“down with you sam” by Bob Dylan

The Cinch Review

Just for the record, and because I’ve been asked about it, here are the full twenty-odd lines of the particular poem from Bob Dylan’s book “Tarantula”(copyrighted by Bob Dylan in 1966) that features a statement regarding Hitler which Ron Rosenbaum commented upon in a lecture called “Bob Dylan’s God Problem—and Ours,” and which he then wrote about in an article called “The Naked Truth” and which led yours truly to write “God’s problem with Bob Dylan (and with us).”

In the book the poem is untitled, although it appears in a chapter titled “Prelude to the Flatpick” (which ought to clarify things considerably).

down with you sam. down with your
answers too. hitler did not change
history. hitler WAS history/sure
you can teach people to be beautiful,
but dont you know that there’s a
greater force than you that teaches
them to be gullible—yeah it’s called
the problem force/ they assign every-
body problems/ your problem is that you
wanna better word for world …
you cannot kill what lives an expct no-
body to take notice. history is alive/
it breathes/ now cut out that jive/
go count your fish. gotta go. someone’s
coming to tame my shrew. hope they re-
moved your lung successfully. say hi
to your sister

Wimp, Your
Friendly Pirate

For an even more expanded context, you can buy the book, although I have to say that I think Blonde on Blondeis really his better work from that period. (I suspect he might agree, since he sang “Rainy Day Women” just last night in Brazil, but when was the last time he did a live reading from “Tarantula?” It’s been ages.)

God’s Problem with Bob Dylan (and with Us)

Late last year, author Ron Rosenbum gave a lecture at Stanford University titled “Bob Dylan’s God Problem—and Ours.”

More recently, he wrote an article in The Chronicle Review titled “The Naked Truth,” reexamining what he said during that lecture. It had to do with the problem of how we can believe in an all-powerful God who is totally good when there is so much evil in the world. (In philosophical circles the consideration of this problem is known as “theodicy.”) Rosenbaum was in particular looking at how the problem seemed to be considered by Dylan in his work, and the lynchpin of this lecture was apparently a few lines that he had recently found in Bob Dylan’s 1960’s book of poetry and stream-of-consciousness writing called “Tarantula.” Specifically:

“hitler did not change
history. hitler WAS history”

(Found at the bottom of page 23 of my own paperback edition from St. Martin’s Griffin.) (UPDATE: See all twenty lines of the poem at this link.)

I don’t want to linger too long on the Bob Dylan element, because there are (believe it or not) questions that seem more important to me here, but I have a few thoughts. Ron Rosenbaum sums up his reaction to encountering the lines this way:

Whoa. Those eight words: “… hitler did not change history. hitler WAS history”! Where did that come from? In the 10 years I spent writing a 500-page book called Explaining Hitler (Random House, 1998), not one of the historians, philosophers, artists, or other sages I spoke to or read ever made as white-hot an indictment of humanity as that. An indictment, implicitly, of God as well.

Well, I think Rosenbaum had an experience that maybe all Dylan fans have, usually when listening to his music, when we hear something that pierces right into an area of great relevance to us. It seems uncanny that he’s thinking just like us. (And it is uncanny, don’t get me wrong.) As someone who spent ten years writing a 500 page book on Hitler, and is currently writing a book on Bob Dylan, Rosenbaum was struck as if by a lightning bolt by the confluence of these two great subjects. Here was Dylan making a piercing observation about Hitler, albeit only eight words in a jumbled collection of sometimes incomprehensible “poetry” (which for the record and arguably to my shame I’ve read more than once in my life and re-consulted on numerous occasions). But Rosenbaum’s take on it as “an indictment of humanity” and “implicitly, of God as well” is his own. I take it as a simple statement of fact rather than an indictment, and one that in theory could be made by an atheist as easily as by a devout believer in God, albeit with different import. Obviously, given that it’s just eight words, and given the context in this book “Tarantula,” one’s first instinct is to avoid attaching too much weight to it at all, but at a minimum it surely is a comment on human nature, and one that is not inconsistent with the view of human nature that permeates Dylan’s body of work: People are capable of anything. Corruption is a constant. Hitler, in that sense, was only an especially gigantic personification of the presence of evil in history and the capacity for evil in human nature. Continue reading “God’s Problem with Bob Dylan (and with Us)”