Positively Princeton: Professors, Pickers and Provocateurs

seminar protest music

(Something from the deep archives; originally published on December 8th, 2009.)

meditation on music and politics

Yours truly was thrilled to be able to attend a lunch seminar held at Princeton University yesterday, titled “Pickers, Pop Fronters, and Them ‘Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues’: A Meditation on Music and Politics.” (Say that five times fast.) It was held under the auspices of the James Madison Program at that university, whose founding director is Robert P. George.

Professor George introduced the speakers: Lauren Weiner and Ronald Radosh (it was Ron who had kindly invited me) and Professor George had also brought his guitar and mandolin, the better to later perform some tunes with those same speakers and with guest Bob Cohen (the estimable Cantor Bob who has been mentioned several times before in this space, e.g. at this link.). Cornel West, also of Princeton, was a guest attendee (and ended up contributing some deft backing vocals to the musical mélange).

I didn’t take any notes at all, but I’ll offer my flawed reporting on the seminar anyhow. The genesis for the get-together was Lauren Weiner’s fascinating and entertaining article (in the forthcoming issue of First Things) titled “Where Have All the Lefties Gone?” (Lauren is a writer who has written on history and politics for the Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion and many other publications.) Her article traces some of the history of various folk revivals in the United States and the efforts to turn the songs and the whole genre towards the goal of promoting, well, Marxist revolution. Her talk was very much centered on the same themes as her piece. One of her most interesting observations was on the way in which the whole effort finally gained its greatest traction by becoming focused on anti-anti-communism (in the wake of events in the 1950s related to the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate investigations of Joseph McCarthy). To quote a little from her article:

Betty Sanders did a jaunty 1952 version of “Talking Un-American Blues” about the subpoena (eventually canceled) that she and her coauthor Irwin Silber received from the House Un-American Activities Committee. Alan Lomax and Michael Loring sang (to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”): “Re-pu-bli-cans they call us ‘Red,’ the Demmies call us ‘Commie.’ / No matter how they slice it, boys, it’s still the old salami.”

This was a new, coy art that was to grow in significance: ridiculing one’s adversaries for correctly discerning one’s politics. […] The 1962 song “The Birch Society” by Malvina Reynolds has the typical Pop Front blend of brazenness and coyness — with an extra dollop of sanctimony, a Reynolds specialty. “They’re afraid of nearly everything that’s for the general good,” she sang, “they holler ‘Red’ if something’s said for peace and brotherhood.” The fact that they also hollered Red if somebody actually was a Red got lost in the shuffle. For here, at last, was a rallying point — anti-anti-communism — with a potential for wide appeal. It became fundamental to the politics of nearly everyone who was left-of-center and was adopted by legions of middle-class young people unmoved by concepts of such as worker ownership of the means of production.

Dylan’s song “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” had to get a mention in this context and did. One observation I would make myself about Dylan is the following: Even while he was flirting with these themes and entertaining his left-wing friends and audiences, he also in some way seemed to be looking right through the transparency of it all. It might be summed up by a verse of “I Shall Be Free No 10”:

Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree
I want ev’rybody to be free
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.

Those so inclined would hear that as a slam on Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican. Yet, the humor is double-edged and, to me, the sharper edge is the one that has the intolerant “liberal” as the real clown. (And obviously that’s underlined all the more by Bob’s statement in his memoir Chronicles that his “favorite politician” during his early time in the Village was none other than Barry Goldwater, although he felt he couldn’t share this fact with anyone at the time.)

Anyhow, Lauren’s talk also proceeded to reflect on some of the ironies in how that which was once serious-left-wing-movement-music became assimilated into the capitalist musical culture, and transformed, and largely defanged.

