Last night, after helping get the kids to bed, I went to a Bob Dylan concert. Iâ€™ve never been to a rock concert on a Sunday before, but I made an exception for Dylan. Iâ€™ve had to pass up seeing him on several other prior occasions because of finals, work, or because the show was on a Sunday. But I just couldnâ€™t bring myself to miss him again. I donâ€™t regret it.
Dylan put on amazing show. The setlist (see it here) was well-balanced between new songs (â€œTweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumâ€?; â€œLonesome Day Bluesâ€?; â€œTrying to Get to Heavenâ€?), mid-career greats (â€œForever Youngâ€?, â€œIf You See Her, Say Helloâ€?) and the early classics that forever changed rock and roll (â€œLike a Rolling Stoneâ€?, â€œDesolation Rowâ€?, â€œHighway 61 Revisitedâ€?, â€œAll Along the Watchtowerâ€?). Dylan was hunched over his keyboard most of the night, and didnâ€™t say a word to the adoring packed house except to introduce his band. But Dylan has always let his compositions speak for him.
Iâ€™m no Dylan scholar (there are such things, you know) but it seems to me that Dylan is one of the great prophet-poets of our era, at least. Let me try to make a (very abbreviated) case.
First of all, Dylan was the forerunner, if not the (reluctant) de facto leader, of one of the most successful mass movements of the last century. 1962â€™s â€œBlowinâ€™ in the Wind,â€? it has been argued, ushered in, or at least catalyzed, the peace movement in the early sixties. In addition to being one of the first songs to politicize rock and roll (and with it, youth culture), the text of that song helped facilitate the unification of the cresting black civil rights movement and the nascent white anti-war movement by equating militarism, authoritarianism, and racism. It’s not in the history books, but Dylan and his acolytes performed during the 1963 March on Washington, better known as the setting for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
But even apart from its real world effects on culture and politics, Dylanâ€™s work fares quite well as prophetic texts. In his classic book, The Prophets, Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel writes:
What manner of man is the prophet? A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum. They make much ado about paltry things, lavishing excessive language upon trifling subjects. What if somewhere in ancient Palestine poor people have not been treated properly by the rich? So what if some old women found pleasure and edification in worshiping “the Queen of Heaven”? Why such immoderate excitement? Why such intense indignation?
I think this description fits Dylanâ€™s work quite well. Songs like â€œMasters of Warâ€? condemn the powers that be in the harshest terms imaginable. Songs like â€œHard Rainâ€™s A-Gonna Fallâ€? and â€œThe Times They Are A-Changinâ€™â€? foresee coming upheaval and calamity, and tell us to change our ways. There are more hopeful songs (â€œWhen the Ship Comes Inâ€?), and songs that speak of visions (â€œVisions of Johannaâ€?). And there are songs that simply witness and bemoan injustice (â€œThe Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrollâ€?; â€œHurricaneâ€?).
Dylan, of course, would protest this kind of analysis. I think thatâ€™s what his â€œIt Ainâ€™t Me, Babeâ€? is all about. Heâ€™s always claimed to be nothing more than a â€œsong and dance man.â€? And if youâ€™ve seen D.A. Pennebakerâ€™s ur-documentary Donâ€™t Look Back, you know Dylan could be petulant and condescending and small-minded. So perhaps he shouldn’t be given the noble label of “prophet” — perhaps he’s just a clever enough writer to keep his songs enigmatic and challenging. Perhaps Iâ€™m just trying to justify the fact that I went to a rock concert on a Sunday. You tell me.