Al Gore: How Bob Dylan Shaped My Political Consciousness
When Rolling Stone interviewed Al Gore during his presidential run in 2000, the candidate revealed his favorite Bob Dylan album (Highway 61 Revisited) and song (“Just Like a Woman”.) Before the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony on Saturday, where Dylan will be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” we spoke to some of Dylan’s most influential admirers about his poetic impact. One of them is Gore, who has a special place at his home in Nashville for the harmonica Bob Dylan once gave him. Here, Gore shares his thoughts on the new Nobel laureate.
Bob Dylan is my favorite writer, performer and social philosopher. That may sound like I’m laying it on thick, but he has made an incredible impact on my life. It’s hard to overestimate the effect “Blowin’ in the Wind” had on my generation. That song was an incredible turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. It was the beginning of my awareness of the role music played in our approach to trying to create a better world. His words really crystallized the best and most powerful currents of social change, a cri de coeur about Jim Crow and segregation and the battles we’re still fighting. And it’s just one of many great songs that changed our consciousness. To the extent we have made progress, Dylan is sure due his part of the credit for it.
It would be presumptuous of me to call Dylan a friend (though I would be honored to). The occasions when I have had an opportunity to sit down and talk to him have been extremely memorable. In some ways, it’s normal conversation with a smart, caring person – but studded with insights that always make you stop and think. We usually talk about what’s happening in the country, in the world.
When I was in college, I put on my headphones one day and didn’t come up for air until I’d listened to everything he had ever written. I memorized the words to “Masters of War.” He is the pinnacle, as far as I’m concerned.
“He is the pinnacle, as far as I’m concerned.”
Not long after the 2000 election, I was rebuilding my life. I went to see him play the Newport Folk Festival, his first time back since going electric in 1965. I was running late, and I can’t say for certain that he waited until I got there, but when I finally arrived, his manager escorted me up onto the stage to sit in the wings before he began his performance. I was so honored and thrilled to be there. He has the best band you can imagine, because who doesn’t want to play with him?
Around the same time, I went to see him play at Madison Square Garden. He’s famous for not saying much to audiences, but that night he said, “My friend Al Gore is here,” and then went back to playing. It was one of the highlights of my life! In my home in Nashville, I still have in a place of honor the harmonica that he gave me that night. Maybe he gives them out from time to time, but it made me feel great.
I was present when he gave his amazing speech at the MusiCares tribute to him last year. When he got up to speak, my jaw dropped. He was going through pages and pages of notes, typed out. It was an incredible speech, a Rosetta stone to Bob’s relationship with the history and tradition of music.
Dylan’s music is now more relevant than ever. Musicians are digging deep right now. I would be shocked if last month’s election didn’t open up a new wave of meaningful and powerful songs that ring the alarm and mobilize people and crystallize what the U.S. and humanity as a whole needs to do right now.
Some people whose work I also respect have grumbled about Dylan receiving the Nobel. But to me it’s pretty simple: His writing has had as much impact as the writing of any other man or woman on the planet. Case closed.
As told to Patrick Doyle