Ronald Radosh then spoke. (Ron is the author of many books including his really essential memoir Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left and most recently A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, coauthored with Allis Radosh.) Unfortunately, I don’t have an article to which to refer and with which to cheat when it comes to Ron’s talk, so I won’t attempt to summarize its main points, but it was a wide-ranging trip through related territory and beyond. He talked in particular of the role of Pete Seeger in the movement (under whose tutelage he himself learned to play banjo). He recalled watching a recent tribute to Seeger, on his 90th birthday, where Bruce Springsteen specifically gave him credit for having been “singing songs of peace since the 1930s.” As Ron observed, what was ironically left out and is doubtless unknown to many who watched the tributes is that those “songs of peace” in the 1930s were in defense of Joseph Stalin’s then-ally, Adolf Hitler. Ron was also interviewed for a tribute to Seeger, apparently at Pete’s own suggestion, so that a mention of Seeger’s errors (e.g. his persistent refusal to criticize Stalin until very recently) might temper all of the adulation. However, Ron’s remarks about such matters ended up on the cutting room floor, leaving only his pleasant recollections about learning how to play the banjo from Pete.

Ron also shared some memories of the late musician Erik Darling, who replaced Pete Seeger in the group The Weavers, and then had a fish-out-of-water perspective on the whole milieu, being himself actually more of a fan of Ayn Rand than Karl Marx.

There was some discussion after Ron’s talk but the people who had brought instruments were obviously eager to start using them, and things progressed quickly to a melodic exploration of the same landscape. One of the themes was the way in which old tunes are turned to again and again (or co-opted, if you prefer) with new lyrics applied; in particular the way old gospel and spiritual numbers were recruited for new causes. So we heard how “Jesus walked that lonesome valley, He had to walk it by Himself” became “You gotta go down and join the union, You got to join it by yourself”.

On a different but related angle, Bob Cohen illustrated how the great Hollywood composer Dimitri Tiomkin leaned heavily upon a Yiddish tune called “Dem Milner’s Trern” in writing his song “Do Not Forsake Me” for the film High Noon. Bob also pointed out that the same melody can be heard prominently in the film A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers. Later, Cohen also sang a little of “When The World’s On Fire,” a hymn recorded by the Carter Family, which provided the tune for Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Lauren Weiner sang one of her favorite songs of the coming revolution, “The Banks Are Made of Marble,” with the support of the ensemble. Ron Radosh led the band in “Which Side Are You On,” also giving us some lines from the late Dave Van Ronk’s humorous rewrite of the tune, where he was looking back on some of the ironies and conflicts of the leftie/folk revival and asking “Which side are we on?” Robbie George also gently performed a beautiful folk gospel song (the name of which, to my great consternation, is escaping me today) with Cornel West’s poignant supporting voice. A rousing version of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic “Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive” ensued, and the proceedings ended with a boisterous “This Land Is Your Land.”

So, I couldn’t tell you exactly what may have been established by the seminar, but one thing in any case seems clear to me: music is bigger than politics, certainly more enduring, and makes a much deeper connection to the human spirit. It seems that even when songs are turned to the most utilitarian ends and strapped to some flawed cause du jour that—if they are genuinely great tunes—they will ultimately be reclaimed by music herself.

And I couldn’t really close without mentioning this: When I had the pleasure of being introduced to Professor West, he told me that he had gotten the subtitle of his memoir from Bob Dylan. He was on his busy way and I didn’t ask for specifics, but I later checked, and his recently published book is titled Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Well, that’s not a Bob Dylan line with which I was familiar. I wondered if it might be from Tarantula or something. But no; some Googling eventually supplied the answer:

The title of the memoir comes from a chance encounter with Bob Dylan’s drummer in an airport, who remarked to Mr. West that Mr. Dylan had said that “Cornel West is someone who lives his life out loud.” It was natural to add love into the title to produce Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.

So there you go.

On Bob Dylan’s Q & A in the Wall Street Journal

I guess this must be Bob Dylan’s version of a book tour: He answers a list of questions supplied by Jeff Slate for the Wall Street Journal. The substance of it is also posted on the official Bob Dylan website.

It’s pretty clear that Dylan’s answers are written ones. In fact, a lot of the answers sound very much like his own writing in the book that prompted the interview, namely The Philosophy of Modern Song. He’s alternately serious, playful and provocative, and it’s a fun read.

