In 1997, Bob Dylan was a Kennedy Center Honoree. Below is the text of a speech given by writer and music critic Tom Piazza for that occasion.
The central question for an American artist – both as an American and as an artist – is how to remain indivisibly oneself while, in Walt Whitman’s phrase, containing multitudes. Few in our time have done both as fully as Bob Dylan.
By now it probably goes without saying that he is the foremost American songwriter of the last 35 years. Even a short list of his best known songs, from “Blowin’ In the Wind” through “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the songs from classic albums like Highway 61 Revisited, Blood On The Tracks, Infidels and Time Out Of Mind, would take up half this page. In the course of writing and performing them he has changed everyone’s expectations of the kinds of complexity and meaning that popular songs could deliver.
But beyond his preeminence as a songwriter and performer, Bob Dylan has remained a quintessentially American artist in the largest sense, a true American original. By combining African-American blues, white country music, rural folk music, imagist poetry and rock and roll, Dylan created a new musical and literary form, both popular and serious at the same time, which many have emulated but of which Bob Dylan is still not only the prototype but the unchallenged master.
From the beginning, Dylan’s work has occupied a special, central ground where forms and genres that had previously been seen as separate or incompatible combined and were transmuted into something both wholly his own and wholly in the American grain. From many sources came one voice – E pluribus unum – and in his constant reimagining of these materials he has proved, over and over, that the elements of American culture, in all their contradictory, painful, exhilarating and sometimes indigestible glory, are infinitely elastic, and infinitely renewable.
For years, reviewers of popular culture have reflexively referred to Bob Dylan as the voice, even the conscience of a generation. And it is true that the period of the 1960s, in nearly all of its aspects – its political and moral preoccupations, its apocalyptic overtones – was reflected in his recordings of the time as it was in no other single artist’s work, regardless of genre. Yet he has remained an abiding presence in American culture, his work growing and changing as he and the culture at large have grown and changed during the past three decades. He and his work represent something perennial in our culture.
“I always thought,” he said once, “that one man, the lone balladeer with the guitar, could blow an entire army off the stage if he knew what he was doing.” That sense of the power of the lone creative voice can be traced, its pulse felt, through the great river of creative imagery and action that stretches back centuries in the United States: traveling lecturers, tall-tale spinners, itinerant entertainers of all sorts, blues singers, old-time fiddlers. It is there to be heard in the work of Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Emily Dickinson and Bessie Smith, Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac, the sense of the individual voice, intensely personal, indivisible, taking on American life, in all its epic contradictions.
In his song “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” on his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, the singer spins a long, tall yarn in which he arrives in North America before the arrival of Columbus and has a series of funny, dreamlike encounters, skirmishes, and near-misses with a gallery of bizarre characters. At the end of the song the singer greets Christopher Columbus himself as the explorer arrives on the continent, and Dylan wishes him a deadpan “good luck.”
It is a tall tale in a tradition going back to Mark Twain, and well before him, yet it is something more as well. In it we watch a vivid imagination cutting a mythic reality down to size – projecting itself, in fact, right into the middle of that reality. With wry humor, the singer celebrates a discovery of a land that is confusing and out of whack yet full of possibility, and claims, in a more than symbolic sense, the territory for his own.
There is a recognizable stance here, and in all of Dylan’s work: a sense that the individual sensibility – aesthetic, political, spiritual – could claim a role at the heart of the nation’s ongoing drama, in the middle of its ethnic and regional polyphony, locate what was of value there, and sing a new self, even a new country, out of it. As if the very activity of incorporating, coming to terms with, those multitudes of influence and utterance is itself somehow at the heart of the American ideal.
A large part of Dylan’s enduring claim on our imagination and attention is that his example has restated that ambition and that possibility, year after year, to this day. His has been an example not only to songwriters but to fiction writers, playwrights, poets, and filmmakers, constant proof that this culture, in all its contradictions, is still there to be claimed yet again, seen anew, through the agency of the human heart and imagination.
Beyond the initial shock of Mr. Dylan’s conversion, many of his Christian songs remain close to the rest of his work. Biblical allusions and echoes of gospel structure were part of his songwriting from the beginning (as in “Blowin’ in the Wind”). So were a sense of moral gravity, a righteous tone, apocalyptic thoughts, and a delight in the rich and powerful receiving their just comeuppance.
Although Mr. Dylan released the three albums within three years, he was evolving fast. “Slow Train Coming” is full of wrathful warnings like “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “When You Gonna Wake Up?” “Saved” moves to direct proselytizing, positive promises and more conventional gospel music. And in 1981, with “Shot of Love,” Mr. Dylan was already looking beyond doctrine, juxtaposing the sacred and secular in rowdy blues-rock like “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” while praising God in his own way in “Every Grain of Sand.”
Decades later, what comes through these recordings above all is Mr. Dylan’s unmistakable fervor, his sense of mission. The studio albums are subdued, even tentative, compared with what the songs became on the road. Mr. Dylan’s voice is clear, cutting and ever improvisational; working the crowds, he was emphatic, committed, sometimes teasingly combative. And the band tears into the music. The tour recordings provide multiple versions of many songs, yet they’re anything but routine, shifting tempo and attack while Mr. Dylan flings every line with conviction. There were moments of reverence, too, like the quiet coda in the prayerlike “What Can I Do for You?”: just Mr. Dylan on harmonica and the notable soul songwriter Spooner Oldham on organ, sharing experiments in extended harmony.
“He’s always been about change,” Jim Keltner, the band’s drummer, said last week. “What Bob wanted was for people to interact with the music and among themselves. He wanted to hear people playing stuff that he’d never heard before. He wanted people to rise, and we did. I believe that we did.”
With his encyclopedic knowledge of American music, Mr. Dylan cannily chose the backup for his Christian songs: a deep-rooted Southern soul band. He recorded “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with Jerry Wexler and the keyboardist Barry Beckett as producers; they had worked there on Aretha Franklin’s pivotal 1967 soul hits.
While the studio band for “Slow Train Coming” featured Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers of Dire Straits, Mr. Dylan’s touring band was American and mostly Southern, steeped in gospel, the blues, rock and reggae. Along with Mr. Tackett and Mr. Keltner, it had Mr. Oldham, the bassist Tim Drummond, the pianist Terry Young and a changing lineup of four or five tambourine-shaking female gospel singers. Mr. Dylan originally planned a horn section as well — the set unveils some rehearsal tracks — but the women’s voices were more vivid and jubilant on their own.
They were prolific years. Mr. Dylan discarded more than a dozen songs that show up on “Trouble No More,” among them the Chuck Berry-flavored “Jesus Is the One” and the euphoric affirmation “I Will Love Him.” In “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody,” Mr. Dylan warns of his own guile — “I can mislead people as well as anybody/I’ve got the vision to cause any kind of division” — but insists he has reformed. And in “Making a Liar Out of Me,” over a stolid, inexorable two-chord vamp, Mr. Dylan argues for compassion and conscience: “The hopes and fears and dreams of the discontented/they threaten now to overtake your promised land.”
Mr. Keltner said last week that he cherishes an onstage photograph from the tour by the filmmaker Howard Alk, shot from behind his shoulder. “I’m hunched over the drums, and Bob is standing there with his guitar,” he said. “His hair was this perfectly beautiful Afro, or Jewfro maybe. And the way the light is playing on his hair, it looked like he had a combination of a halo and a crown of thorns. For all the world, it looks like Jesus standing there.”Continue reading the main story