Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Voice of The Generation Of '68?- Bob Dylan Unplugged

Click on title to link to YouTube's film clip of Bob Dylan performing "Masters Of War".

CD REVIEW

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan, Columbia, 1962


In reviewing Bob Dylan’s 1965 classic album “Bringing All Back Home” (you know, the one where he went electric) I mentioned that it seemed hard to believe now that both as to the performer as well as to what was being attempted that anyone would take umbrage at a performer using an electric guitar to tell a folk story (or any story for that matter). I further pointed out that it is not necessary to go into all the details of what or what did not happen with Pete Seeger at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 to know that one should be glad, glad as hell, that Bob Dylan continued to listen to his own drummer and carry on a career based on electronic music.

Others have, endlessly, gone on about Bob Dylan’s role as the voice of his generation (and mine), his lyrics and what they do or do not mean and his place in the rock or folk pantheons, or both. Here we are going back to the early days when there was no dispute that he had earned a place in the folk pantheon. The only real difference between the early stuff and the later electric stuff though is- the electricity. Dylan’s extraordinary sense of words, language and word play has been a constant throughout his career. If much later ( in the 1990’s) he gets a bit repetitious and a little gimmicky in order to stay “relevant” that is only much later after he had done more than his share to add to the language of music.

In this selection we have some outright folk classics that will endure for the ages like those of his early hero Woody Guthrie have endured. Blowing in the Wind still sounds good and makes sense as an anthem of change - especially today when some serious social tasks remain to be accomplished. Yes, the answer my friend is blowing in the wind (and in other locales, as well). Also here showing Dylan’s, sometimes disavowed, country roots is a very nice although Johnny Cash-less "Girl From the North Country". No anti-war song is more powerful than "Masters of War"- none. Anyone can write the easy peace songs about "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and "Give Peace a Chance" but to really understand and really get mad about what we are up against you need to listen to this song. Pearl Jam covered it later for a reason- we still need to drive the warmongers from their marketplaces.

"Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" hits right where you live, the lyrics could have come out of out of the front pages of today’s newspaper (or Internet updates). The cover of the old blues classic "Corrina, Corrina' is fine. Another Dylan classic "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right", about the never-ending subject of lost love and longing is as well. There are a few topical songs from that time that might not make sense today- but topicals by footloose troubadours have always been a part of the folk tradition-as it is safe to say is Mr. Dylan.

7 comments:

Kim said...

The problem is that Dylan himself clearly states that Masters of War is not an anti-war song:

Q: Give me an example of a song that has been widely
misinterpreted.

A: Take "Masters Of War." Every time I sing it, someone writes
that it's an antiwar song. But there's no antiwar sentiment in
that song. I'm not a pacifist. I don't think I've ever been one.
If you look closely at the song, it's about what Eisenhower was
saying about the dangers of the military-industrial complex in
this country. I believe strongly in everyone's right to defend
themselves by every means necessary... you are affected as a
writer and a person by the culture and spirit of the times. I was
tuned into it then, I'm tuned into it now. None of us are immune
to the spirit of the age. It affects us whether we know it or
whether we like it or not.

from http://expectingrain.com/dok/int/2003tour.html

And I think to say that "With God on Our Side" is an anti-war song is reducing the song to something topical. The idea that it is simply an anti-war song really ignores the last verse in the piece regarding Judas Iscariot. Judas Iscariot fought in no war, so then, if this is an anti-war song why is he even in the picture?
I believe it is far less an anti-war song and far more a song about asking the question: what does it mean to believe in God? To me, it's more about asking the question: shouldn't we be on God's side and not He on ours?

THIS question then throws into the spotlight the idea that God is on the side of America and that she is always right. Dylan, it seems to me, is not quite buying into that. None of us should. But he's not an either/or kind of a guy. He's not an "America is all bad or all good" kind. Hattie Carroll bites into two groups, and both come out severly wounded: the racists and their racist application of "justice" AND the liberals who decry injustice but do nothing about it.

markin said...

When I used the term ‘anti-war’ in relationship to Bob Dylan’s song Masters of War I meant that in a generic sense rather than giving it some specific political or pacific meaning. According to the Dylan quote that Kim cited in her comment there is a tendency, including by Dylan, to equate the terms ‘anti-war’ and ‘pacifist’. I would not give such a narrow meaning to the term ‘anti-war’. In Dylan’s context it is essentially anti-militarism, especially the dramatically American militarism of the time by the Brecht-like phrases that he uses. That concept does not preclude the concept of just wars against the escalation of such militarism. Leftists except probably Quakers, as a rule, subscribe to some form of just war theory. Certainly in my youth the concept of just war meant supporting the struggle of the Vietnamese against the American presence.

One need not go back that far for an example, though. Much closer in time is the current ‘struggle’ by Iraqi forces against the American presence there. Although the situation is definitely murkier than in Vietnam, to the extent that any one is fighting directly against the American presence (as opposed to indiscriminately bombing everything that moves), theirs is an example of just war. Hell, in 2003 the simple act of the Iraqis, with or without Sadaam, defending themselves against the American invasion was an example of a just war. So Kim, you see that ‘anti-war’ is a pretty elastic term and that brother Dylan and I are, after all, not so far away in our idea that everyone has a right to defend themselves. It is a question of whose right to such defense is supported at any given point that is at issue.

After the above rather abstract discussion, let us cut to the chase about whether Masters of War is an ‘anti-war’ song. During the Vietnam War I was involved with a group of active duty anti-Vietnam War G.I.s (Army soldiers, in this case) who faced court-martial for disobeying lawful orders. Those orders being refused were orders to go to Vietnam, a rather serious offense for a soldier. As part of their defense at the court-martial a few of them, when they got on the stand to make statements, started reciting Master of War in order to have it placed in the transcript of trial. The colonels and majors who made up the court-martial board tried to, red-faced with anger, stop them. Those officers, at least, knew what ‘anti-war’ lyrics were when they heard them. Enough said, I think.

markin said...