Since a lot of what I’ve written in the past about Dylan has involved the religiosity of his music (and his self), I feel like it would be remiss not to note a couple of things that turn up here.

In response to a question about whether he binge-watches things on Netflix, he amusingly declares that he’s a fan of the ancient British soap opera “Coronation Street,” in addition to the “Father Brown” mysteries and (least surprisingly, perhaps) “The Twilight Zone.” But then he asserts that he never watches anything “foul smelling or evil,” and volunteers the following:

I’m a religious person. I read the scriptures a lot, meditate and pray, light candles in church. I believe in damnation and salvation, as well as predestination. The Five Books of Moses, Pauline Epistles, Invocation of the Saints, all of it.

In a way it’s a neat and funny form of evasion, which Bob has practiced before: that is, to make a grand overstatement. “What do I believe? I believe ALL OF IT! So don’t you bother trying to pick it apart.” Of-course there’s no need to evade, as this is a written response, and he’s volunteering the information, but he still likes to deliver it with a punch. And good for him. As to the breadth of his faith, I think if you spend long enough listening to his songs you come to know that he can see the hand of God everywhere and in everything.

More particularly, it’s true that he is again asserting his faith in the God of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, as he’s done on many past occasions, although some still like to wonder about it. He’s been doing this publicly in one way or another since the Slow Train Coming album in 1979, and I strongly suspect his sense of private belief goes back much longer than that. You can find an awareness of God and a very biblical view of human nature embedded in even his earliest songs.

Later, asked what kind of music was his “first love,” he answers, “Sacred music, church music, ensemble singing.”

Putting these statments together, I’m reminded of an oft-cited quote of his from an interview with David Gates in 1997:

Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light”—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.

People are always saying that Dylan contradicts himself and is an incorrigible shape-shifter, but I believe he’s actually incredibly consistent on the big things if one takes the time to understand where he’s coming from. Sacred music is prayer, and there’s no truer path to God than prayer.

Dylan also gives an interesting answer to a question about whether technology “aids or hinders” daily life and creativity, saying among other things:

Technology is like sorcery, it’s a magic show, conjures up spirits, it’s an extension of our body, like the wheel is an extension of our foot. But it might be the final nail driven into the coffin of civilization; we just don’t know.

But after going around for a while on the ways in which technology might help or hinder, he sums up this way:

Creativity is a mysterious thing. It visits who it wants to visit, when it wants to, and I think that that, and that alone, gets to the heart of the matter.

That’s an acknowledgement—again, a consistent one of Bob’s—that it all comes from somewhere else: from the mother of muses, from the girl from the Red River shore, from the “Spirit on the Water.”

What a great thing that we still have Dylan around.

The Philosophy of Modern Song – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, gives us his take on 66 different songs, delivered by means of a variety of quasi-poetic riffs and short essays. And that’s certainly what it is: his take. This is an intensely personal collection of writings. Dylan’s always been known for being guarded (although I think that theme’s been overdone at times). It is striking, however, that he seems here at his most relaxed and open, just writing about songs and what they mean to him, in addition to following some of the tangents they proffer.

The stream-of-consciousness pieces toss out images, characters and scenarios that the songs evoke for Bob, and these are quite rich and far reaching (as great songs can be when they work in our soul). The prose essays generally make for spirited good reading, with amusing and sometimes ornery digressions from the topic of the song in question. On occasion, however, there are lines that are jarringly boilerplate in nature.

Bob Dylan is clearly a consummate fan of popular music, and other brands as well. That was revealed for anyone who needed to know it years back when he hosted the delightfully contrived radio show, “Theme Time Radio Hour,” putting a hundred odd episodes in posterity’s can. Doubtless the commentary he came up with for the records he played then led to the idea for this book (and indeed a number of the people involved with the production and packaging of the book are former collaborators on “Theme Time Radio”).

Later, he recorded those Sinatra songbook albums: five LPs worth of popular songs from the pre-rock’n’roll era, put down with breathtaking passion and a stunning level of artistry.

