Dylan's Message

An essay that explains what Dylan is saying and calls "John Wesley Harding" an album ab out the process of seeking truth

(With acknowledgements to Andrew Klein, Vinton Tompkins, and Paul Holleb for their special knowledge of the trade magazines, the Bible, and the Midwest respectively.)

God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."

Abe said, "Man, you must be putting me on."

God said, "No."

Abe said, "What."


God say, "You can do what you want Abe. But. The next time you see me coming, you better run."

Abe say, "Where do you want this killing done?"

God said, "Out on Highway Sixty-One"

People ask Bob Dylan if he has a message and what it is. Sure, try asking Robert Lowell if he has a message, he won't want to talk to you. Bob Dylan's message (what he says, sings, writes) isn't any one particular idea. That is to say: sometimes he's saying man's so sinister that he's even written it into his bible, The Bible; and sometimes Dylan's talking civil rights, or sometimes he's talking about the way some people (like him) are living.

Up to his most recent and greatest album, John Wesley Harding, he talks up the American social landscape a lot. Of course many other folk singers have been talking about what's been going on. But they did it in lyrics and, in effect, recreated the feeling or romanticism of what was happening, and a lot of the time moralized about it. Eric Anderson singing about marches in the South: You been longing on the open road. You've been sleeping in the rain. From the dirty words and mud of your clothes are dark and stain-

But the dirty words, the muddy souls will soon be judged insane."

Dylan does things in poetry (words chosen, not to fit the lyrics of a tune, but for what they mean to the other words, the imagery, and the message). And although some of his earlier songs were out-and-out civil rights propaganda (i.e., they had a defined moral and even political message), most everything Dylan writes is seeking, often finding, and brilliantly revealing something that is true. In other words, there is a hierarchy of messages folk singers work with--things ranging from describing a visual and sensual environment to moralizing. You get the idea from listening to all nine of his records in a row that Dylan not only puts Truth at the top of his hierarchy, but also is finding messages that are true as he writes, not having known before he started writing what they were.

Robbed by Whores

I like to think that Dylan has a message (in the singular) because every time I listen to him or see his movie, Don't Look Back, I get this same identifiable feeling of understanding for not just what he's saying out why he's saying this. What this message, in the singular, is, is an understanding of the kind of life Dylan's living. That's not the details of his life like whether he's wandering around Mexico getting robbed by whores as in Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues. Knowing those details would be kind of interesting but it's more than we could ask Dylan. And what's really important is just knowing the way Dylan thinks and philosophizes and approaches things. But Dylan's message is what he's saying, not a singular idea.

I have this fairly simple theory about media. The idea is that each medium has its dynamics--the elements that make up the medium, define it, and limit it. In film, for example, the dynamics are what effects the lenses have, how easy it is to move the camera around, what kind of thing the camera records, and so forth. Now in order to be able to function well within a medium, you have to work primarily with the kind of things the medium was designed to deal with. That's why some rock groups that have a great loud, heavy sound live don't come across on records. They write music to be played and use the record as a form of reproduction, whereas the Beatles, in contrast, write for recordings. Their earlier songs were great media for the radio; and their songs since Rain have usually been on so many tracks that they probably couldn't be played live.

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