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Dylan told Ed Bradley that his songs "were songs, you know? They weren't sermons. If you examine the songs, I don't believe you're gonna find anything in there that says that I'm a spokesman for anybody or anything, really."
Oh, really? What about "Masters of War," "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and a dozen others? Dylan not a political animal? At the August 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, Dylan sang one of his few optimistic political numbers, "When the Ship Comes In," and Peter Paul and Mary sang the summer's hit "Blowin' in the Wind."
That was the song that made Dylan famous beyond the Village, and the renown was well earned. Sung in a whisper that sounds like the last breath, the dying words of a shaman, he poses a series of angry rhetorical questions ("How many deaths will it takes till he knows that too many people have died?") with a strangely gentle, enigmatic resolution: "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind."
The young Dylan's original repertoire was particularly strong on civil rights. He could have filled a LP side with songs decrying the injustices done to black Americans: "Oxford Town" (about the shooting of Medgar Evers), "The Ballad of Hollis Brown", "Who Killed Davey Moore?" and "The Death of Emmett Till" ("This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man / That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan").
Most impressively, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." That song, which Dylan wrote within a few weeks of the event it describes, tells of the killing of a Baltimore maid by a rich, politically connected society toff named William Zantzinger. Don't cry yet, Dylan warns in each of the first three choruses, as he relates the awful particulars of the case: "Now ain't the time for your tears." At the end, he spits out the judge's obscenely lenient decision: "And handed out strongly for penalty and repentance, / William Zanzinger with a six months' sentence." Dylan's message: Don't weep for one blameless soul brutally, thoughtlessly killed; weep for the system that, after due consideration, shrugs away a rich white man's murder of a poor black woman. "Now's the time for your tears."
It's possible that Dylan's social-musical conscience was a career movie too. He suggested as much to Nat Hentoff, who wrote a 1964 New Yorker profile on Dylan. About the "finger-pointing songs," he said, "Some of that was jumping into the scene to be heard and a lot of it was because I didn't see anybody else doing that sort of thing." But to those who took the songs at face value, they sounded like the voice of an angry God promising hard rain if the human race doesn't shape up quick.
THE INSULT FOLK SINGER
What caught the ear of many early fans, as much as Dylan's voice and political acuity, was his snarly attitude. When he sang to a lover (would-be or ex), to someone who crowded him by trying to be a friend or a fan, the protest in his tone turned personal and hostile. ("Just because you like my stuff, he famously said, "doesn't mean I owe you anything."") Long before he was a folk rocker, Dylan was the folk Rickles.
At times his scorn was directed at agents of destruction, like the munitions manufacturers in "Masters of War." The song begins with a catalog of their sings ("You put a gun in my hand / And you hide from my eyes / And you turn and run farther / When the fast bullets fly") before imagining a suitable comeuppance ("And I hope that you die /And your death'll come soon. ... / And I'll stand o'er your grave / 'Til I'm sure that you're dead"). But more often the songwriter's derision was directed at someone who had committed no atrocity greater than befriending him. It was the tactic of a natural-born complainer; when he tired of denouncing war and racism, he went after ex-girlfriends.
Before Dylan, pop music wallowed and exulted in the love song; the body of get-lost songs was small. If pop approached the topic, it was usually an invitation to mutual hermitting. ("Let's get lost," Frank Loesser wrote and Mary Martin sang, "lost in each other's arms.") It's true that songs of emotional defiance had been a sub-genre of blues. In folk music, John Jacob Niles, the Kentucky balladeer with the dramatic delivery and the pure falsetto, had written "Go Away from My Window," covered by Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez and adapted by Dylan.
The Niles lyric sounds clear enough: "Go away from my window, / Go away from my door, / Go away way from my bedside / And bother me no more / And bother me no more." But it got a softer, more complex meaning both from the melody, which has the poignancy of a lullaby to an absent child, and from Niles' rendition, his voice soaring on the first "bother me no more" so that he sounds like an unquiet spirit, or maybe a sleeper shooing a ghost out of his nightmares.
In "It Ain't Me, Babe," Dylan uses the title of Niles' song, but ups the antagonistic ante: "Go away from my window, / Leave at your own chosen speed. / I'm not the one you want, babe, / I'm not the one you need. / ... You say you're lookin' for someone / Who will promise never to part, / Someone to close his eyes for you, / Someone to close his heart, / Someone who will die for you an' more, / But it ain't me, babe, / No, no, no, it ain't me, babe, / It ain't me you're lookin' for, babe."
The word "babe," normally a term of endearment, or at least of hipster familiarity (the 60s equivalent of "dude"), here takes on the acridity of a four-letter word. By the end of the song, the person to whom its sung not only has no doubt she/he's been dumped but finds her/his ego in tatters. The message is: I won't be your love slave, and nobody else should either. It's a rancor most people have felt after an affair goes sour, but was rarely set to music. Dylan started doing it, and kept doing it. In the liner notes for the three-disc set Biograph, he told Cameron Crowe that the 1966 song "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine" was "Probably written after some disappointing relationship, where, you know, I was lucky to have escaped without a broken nose." Moral: Never piss off a poet; he'll have the last word, and in public.
Political or personal, Dylan's impudence was catnip to kids my age, who, if we couldn't shout righteous invective at Bull Conner in Birmingham, Alabama, could at least be rude to our parents at home. His "my generation" song, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" announces the passing of power from the burghers of middle-aged authority to their children. In succession Dylan addresses these mammoths who don't realize they're dinosaurs: writers and critics, senators, Congressmen and finally mothers and fathers. His acute message to parents: "Don't criticize what you can't understand. / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. / Your old road is rapidly agin'. / Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand, / For the times they are a-changin'." That was prophesy for a while politically, as the 60s generation marched on Washington, closed down their schools and for all time economically. Kids today may not want to change the world, but they sure can afford to buy it.)
Dylan reveled in all forms of excoriation. "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" begins with a high wail that follows advice with threat: "You must leave now, take what you need you think will last. / But whatever you wish to keep, you'd better grab it fast." By the end of the verse, his voice has dropped an octave to whisper, "And it's all over now, Baby Blue." We also adopted Dylan's dismissal of the clueless "Something is happening but you don't know what it is, / Do you, Mr. Jones?" in "Ballad of a Thin Man." The ultimate shrug-off came from "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right": "You just sorta wasted my precious time."
And what is "Like a Rolling Stone" if not the kick-her-when-she's-down elegy to a fallen idol? "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose. / You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal. / How does it feel / To be on your own / With no direction home / Like a complete unknown / Like a rolling stone?"
The ultimate zinger from Bob Dylan the insult comic troubadour.