Dylan can in fact be presumed to have the kind of gargantuan music collection—accompanied by books about his favorite performers—that, after he kicks the bucket, will cause his next-of-kin to curse him as they have to haul it out to the sidewalk for the Sanitation Department to pick up. He’s obviously one of those people who can listen to music in the morning, the afternoon, the evening and the deep dark night. As music fans ourselves, we can relate to that. Songs, records, favorite performers: they’re with us through bad times and good, through our childhood, stormy adolescence, love affairs and heartbreaks, successes and setbacks, the dreams realized, and the ones hopelessly lost. Many of the same recordings sound subtly different to us as the years and decades pass; this is due, perhaps, not only to the loss of frequencies in our hearing, but also our ever-deepening appreciation, through life experience, of what those songs were and are about.

Dylan, naturally, is the same. “The Philosophy of Modern Song”? (Not even “a” philosophy, mind you, but the philosophy.) The portentous title is a diversion and a gag, very typical of Bob. I would suggest that a more accurate (but somewhat less amusing) title would be, “The Joy I Have Found in Music”—by Bobby Zimmerman. He could have written this book if he’d never become Bob Dylan (although he is very unlikely to have found a publisher). It is not an attempt to offer a definitive or objective take on anything. It is not some deeply researched and scrupulously footnoted tome that would be part of a college curriculum on popular music (not that those can particularly be trusted either). It certainly is a love letter to the music that has meant so much to him.

Most of us will never get to sit down and have a conversation with Bob Dylan about music, or anything else, but much of what is in this book evokes those conversations we may have with longtime friends and fellow musical aficionados, oddball or otherwise. We share favorites, we trade takes, we make some statements that are serious, and others that are for laughs. We recall details and trivia that we read somewhere in a book that’s no longer in print, or that we heard someone say on the radio who-knows-how-many years ago. We share some of how a record affects us, where we were when we first heard it, why this version of the song is so much better than someone else’s version—what it all may mean. We argue and BS and laugh and come out of it all a little bit expanded, somehow.

Along the way, we might feel moved to jump on top of the couch and forcefully advocate for something we know no one else will agree with, just because we feel called in the moment to do so.

“Perry Como lived in every moment of every song he sang […] When he stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and we believed every word.” (page 13)

Other times we’ll slip in something deep and meaningful to ourselves—then quickly move on lest we choke up.

“The greatest of the prayer songs is ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ None of these songs come even close.” (page 184)

And other subjects will come and go and we’ll take them on with our pearls of wisdom and one-liners.

“People keep talking about making America great again. Maybe they should start with the movies.” (page 317)

We might get passionate and genuinely angry.

“But divorce lawyers don’t care about familial bonds […] They destroy families. How many of them are at least tangentially responsible for teen suicides and serial killers?” (page 118) Then we sip our drink, light a cigarette, and propose our ingenious solution to the entire problem of divorces and broken families: polygamy! For both sexes.

Then a record comes on—“Your Cheatin’ Heart”—and we go back to the music, and to contemplating just why this particular record is so damn good.

“The song seems slower than it is because Hank doesn’t let the band lead him. The tension between the chug of the near-polka rhythm and the sadness in Hank’s voice drives it home.” (page 166)

I think that you could approach this book just as that kind of conversation with Bob, where he is speaking to you as his intimate friend. Sometimes he’s being serious, and sometimes he’s winding you up. Except here you’re only getting his side of the conversation. You can feel free to interject your responses and/or objections. Bob won’t hear you, but he’ll be glad you bought the book.

Absent the photos and other paraphernalia, this would be a lightweight tome, and I imagine some critics will dismiss the content as lightweight too. Still, some very lovely things can weigh very little: a butterfly, a snowflake, a fine cigar. For those who appreciate it, there’s plenty to enjoy in this very personal little book by Bob, and all the more if one doesn’t squint painfully at it and take it all too seriously. The breathless declarations by the publisher along the lines that it is “a momentous artistic achievement” may be doing it a disservice in that respect, but so goes the never-ending hype machine.

