of course a middle class Jewish boy from Little Hibbing, you would think, would have to be pretty stubborn to traverse the 60’s without ever being politicised. Christ’s sake, How is that possible?

But what is beautiful and ironic and right about Dylan is that, invariably, everyone else sings his songs better than he does.

To be hanging over Woody Guthrie sucking at Guthrie’s socialist soul while he lay paralysed, to echo Pete Seeger and still to learn nothing. Instead to fall into mythomania. To develop a mild case of the messiah –occasionally, unconvincingly disavowed.  

Dylan got a education that mastered and extended musical forms. But he spaffed buckets of his blood against a wall. He didn’t moan about the environment or injustice (Do Jesse James and Hurricane Carter count?) but about the twists and turns of relationships where, unreconstructed, he possessed most of the agency. Or, at the very least, he had God on his side.

This is the essence of cultural appropriation. To squeeze the juice out of other people’s music. It is the dark end of the street of cultural appropriation because it decontextualises, depoliticises; White Rock and Roll; Clapton kick-starting Rock against Racism when he expressed his obnoxious support for Enoch. Miles Copeland and Son kick starting The Police. If Dylan wanted to talk properly about Kennedy’s murder and not just pose, he would have fingered James Angleton

If Dylan wanted to talk properly about Kennedy’s murder and not just pose, he would have fingered James Angleton.

Decades of dead souled, dead music in zombie filled arenas headlined by people like Dylan. Because, of course, what is Dylan if he isn’t the arch appropriator. A vampire. And so it is the curse of the vampire that all of his songs, without exception, sound better in the mouths of the people whose souls he cribbed them from.

But he cribbed well. Dylan was the great fanboy genius. The Quentin Tarantino of music. Because, clearly, Dylan is a genius, a Zelig of music. He is an all American hobo, except he isn’t. He’s a troubadour at a banquet, except he isn’t. He’s a working class English folksinger, except he isn’t. He’s a white Mexican, except he isn’t. He’s a boxer, a mobster, except he isn’t. He’s a gospel singer and composer, except he isn’t. He’s calling us to prayer. Well …. that he does.

No one should give two cents for Bob Dylan’s opinions on any subject that requires any degree of intellectual, spiritual or emotional honesty. 

But because Dylan is, in fact, a genius, his songs, the songs he Stanislavskys into, all sound so right. Outside the dogs really are barking. You believe it, but Dylan isn’t for Bernie he was for Obama. You can get better politics out of Hollywood than you can out of Dylan, out of people like Ben Affleck and Matt Daemon. 

No one should give two cents for Bob Dylan’s opinions on any subject that requires any degree of intellectual, spiritual or emotional honesty. That’s not what Dylan is for. But what is beautiful and ironic and right about Dylan is that, invariably, everyone else sings his songs better than he does.

But, oh my God when they do sing his songs they are revealed to be the best songs. They are beautiful powerful songs, reclaimed from stolen property and recycled up into glory. 


Phil Hall

Phil Hall is a university lecturer working in the Middle East. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.



Categories: Bob Dylan

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