Bob Dylan at Massey Hall, Toronto, 1980 Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin via Wikimedia Commons


On the occasion of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan's 75th birthday, Jason Blakely closely examined Dylan's poetic influences, his detachment from political movements and his search for religious transcendence.
Jason Blakely

Bob Dylan turns 75 years old this year, but in many ways the debate over the political significance of his art is no less resolved than when he burst on the scene in the 1960s. This is in spite of the fact that for the last five decades Dylan has not tired of finding new ways of clearly expressing his sense of alienation from the Left. One of the more recent was a 2004 interview with Ed Bradley, in which Dylan insisted in no uncertain terms that he would rather be thought of as “a drunk … a sicko, or a Zionist, or a Buddhist, or a Catholic, or a Mormon” than the “Archbishop of Anarchy.” And, yes, by “Archbishop of Anarchy” Dylan meant a spokesman for the sixties Left.

All of this has generated a deep sense of confusion among Dylan’s many fans and admirers on the Left. Finding ways to reclaim Dylan as in some sense a fellow traveller—and anything but a Zionist, a Catholic, or a Mormon—has become its own bizarre brand of apologetics and journalistic output. This sense of confusion is understandable. After all, Dylan undoubtedly entered fame as the greatest writer of the protest movement, the protégée of Woody Guthrie, and a voice that rallied America’s counterculture youth. But to this day few people really understand the underlying perspective in Dylan’s political stances. I think this is because no one has sufficiently noted the religious and even mystic sources tapped by Dylan’s art.

It is true that Dylan’s art can only be understood if one situates him initially within the tradition of the Folk Left and the topical song-writing movement. This was a midcentury American populist musical movement—with roots in the earlier New Deal Left—that used folksongs to raise consciousness about problems like racism, worker exploitation, and the abuse of power by moneyed elites. The goal of the topical songwriting movement was political mobilization and profound societal change and Dylan was its wunderkind. Before reaching the age of twenty-five he had already composed the most powerful topical songs of the American Left. His songs riveted the counterculture with their poetic depth, wry humor, and biting commentary on topics ranging from the Civil Rights movement, trivializing consumerism, anti-war, nuclear armament, McCarthyism, and Cold War paranoia.

Probably his most famous song composed in this artistic tradition was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” (1962) written when Dylan was only 21 years old. Today it is remembered as an anthem of both the civil rights and anti-war movements. Indeed, the words have become so widespread that they have even lost some of their poetic potency, encrusted by the familiarity of cliché. But that should not keep us from hearing in them the muted whisper of their original world-historical roar: “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man? / … How many times must the cannonballs fly / before they are forever banned?” Famously, for Dylan: “The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” The answer is just beyond our reach. The wind keeps pace with our aspirations, our hopes, our dreams for a more just society, but this justice is not yet solid and remains beyond our grasp.

Dylan’s mystically vague answer points to a second tradition informing his art—a tradition that eventually came to have a much stronger influence and helped generate the rift between Dylan and the Left that continues to this very day. This second tradition is that of American Beat poetry. At first blush, the Beats are perfectly in harmony with the American Left. After all, the Beat movement is often thought of as a precursor to the hippie counterculture’s rejection of American conformism, consumerism, and traditionalism. Like the Romantics who helped inspire them, the Beats saw art as a “beatific” quest for spiritual illumination against the hyper-rationalism of the modern age. This was sometimes pursued through East Asian religions like Buddhism, but more often through anti-moralistic experimentation with drugs, sex, art, travel, and ceaseless identification with the weird and outcast of American life.

Dylan first encountered Beat poets in the same coffee houses in Greenwich Village where the folk musicians played. The Beats would recite their poems and the folk artists were used to transition the stage. Eventually, Dylan even befriended Allen Ginsberg (probably the second most important Beat writer) and remained a lifelong admirer of Jack Kerouac (probably the first). Not long after encountering the Beat poets, Dylan started infusing his songs with Beat styles of spoken-word imagery, low and high idioms, and themes of rampant consumerism within the trite, spiritually deadening materialism of postwar America. These Beat themes are evident in Dylan’s, “It’s alright Ma” (1965). This sprawling song contains incensed rhymes about the spiritual flattening of those around him due to commercial culture: “Advertising signs they con / you into thinking you’re the one / that can do what’s never been done / that can win what’s never been won / meantime life outside goes on all around you.”

