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Chimes of Freedom: TLS review

Review of Chimes of Freedom and Christopher Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions of Sin

By Mark Ford, Times Literary Supplement, 30 October, 2003

“The only thing I can compare him with is blotting paper”, the Irish singer Liam Clancy once remarked of the scruffy, mumbling, chain-smoking nineteen-year-old folkie who arrived on the Greenwich Village coffee-house scene in January of 1961. “He soaked everything up. He had this immense curiosity; he was totally blank, and ready to soak up everything that was in his range.” His new friends soon found that their record collections, their set-lists, their guitar techniques, and their stage acts had been rapidly absorbed by the omnivorous newcomer.

By the end of the year, Dylan had been signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond, whose earlier “discoveries” included Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Aretha Franklin, and had recorded his first album, entitled simply Bob Dylan : it consisted of energetic reworkings of a number of blues and gospel standards, and two original compositions, the Guthriesque “Talkin’ New York”, and an explicit homage to his hero, “Song to Woody”. “I’m seein’ your world”, sings Dylan, “of people and things / Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings.” Woody Guthrie was himself too ill to participate in the folk revival which brought his work to the attention of Dylan, and then catapulted Dylan to stardom. He had been progressively enfeebled by the hereditary disease, Huntington’s chorea, and by 1961 was bedridden in Greystone Hospital in New Jersey, where Dylan, in rambling boots and hard-wearing work-shirt and jeans, went to visit him on his very first day in New York. Dylan also soon got to meet Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax, whose tastes had been formed by the first wave of populist folk music in the 1930s, and who were hoping this new revival would reignite the left-wing political aspirations that had been quashed by America’s entry into the Second World War, and then by the succession of Red scares of the post-war era.

Chimes of Freedom by Mike Marqusee offers a fascinating and detailed analysis of the forces that shaped the politics of the folk revival, and argues, I think convincingly, against the cynical interpretations Dylan later put on his own contributions to the civil rights movement – the most famous instance of which was his claim that he wrote “Masters of War” because he knew it would sell. Marqusee carefully considers the vastly different commercial contexts of the first and second waves of folk: while Guthrie wrote for those dispossessed and poverty-stricken by the Great Depression, and his recordings never achieved particularly wide distribution, Dylan’s fast-growing audience consisted largely of the affluent offspring of the Cold War – middle-class non-conformists sickened by corporatism, mutually assured destruction, and the various discontents of the new consumer society. Dylan’s journey from the world of earnest folk-protest to the iconoclastic, hallucinatory energies of his mid-1960s music provides as good a perspective as any on the origins and birth of the counterculture. Although Dylan wrote many of the civil rights movement’s most durable anthems, he was never comfortable in the way, say, Joan Baez was, with the prospect of becoming a political activist or figurehead. The folk music scene, he soon came to realize, was governed by a rigid set of prescriptions and taboos, and, in its rejection of so many aspects of modernity, seemed shackled to an implausible vision of the past. Nevertheless, Dylan produced in his folk – or perhaps one should say his pre-electric – years (1961–4) a vast repertoire of impressively varied, subtle and powerful songs.

Marqusee re-creates the political contexts from which they emerged, and skilfully explores the ways they engage with – or question engagement with – the imperatives and dangers of the moment. If, on one level, “To Ramona” is a classic Dylan seduction song – all the more beguiling for so unobtrusively dramatizing the singer’s own honesty (“Deep in my heart / I know there’s no help I can bring”) – on another it develops an anguished assessment of the values and temptations of political commitment. “To Ramona” was first performed in July 1964, shortly after the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; Ramona – clearly an activist of some kind – is “torn / Between stayin’ and returnin’ / On back to the South,” probably as part of the Mississippi Summer Project, a scheme which recruited white students to provide protection from racist thugs during black voter registration drives. Turmoil engulfed the state: “beside the dead”, Marqusee notes, “there were 1,000 arrests, 80 beatings, 35 church burnings, 30 bombings, and 35 shootings”.

The summer before, Dylan had sung his most naively upbeat celebration of imminent revolution, “When the Ship Comes In”, at a concert held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial shortly before Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech; by the time he composed “To Ramona”, splits in the civil rights movement, the assassination of Kennedy, the escalation of military involvement in Vietnam, the intransigence of state governors and police forces, had exposed all facile optimism. The purpose of the song, which can’t have found favour with such as Seeger and Lomax, is to persuade its addressee not to feel guilty about not participating in the struggle.