Dylan does know a lot of stuff about music, of-course, and so there are some genuinely revelatory moments. And, unlike most of us, he actually has met and been friendly with quite a few of the artists he writes about here. It’s notable, however, that he never leans on that personal experience in the text. There’s no: “as Frank Sinatra confided to me when he had me over for dinner,” or: “I have it on good authority from Johnny Cash himself …”. He limits himself to the evidence of the songs and recordings themselves, and what is, generally speaking, the public record.

Will anyone learn “the philosophy of modern song” by reading this book? Well, taken as a whole, you probably would soak up some of whatever that is, because it’s surely in between the lines here somewhere. But I also think it’s the same thing you’d soak up by just listening to the truly great popular music of the past one hundred years: living with it, learning of it, crying with it, moving to it, and treasuring it as the dear and faithful friend it can surely be through time.

That’s what Bob Dylan did.

Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom

For about a month now fans have been awaiting this somewhat mysterious “exclusive broadcast event,” a pay-per-view-type online streaming performance by Bob Dylan, and now it has aired, and will continue to be available to watch for 48 hours. Access in the United States costs $25.

It features Dylan performing in a stylized small club setting, alternating between at least three different stagings. The arrangements and performances are sharp and quite beautiful. The instrumentation includes accordion, mandolin, Spanish guitar, and acoustic bass, and sometimes electric guitar and bass. No drums at all. Dylan’s singing is superb (assuming you’re someone who can take his singing at all).

He has an audience of heavily smoking actors and actresses. (It appears that they inhale very little smoke, the better to blow it out for effect. Still, this viewer appreciates Bob’s support for the struggling tobacco farmers.) The band wear black masks while everyone else breathes and smokes freely.

The whole thing is directed by one Alma Har’el, an Israeli-American who has a prize-winning feature film and documentary in her belt, as well as various music videos.

While initially the show was billed as featuring songs from throughout Dylan’s body of work, this broadcast is actually subtitled “The Early Songs of Bob Dylan.” And indeed it does focus on the 1960s, although there are a couple of exceptions in “What Was It You Wanted?” from 1989 and “Forever Young” from 1974. The show is about 50 minutes in duration. That surprised me: I thought it would probably be around 90 minutes.

Taken together, the subtitle “Early Songs” and the relatively short duration leads this viewer to conclude that this is going to be a series, and that there are likely at least two more “episodes” in the can.

It’s a brilliant business idea, to be sure: I bet Dylan could easily fetch a million views, globally, for something like this, and at $25 a pop, well … I’m not great at math, but it’s a fair bit of revenue for all concerned. And after the last year and a half of worldwide Wuhan weirdness, people are certainly well accustomed to substituting online experiences for the real thing.

In the end, for a fan, it’s one of life’s miracles, and something for which to be grateful. Bob Dylan is 80 years old, and here we get to see and hear him — in exceptional form — reworking his songs yet again in a scintillating and eye-opening manner. The version of “Forever Young” he performs is jaw-dropping: I’ve never heard him sing it so movingly (and I’ve heard him sing it quite a few times). “To Be Alone with You” is an almost entirely rewritten lyric, incorporating something of a religious passion. “Queen Jane,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “Tombstone Blues” — all standouts. Every song reveals something new of itself. It seems to this listener that the enormous work that Dylan did in recording five LPs worth of songs from the Great American/Sinatra songbook has enhanced his ability to reinterpret his own songs in especially gorgeous and sensitive ways.

The songs often sound like a commentary on our strange times, but that’s how Dylan’s songs always sound, grounded as they are in an awareness of death, eternity, human nature, and the things that remain.

And it’s all going to stand up to quite a bit of re-watching.

Murder Most Foul

It seems apt that amidst the ruination, Bob Dylan drops a new song. And also apt in that it strikes a lot of us initially as a non-sequitur in today’s context — this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. What’s Dylan on about? But in the end we get that it’s no more a non-sequitur than anything he’s ever done. The curious thing about Dylan is that all of his songs are relevant to the occasion, because he’s always retained that crucial perspective of death and eternity. It suits every moment. Whether we like it or not.

