IN his latest documentary, 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia marks the 50th anniversary of a purported annus mirabilis for Western popular music.

There’s plenty of evidence for that, which makes it all the more remarkable that barely a peep was heard from the previous decade’s designated “spokesman for his generation”. The solitary song Bob Dylan released the year he turned 30 was ‘George Jackson’, an unexpected tribute to a radical black activist shot while trying to escape from prison.

Dylan had supposedly drawn a line under ‘finger-pointing songs’ several years earlier, but by then his burgeoning songbook already boasted a bunch of timeless entries, from ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Masters of War’ to ‘The Times They are A-Changin’’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A -Gonna Fall’, their topicality destined to withstand the wear and tear of a turbulent age.

Thereafter he became more opaque, det­e­r­­mined not to be a spokesman for anyone other than himself. The songs continued to pour out, mesmerisingly surrealistic in their imagery, and indefinitely open to interpretation. Then the stream of consciousness see­med to dry up. During the hiatus, Dylan and a bunch of mostly Canadian musicians pret­­ty much invented the genre that has become known as Americana, digging deep into the traditions of “the old, weird America”.

At 80, Bob Dylan still has something to say.

But Dylan never entirely shut himself off from the weirdness of the contemporary twists and turns of his homeland. There were no songs explicitly about the Vietnam War even as his generation was protesting about it on the streets. But ‘George Jackson’ didn’t come out of the blue. Listen to ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, from 1963, and you’ll understand why. (And then to ‘Hurricane’ from 1976.)

“Sometimes I think this whole world/ Is one big prison yard,” he sings in the 1971 single. “Some of us are prisoners/ The rest of us are guards.” What could be more topical 50 years later, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or Gaza on your mind?

We’ll probably never know what Dylan thinks about the avalanche of tributes that has greeted him on his 80th birthday this week, but then he has always been reluctant to reveal himself. He made up fabulous tales about himself when he turned up as an itinerant folksinger in New York’s Greenwich Village 60 years ago, bursting with Woody Guthrie songs but beginning to make up some of his own.

They were mainly derivative, but in some ways also highly original. It was the originality that stood out when he was signed up in 1961 as a recording artist by Columbia Records.

Last year, soon after the Covid-19 pandemic prompted lockouts across much of the West, Dylan dropped the longest track he had ever laid down. ‘Murder Most Foul’, a nearly 17-minute rumination on the 1963 murder of John F. Kennedy, not only captures the zeitgeist of the times (and revives a few conspiracy theories) but finds much to say about the cultural landscape of the years that followed. The late masterpiece, more declaimed than sung, fits right into the template of the subsequent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, arguably his best since Desire in 1976.

Who knows, perhaps he felt obliged to prove himself worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature he earned in 2016. He was characteristically reticent about acknowledging it at the time, taking weeks to respond. When he eventually came up with a speech, it reflected on the blues, on Moby-Dick and All Quiet on the Western Front, and referred to Shakespeare and Homer, concluding with a quotation from the latter: “Sing to me, o Muse, and through me tell the story.” Fellow North American poet Leonard Cohen said the accolade was like pinning a medal on Everest for being the highest mountain.

It was Dylan’s way of pointing out that, like his predecessors, he is a storyteller. He was influenced by those who came before him, and strongly influenced his contemporaries and their successors. He has been called out as a plagiarist, but so was Shakespeare who plundered Plutarch for some of his tragedies, giving those tales an enduring lease of life. Dylan can be excused for aspiring to an affinity.

Perhaps some of his albums, particularly through much of the 1980s, are inexcusably appalling. Perhaps five discs of crooner-worthy classics from the Great American Songbook, relying on vocal cords that gave up the ghost 30 years earlier, are excessive.

But filter out the dross, and you’re still left with an unmatched body of poetic work across 60 years, frequently leavened with wit and wisdom, acknowledged by scholarly works and dedicated university institutes.

That’s reason enough to wish him many happy returns, embrace his bewilderment in wondering: “I don’t know what’s going to happen when I’m not around to sing any more”, and tentatively accept his contention that he may not be properly appreciated for another 100 years.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2021

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