Dylan also echoed these Beat themes in more satirical songs like “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” (1966), an ironic ode to a ridiculously ephemeral fashion trend. The joke of this song is not only how absurd this fashion item actually looks (“it balances on your head / just like a mattress balances / on a bottle of wine”), but also that somehow in a reversal of the love ballad genre the singer has actually managed to fall in love more with the accessory than with the woman wearing it: “Well, I asked the doctor if I could see you / It’s bad for your health, he said / I disobeyed his orders / I came to see you / But I found him there instead / You know, I don’t mind him cheating on me / But I sure wish he’d take that off his head / Your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat.”

The Beats’ anti-materialism certainly dovetailed with Leftist skepticism of consumer capitalism. But the Beat poetic program was always carried out on a much broader horizon than merely the political. The Beats were seekersthey were pushing towards the transcendent. Their search was about the recovery of a deeper religious sense, which had been stifled in the modern world. Often times this put them directly at odds with the traditional Left, which was more staunchly secular and saw human existence as primarily political. As Jack Kerouac put this tension in his novel, Desolation Angels (the inspiration for Dylan’s later “Desolation Row”): “I went to Columbia all they were trying to teach us was Marx, as if I cared. I cut classes and stayed in my room and slept in the arms of God … I was … more fit for Holy Russia of 19th century than for this modern America of crew cuts and sullen faces in Pontiacs.”

Bob Dylan (left) and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Photo by Elsa Dorfman via Wikimedia Commons

This Beat theme of spiritual questing in the desolation of materialistic America is clearly evident in Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma.” In fact, arguably this song contains the most condensed statement ever produced of Beat spiritual search, the famous aphorism: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” The spiritual task of human life was not necessarily political but rather to continually be born again—to be as the child before the beauty of the cosmos, to be open and on fire before reality. As Dylan would say much later on, one must spiritually strive to remain “forever young.” The primary goal of art was religious illumination and not ideological mobilization. This was the deeper source of tension with the more secular sensibilities of the Folk Left. For along with its frequently laudable humanism (e.g., Civil Rights), the Folk Left also demanded of its artists a reduction of the aesthetic to the political. Artistic programs that did not lend a hand in an explicitly ideological task were promptly denounced.

But how did one craft a form of art that aimed at spiritual transcendence? From the Beats, Dylan certainly inherited literary devices like word images, eclecticism of idioms, and collages of modernist lyrical fragments. But artistically Dylan also came under the influence of the aesthetic program of French Symbolism, and inherited the idea of a poetics that transcends the signifier/signified relationship. Dylan was first introduced to the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud by Suze Rotolo, his girlfriend in Greenwich village from 1961-1964, an episode he generously recounts in his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume 1.

Rimbaud believed that art should express transcendent truths that could only be communicated indirectly. This followed the Romantics and their critique of the Enlightenment’s cult of reason and belief that rationalist ideology could save the world. Thus, Rimbaud believed the task of the artist was mystic understanding—painful search for insight into truths that transcended any particular politics or ideology. As Rimbaud put it in his famous letter explaining the task of a poet from 1871: “I say you have to be a visionary, make yourself a visionary. A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself … he will need the greatest faith, a super human strength … for he attains the unknown.”

Dylan’s adoption of French Symbolist aesthetic strategies is evident in his famous “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965). This song-poem parallels Rimbaud’s call for a mystic journey through suffering and love in search of the “unnameable.” In the song, the narrator famously follows a “tambourine man” as he leads outside of “evening’s empire” away from the “ancient empty street” that has become “too dead for dreaming.” The path of the tambourine man becomes increasingly otherworldly, as it leads through “the smoke rings of my mind / down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves / the haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach / far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.” Who is the tambourine man? Why does his journey involve a loss of self? Symbols exceed spoken meanings here. They gesture at the beyond.

The spiritual here is not the equivalent of the apolitical. After all, Dylan is insistent that the spiritual search is frustrated by the corruption and suffocation of the modern world (a central theme throughout all Dylan’s lyrical writing up to the present). Consider a nearly hallucinatory song from 1966 entitled “Visions of Johanna.” The narrator in this song is conquered by the visions (haunted by visions, kept up late by visions) of a Johanna who is never fully there: “How can I explain? / Oh, it’s so hard to get on / And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn.” Later in the song the frustration of the infinite, of the transcendent to break into our flattened, secularized world is explicit: “inside the museums infinity goes up on trial / voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while / but Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues / you can tell by the way she smiles.”

