I am teaching a course this semester called “American Protest Music.” It was taught the last two years in the Honours Programme and is now offered to the general student population. Unlike the Honours Programme course, it is an elective and not reserved for only freshpersons (freshman is a sexist term still naturally employed by the reactionary higher education establishment in the United States. Are freshwomen really males? I am the only professor on campus that openly uses the term freshperson! Typical of liberal higher education (liberal and reactionary being synonymous) that is hooked on this gender specific term.) The second half of the class will analyse Dylan’s music and the timing of the Martin Scorsese documentary, September 26 and 27 on PBS and the BBC, during a semester when I am teaching this course is most fortuitous.
Dylan’s tumultuous career from 1961-1966 is the period under scrutiny in the Scorsese film. The director has a clear affinity for Dylan. His The Last Waltz documentary presented the farewell tour of The Band in 1978; yet it was almost a hagiographic portrayal of Dylan who dominates the movie with his presence. The early to middle 1960s of Dylan’s career will be his legacy for the ages. As long as Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew are read; as long as the fifth, seventh and ninth symphonies of Beethoven are performed; as long as Duke Ellington’s jazz endures; as long as Cervantes will be read; as long as Bach fugues are performed, so will Bob Dylan’s music.
It is during this period that album after album of almost indescribable genius are released, Freewheelin’, Times They Are A-Changin’, Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde. If a performer could release a single album of this quality, she would be considered an artist of the first rank. But five, yes five albums each representing a masterpiece of creativity and poetic daring were issued by a single songwriter in a breathtakingly near sequential manner.
No Direction Home, the title was undoubtedly lifted from Robert Shelton’s book and of course emanates from the greatest rock song “Like A Rolling Stone,” has definitely done major damage to bootlegs. I have an extensive bootleg collection of Dylan’s work and while some of it is still unreleased, the movie does show never before released video of Dylan at the August 1963 (“I Have A Dream,” Dr King) March on Washington and at the Newport 1965 folk-rock revolution. By August 1963, Dylan was the preeminent folk singer in America. In two short years between 1961, when he arrives in New York as a blues singer in search of Woody Guthrie and 1963, he had become an iconic figure. By 1965 his elevated status as the folk-poet of his generation, created such expectations that his abandonment of the acoustic guitar by plugging his lyrics into an electrical outlet offended folk purists. Pete Seeger apparently tried to vandalise his band’s (Paul Butterfield Blue’s Band) equipment and Alan Lomax, the great folklorist, had a fist fight with Dylan’s creative manager, Abe Grossman. By the way, the cover of the CD, No Direction Home, Bootleg #7, contains an alternative cover shot of Bringing It All Back Home. No the woman in the red dress was NOT Dylan dressed in drag in cross-gender expression but was Sally Grossman, Abe’s spouse. That rumour surfaced inaccurately when the album was first released in 1965.
The move shows clips of Dylan’s greatest musical moment other than Newport ’65, his confrontational 1966 tour in the United Kingdom when he fronted the Hawks, (later The Band) with drummer Mickey Jones and not Levon Helm and introduced his folk-rock brilliance to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Yet I have never understood entirely while some, not all of his audiences, booed and hooted at the non-folk portions of the concerts. Generally, the opening set list before intermission were solo-acoustic guitar folk music. My goodness, the Brits did not need the Internet. They knew Highway 61 Revisited had been released in August 1965 and “Like a Rolling Stone,” had appeared in June 1965. So British Dylan aficionados knew about the folk-rock transformation, had listened to the vinyl records and could hardly claim shock and surprise. Maybe they knew American audiences had initially given Dylan mixed results at Newport and Forest Hills and were getting on the heckle bandwagon. Yet Dylan was well received at the Hollywood Bowl and in Austin so he was doing very well with American audiences before he headed east across the Atlantic.
Yet despite audience opposition–but many applauded the new oeuvre–including being called “Judas” in Manchester, Dylan performed at a creative level on his 1966 Eat the Document British tour perhaps unequaled in the history of popular music. The movie dramatically reveals the audience reaction but those of us who have seen the epic Eat the Document film or listened to the CD Live 1966 Bootleg Series 5 were quite aware of this.
The standard thesis is Dylan was almost killed in 1966 in an accident while riding his Triumph motorcycle near Woodstock in New York state. He sought refuge and recovery and does not tour for EIGHT years until reemerging with The Band in Chicago Stadium. Here is my thesis which interestingly a colleague had identically suggested in an e-mail today. Dylan was injured but not critically and chose a quasi exile to avoid audience rejection of his music. He carefully chose his brief sojourns from his hermetic life, like President Bush during wartime. For example, The Concert for Bangladesh relief, an unanounced apperance with The Band at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville in 1969: but generally he avoided scheduled appearances and all concert touring. He would not abandon folk-rock; he did avert direct exposure to hostile audiences. Maybe it was a combination of health and head. We will never know perhaps because the film does not extend into this self-imposed exile.
Also Dylan’s resentment as being portrayed as the spokesperson of his generation or as he sneeringly told Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes, an “anarchist” was predicated not on his tiring of social causes but his interpreting the mixed reaction to his revolutionary music as a rejection of non-specific topical music. The emergence of an ephemeral, stream-of-consciousness oeuvre in which the political is as much the suggestion as the hammerin’ home message was lost on many of his fans. No Dylan knew the new music was a new form of communicating social and political topics. He felt the rejection was not merely the music but the message. Scorsese’s movie I think demonstrates that Dylan was always a rebel; never hit the middle; never sought the mainstream but the daring, the original, the challenge of the canon.