The question of whether “With God On Our Side” is an anti-war song is a little more problematic than that of “Masters of War”. I would only comment that one should not get hung up on the ‘god’ part as I consider this more a common political convention of the time in order to get a hearing for your song (a not unimportant consideration, by the way) that a universalistic appeal to for America to get “on the right side of god”. In the 1960’s, an age wedded to existential concepts, references to god could be as directed to the void as they could to some religious supreme being. Later, as Dylan entertained more religious feelings in his life and in his work that argument might make more sense but certainly not in the early 1960’s. If one did not have a sense of irony then, one was ‘lost’. That ironic sense is why we listened to Dylan and others. They expressed in song things about the world that disturbed us at the time.

What really interests me today about Dylan’s lyrics on this song is how passive they are in relationship to the task that he has presented. In those days, the threat of nuclear annihilation was palpable as things like the Cold War –driven nuclear arms race and the Cuban Missile Crisis made plain. Dylan was apparently entirely willing to let some ultimately ‘just’ god pull the chestnuts out of the fire for us. Alternately, in those days a number of us preferred to take to the streets to organize the fight for nuclear disarmament. “God” could come along if he/she wanted to-no questions asked. Hell, we were so desperate for recruits that Judas Iscariot was welcome if he wanted to turn over a new leaf.

markin said...

Here are the lyrics to Masters of War and you can make your own judgment about whether it is an anti-war song or not. I have given my opinion above. Markin

Masters Of War

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

Copyright ©1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

markin said...

A Voice Of His Generation

Nod To Bob: An Artists’ Tribute To Bob Dylan on his Sixtieth Birthday, various artists, Red House Records, 2001

A musical performer knows that he or she has arrived when they have accumulated enough laurels and created enough songs to be worthy, at least in some record producer eyes, to warrant a tribune album. When they are also alive to accept the accolades as two out of the four of the artists under review are, which is only proper, that is all to the good (this is part of a larger review of tributes to Greg Brown, Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt and Hank Williams). That said, not all tribute albums are created equally. Some are full of star-studded covers, others with lesser lights who have been influenced by the artist that they are paying tribute to. As a general proposition though I find it a fairly rare occurrence, as I noted in a review of the "Timeless" tribute album to Hank Williams, that the cover artist outdoes the work of the original recording artist. With that point in mind I will give my "skinny" on the cover artists here.


It seems hard to believe now both as to the performer as well as to what was being attempted that anyone would take umbrage at a performer using an electric guitar to tell a folk story (or any story for that matter). It is not necessary to go into all the details of what or what did not happen with Pete Seeger at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 to know that one should be glad, glad as hell, that Bob Dylan continued to listen to his own drummer and carry on a career based on electronic music.

Others have, endlessly, gone on about Bob Dylan’s role as the voice of his generation (and mine), his lyrics and what they do or do not mean and his place in the rock or folk pantheons, or both. I just want to comment on a few songs and cover artists on this 60th birthday album. Overall this Red House Records (a well-known alternate folk tradition recording outfit) production is a true folkies’ tribute to old Bob where the artists while well-known in the folk field probably as not as familiar to the general listener. Nevertheless several covers stick out: John Gorka’s rendition of the longing that pervades “Girl Of The North Country" is fine, as is the desperate longing of Martin Simpson’s “Boots Of Spanish Leather”. Greg Brown does a rousing version of “Pledging My Time” and the long time folk singer Rosalie Sorrels does a beautifully measured version of “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”. The finale is appropriately done by old time folkie, and early day Dylan companion on the folk scene Ramblin’ Jack Elliot with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” Solid work here. Kudos.

markin said...

In the interest of completeness concerning my earleir evaluation of the Dylan songs "Masters Of War" and "With Good On Our Side" on his early albums here are the lyrics to the latter song.

Interestingly, except for changing the Cold War theme against the Russians then to the so-called War On Terror now against seemingly every Moslem that any American presidential administration can get it hands on (Bush in Iraq and Afgahnistan) and Obama (same and, maybe, Pakistan) these lyrics "speak" to me today. The word they speak is hubris, American hubris, that the rest of the world has had reason to fear, and rightly so. What do they "speak" to you?

"With God On Our Side"

Oh my name it is nothin'
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I's taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And the land that I live in
Has God on its side.

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.

The Spanish-American
War had its day
And the Civil War too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I's made to memorize
With guns on their hands
And God on their side.

The First World War, boys
It came and it went
The reason for fighting
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side.

When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And then we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side.

I've learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side.

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we're forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God's on your side.

In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.

markin said...

Guest Commentary

I have mentioned in my review of Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home; The Legacy Of Bob Dylan" (see archives) that Dylan's protest/social commentary lyrics dovetailed with my, and others of my generation's, struggle to make sense of world at war (cold or otherwise)and filled with injustices and constricting values. Here are the lyrics of three songs-"Blowin' In The Wind", "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Like A Rolling Stone" that can serve as examples of why we responded to his messages the way we did. Kudos Bob.


The Times They Are A-Changin'

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And 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'.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

Copyright ©1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

Blowin' In The Wind

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Copyright ©1962; renewed 1990 Special Rider Music


Like A Rolling Stone

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall"
You thought they were all kiddin' you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin' out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you're gonna have to get used to it
You said you'd never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He's not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain't no good
You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain't it hard when you discover that
He really wasn't where it's at
After he took from you everything he could steal.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They're drinkin', thinkin' that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you'd better lift your diamond ring, you'd better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Copyright ©1965; renewed 1993 Special Rider Music