… good day to be living and a good day to die …

You can drill down to all of the references in the lyrics, if that’s what seems right, but to me it’s so much more enjoyable just to let it all wash over you, igniting so many lovely light bulbs along the way. Deep riches here. And such a beautiful, delicate vocal.

Dylan accompanied this release with the message: “Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.”

Here we thank Bob for keeping the faith, so many long years now — as short as they seem — and may God be with him, and with all of us.

Age of Light Update

Back in the year of our Lord two thousand and eight, on November the fourth, Barack Obama was elected to the presidency of the United States. Bob Dylan happened to be playing a show in Minnesota that night, and came back for his final encore obviously having heard the news backstage on how the electoral contest was going. He introduced his band as he normally did and then made some off-the-cuff comments, which were covered back then in this space in excruciating (although highly accurate) detail.

So, in total, he said:

I wanna introduce my band right now. On the guitar, there’s Denny Freeman. Stu Kimball is on the guitar too. Donnie Herron as well, on the violin right now, playin’ on the steel guitar earlier. George Recile’s playin’ on the drums.

Tony Garnier, wearin’ the Obama button — [applause] alright! — Tony likes to think it’s a brand new time right now. An age of light. Me, I was born in 1941 — that’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, I been livin’ in a world of darkness ever since.

But it looks like things are gonna change now …

Change was the thing: it was “hope and change,” the theme of Barack Obama’s campaign, as older readers might remember.

Dylan’s remarks caused quite a hoopla, hailed ’round the world as an optimistic endorsement of the new president, who would clear away all of that post-Pearl-Harbor darkness for Bob and for everyone.

We took a different view here, as expounded upon in that post way back then. In short, we thought Dylan was being ironic and philosophical rather than triumphalist.

Things always change, of-course. And things have changed. An age of light? With all respect to Tony Garnier’s touching optimism, I think there is now probably exactly no one who would say the past eight years have been an age of light (albeit that we may have wildly varying reasons for saying so).

I was greatly struck, and still am, by Bob Dylan’s performance at President Obama’s White House in February of 2010 (just one year into that presidency), billed as a “Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Era.” He showed up and played only one song, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”; not as a celebratory duet with Joan Baez (who was also there that night) but in a new, spare, and quite melancholy arrangement.

There’s a lot more that could be said, on January 19th, 2017, but it would be way too much. Those times, they sure just do keep on a-changin’. (And that I can tell you.)

Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (and Rising Prayers)

FALLEN ANGELS by Bob Dylan Review

Review of FALLEN ANGELS by Bob Dylan

Darling, down and down I go, round and round I go
In a spin, loving the spin that I’m in
Under that old black magic called love

A few months from this time of writing, Bob Dylan will be performing at a big music event in California, sharing the bill with his contemporaries–and fellow septuagenarians–the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. No doubt the Stones will be singing “Satisfaction” and “Paint it Black,” and no doubt McCartney will be singing “Yesterday” and “Band on the Run.” And no doubt Bob Dylan will be singing … well, “Autumn Leaves,” “All or Nothing at All,” and “That Old Black Magic.” You have to pause a moment to contemplate how wonderfully absurd and amazing that actually is. In his most recent shows, more than a third of the titles in his set list have been what we might call these “Sinatra” songs, and of the “Bob Dylan” songs in the show most have been from the past decade and a half or so, with only 3 dating back to the 1960s or 70s. And although some concert attendees have been heard griping (and when has that not been true at a Dylan show?), the most notable fact is that he’s actually been getting away with it in quite fine style. Dylan is conspicuously deriving great joy from singing the standards and puts his whole body and spirit into the effort. Singing these gorgeous old tunes (from songwriters he had some significant role in putting out of business) seems undeniably to be making his own heart feel young. Continue reading “Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (and Rising Prayers)”