Yet, as Marqusee argues, however conclusively Dylan turned away from specific causes and topical stories in the songs he wrote after his most “finger-pointin’” album, The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1963), the music of his greatest period, 1964–7, achieves its brilliance, savagery, wit and power not by ignoring the political, but by ferociously embracing the complexities of the Zeitgeist on terms defined by Dylan himself – or, rather, on terms he developed and shared with members of his various bands, with Bruce Langhorne, Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Paul Griffin, Bobby Gregg, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richie Manual, Levon Helm, Mickey Jones. The auteur approach can only take us so far with Dylan’s work from Bringing It All Back Home (1965) on: it matters a very great deal who is on lead guitar or drums, and what they’re doing on them. Marqusee presents an excellent account of the cultural phenomenon into which Dylan developed in the mid-1960s, and the ways in which his songs registered, amplified or evaded the pressures of the times; there is no mention in Dylan’s oeuvre, for instance, of Vietnam, though in “Tombstone Blues” we are told that the King of the Philistines first “fattens the slaves / Then sends them out to the jungle”. The imaginative surge that carried Dylan from the gleeful black humour of Highway 61 Revisited (1965) to “that thin, that wild mercury sound” of Blonde on Blonde (1966) to the sublime improvisations of the Basement Tapes sessions (1967) has been analysed more thoroughly by an army of Dylan commentators than any other phase of his career, but Marqusee’s emphasis on the political implications and reception of the mid-1960s work lends his narrative freshness, vigour and purpose.

While Marqusee aims to return Dylan, if not to the barricades, at least to the political currents his 60s work sought to navigate, Christopher Ricks, in his long-awaited monograph, Dylan’s Visions of Sin , seems to want to convert his idol into an honorary member of an Oxbridge Senior Common Room. In this set of practical criticism seminars, Dylan’s work is compared and contrasted not with that of his musical forebears – with Guthrie or Hank Williams or Robert Johnson or Jimmie Rodgers or Blind Lemon Jefferson or Mississippi John Hurt – or even with obvious literary influences such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg or Rimbaud, but instead with the pantheon of English poets to whom Ricks has dedicated his career: so we cut, not, it must be said, at all seamlessly, from “Baby, I’m in the Mood for You” to a letter of 1930 by A. E. Housman, from “One Too Many Mornings” to In Memoriam , from “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to Wordsworth’s “The Brothers”.

Ricks spends pages setting before us verbal similarities between Dylan songs and poems by Tennyson, Keats, T. S. Eliot and John Donne. The sponge-like Dylan has always stolen shamelessly from the music he loves, as Michael Gray and Clinton Heylin have documented at length; and every now and again some Dylanologist turns up wholesale borrowings from an obscure book or film. Earlier this year, for instance, it was revealed that a song on his latest album, Love and Theft , had been lifted straight from the translation of a yakuza novel. But for all his exhaustive cross-referencing, the relevance of Ricks’s chosen poets to Dylan’s work seems pretty nugatory.

And why, one keeps wondering, does Ricks want to make these connections between Dylan and Tennyson and co? Dylan’s art exists in a radically different dimension from theirs, and, on the printed page, always suffers in comparison. Reading Dylan’s Visions of Sin I kept being reminded of the gentleman Keats met on a visit to the Elgin Marbles, who intoned, “I believe, Mr Keats, we may admire these works safely ”. Visions of Sin seems propelled by Ricks’s need to prove that it is “safe” for an academic to admire Dylan, and in the process he wholly suppresses Dylan’s perversity and his unpredictability.

Unlike most books on the singer, Dylan’s Visions of Sin is not much fun to read; it is written in a contorted, pun-laden style, larded with Dylan allusions, which sets the teeth on edge: “Handling sin is for me the right handle to take hold of the bundle. My left hand waving free”. Ricks is throughout at his most Holofernes-ish, nodding and winking at the reader over his displays of verbal fireworks, and ticking off other Dylan exegetes for their simple-mindedness and sloppy prose. The book has no narrative: it consists of close, often rather prolix and repetitive readings of around forty songs, which are each discussed in relation to one of the seven deadly sins, or one of the four virtues, or one of the three graces. The taxonomy occasionally works, but more often seems superimposed to give the book a semblance of meaningful structure.

Ricks loves his Dylan, but pretty indiscriminately: his book contains not one adverse comment on an artist who has not only scaled the heights of popular song, but has also – as all Dylan fans would acknowledge – plumbed its depths. Ricks even recants the doubts he once expressed in an earlier book about the greatness of the second verse of “One Too Many Mornings”. Perhaps the best way of approaching this vast tome, clearly a labour of love, is as an eccentric, misguided, but impressively determined attempt to make Dylan’s lyrics fit in with a certain kind of practical criticism that evolved in Cambridge from the teachings of William Empson and F. R. Leavis. And if Christopher Ricks can’t pull off this feat, then it seems unlikely that anyone else will ever be able to.