Last November 2nd, on election night, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Bob Dylan played “Masters of War,” his 1963 protest song against arms merchants. It sounded obvious, self-righteous and strident even when Dylan was first performing it; why, this night, was the song so frightening, the singer’s delivery so deliberate, to the point that on the last phrases Dylan made his voice shake?
Why is the song still so alive? There’s a hint of an answer in Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, the book he published in the fall. It’s not a memoir, where the world revolves around the author; it’s a bildungsroman, where a questing young man relates the tale of his education in art, life and the ways of the world. Chronicles is an account of learning and discovery, most deeply in Minneapolis in 1959 and 1960, then in Greenwich Village in the early Sixties, and an account of frustration and failure in the decades to come. The old man looks back at his younger self less to find out where he took the wrong road (“The mirror had swung around and I could see the future – ” Dylan writes of himself in 1987, “an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theater of past triumphs”) than to begin again, from the beginning. It’s not a tease that Dylan’s Sixties glory years and the startling breakthroughs from the early Nineties on are ignored: The book revolves around those poles where the writer knew nothing and where he could do nothing. So it is modest, humble, squinting, doubting, carefully written, with the writer giving the phrases that leap from his mind free rein (“The mirror had swung around” – my God, what happens when the mirror swings around?) but also reining them in to serve the story, to push it forward or pull it backward – and the story is that of someone with a gift to live up to, if he can figure out what it is.
That’s what the book is about: figuring that out. The tale-teller is a detective (“I cut the radio off, crisscrossed the room, pausing for a moment to turn on the black-and-white TV,” Dylan writes in perfect pitch, as if walking Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe around his Los Angeles apartment. “Wagon Train was on”), a pathfinder, looking at other people’s footprints on the forest floor. He watches the world from a distance; he watches himself only as a reflection of the light the world gives off.
Because he is a musician, the reflections are sometimes echoes, and some of the echoes are words. “My father,” Dylan writes of Abraham Zimmerman, “wasn’t so sure the truth would set anybody free” – and those words sound down through the book. This isn’t just the stiff-necked Jew turning his back on Jesus pronouncing that “the truth shall set you free,” it’s the truth as, again and again in Chronicles, Dylan applies it to songs. Folk songs. Old songs. Songs that resist the singer, that change shape as soon as he thinks he knows what they are. Songs that may force the singer to exchange facts for mystery and knowledge for ignorance.
“The singer has to make you believe what you are hearing, and Joan did that,” Dylan says of Joan Baez and her 1960 rendition of “Silver Dagger,” an ancient ballad about a mother who carries a knife to keep men from her daughter, and of the Kingston Trio’s 1958 version of “Tom Dooley,” about a North Carolina man who murdered his lover – in 1866. “I believed Joan’s mother would kill someone that she loved. . . . Folk music, if nothing else, makes a believer out of you. I believed Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio, too. I believed that he would kill or already did kill poor Laura Foster. I believed that he’d kill someone else, too.” “I didn’t know what age of history we were in nor what the truth of it was,” he writes, speaking of the folk culture of Greenwich Village and the mainstream culture that surrounded it. “If you told the truth, that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well, that’s still well and good. Folk songs had taught me that. . . . Whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong.” Folk music opened the door to a “parallel universe”: “a culture with outlaw women, super thugs, demon lovers and gospel truths . . . landowners and oilmen, Stagger Lees and Pretty Pollys and John Henrys – an invisible world.”
Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding, and if it called out to you, you could disappear and be sucked into it. I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes, vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, metaphysical in shape, each rugged soul filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom. Each demanding a degree of respect. I could believe in the full spectrum of it and sing about it. It was so real, so more true to life than life itself.
Songs that say, I am true, but there is no truth: Figure that out, buddy.
It was, Dylan recounts, the dare behind his whole career – the poker game he’s still playing. And that is why, on a certain night, an old protest song like “Masters of War” can change shape, swing the mirror around and dare the singer to sing it, to make it true – “the truth about life,” as Dylan writes of folk songs, even if “life is more or less a lie.” No, it probably wasn’t going to set anybody free, except, for an instant, maybe the singer. But of course you never know.
This story is from the December 30, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.