What is frustrating and creating this profound nostalgia for visions of Johanna? It is very difficult to say for sure. Dylan doesn’t give us a simple treatise. There is a politics here but it exceeds the standard political programs of the Right and the Left. The Left’s reduction of human life to a politics of humanity’s self-salvation through reason alone is a problem but so is the Right’s overly comfortable conformity with consumer capitalism.

Dylan’s use of Beat and French Symbolist conceptions of the poet as mystic to reject the Left’s reduction of artistic self-expression to ideology was made explicit in his now famous 1963 interview with Studs Terkel, a Chicago journalist and a major leftwing figure at that time. Dylan played some songs on Terkel’s radio show including “Hard Rain.” The exchange that followed crystallized Dylan’s use of French Symbolism to transcend the ideology of the Left.

Terkel: “Take this one you sang, this one, I think will be a classic, this ‘Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,’ even though it may have come out of your feelings about atomic rain—”

Dylan: “No. No! It’s not atomic rain. Someone else thought that too … it’s not atomic rain. It’s just a hard rain.”

Terkel: “Hard rain?”

Dylan: “It’s not atomic rain. It’s a hard rain.”

What at first sight appears to be Dylan humorously reducing the song to the literal meaning is actually his protection of the richness of its symbols. The symbol relates to a level of reality that cannot be exhausted by politics or even in terms of further language.

It was the Left’s insistence that Dylan show ideological loyalty that led to the very tense series of songs that are arguably about breaking up with the Folk Left’s reduction of song to ideology. In 1964’s gut-wrenching ballad, “My Back Pages,” Dylan howls: “Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth / ‘Rip down all hate,’ I screamed / Lies that life is black and white / Spoke from my skull. I dreamed [ …] ‘Equality,’ I spoke the word / As if a wedding vow / Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” Youth or becoming like a child again symbolizes for Dylan a return to spiritual awareness.

Yet perhaps nowhere was this shift away from the Left’s secular, immanent politics towards a deeper religious sense more subtly evident than in 1968 when Dylan rewrote the folk standard “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill” as “I dreamed I saw St. Augustine.” The original composition had become a folk standard, and rallying song of the Left played by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. It told the story of Union organizer, Joseph Hillstrom, whose violent death became a symbol of secular martyrdom. The song explains: “The copper bosses killed you Joe / They shot you Joe, says I / Takes more than guns to kill a man / says Joe, I didn’t die.”

By contrast, Dylan’s song replaces Joe Hill with the fourth century Catholic Bishop and saint, Augustine of Hippo. The song opens with the same lines but the names have been shockingly swapped: “I dreamed I saw Saint Augustine / alive as you or me.” Dylan goes on to envision Augustine warning us that “no martyr is among you now whom you can call your own” (we have no deeper sense of the true martyrs today) and that we are all “gifted kings and queens” but don’t realize our real value and worth. This is Augustine’s “sad complaint” to a world trapped in the immanent corroding cage of spiritual disenchantment.

Also, in the original Leftist ballad the culpable party for the injustice is clear—the copper bosses. But as Dylan’s rewrite imagines it, we all played a part in killing Saint Augustine (much as in Christian theology all of humanity is implicated in the crucifixion of Jesus). Augustine thus replaces Joe Hill as the true martyr. The true symbol of spiritual questing that is irreducible to the political—this Church father and mystic who wrote that “as long as I understand that still isn’t God”—becomes the model for artistic search. The artist is on a quest or search for the unnameable, not the communication of a rationalist secular ideology.

For Dylan the artistic is closer to the religious or the spiritual—embracing and shaping the political without being reducible to it. This is what it means that “infinity goes up on trial” and “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are fighting in the captain’s tower.” Artistic reality encompasses the political, calls us to political action, but never simply leaves our highest task as activism or advocacy. There is a kind of search that is higher.

What many listeners of Dylan still struggle to realize is that his art is carried out on a horizon much broader than the political per se—it is rather the cosmic, the mystic, the spiritual, the religious. The problems this poses for the Left and the Right in America today (as each continues “fighting in the captain’s tower”) are still much profounder than either side recognizes. Perhaps we will understand Dylan’s message better in the next seventy-five years than we have so far in the first.