‘There’s Somethin’ Happenin’ Here’ — Songs that Celebrate a Turbulent Time (Part One)

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Come On, People Now

Bob Dylan in the recording studio (theawl.com)
Bob Dylan in the recording studio (theawl.com)

That’s a great title for an article about the music of the Swinging Sixties. And with so much happening right here, right now, in the good ole USA — from the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the passing of folk legend and peace activist Pete Seeger and the upcoming half-century celebration of the Beatles’ landmark invasion of our shores — there’s no better time like the present to rekindle one’s association with that long-ago period from about 1962 up through 1971 when popular songs and colorful individuals formed the backbone of various movements.

The songs and individuals I had in mind, however, were ones I personally remember listening to on the radio and/or watching on TV. What’s more, I recall hearing a handful of these tracks in my school’s English and Social Studies classrooms — in some cases, within a few months of their release. How many of us can say we experienced that sense of having belonged to a tiny part of history in the making?

Today, I am grateful to have lived through those turbulent times. Granted, the impetus for posting this piece comprises the thinnest hint of nostalgia for songs that actually meant something. Besides the obvious sentimental value, I wanted to make the case for the enduring efficacy of these unforgettable artworks, as well as pay belated tribute to their creators.

Now that I’ve reached a point in life where maturity and understanding have merged with a writer’s ability to come to grips with these matters, I felt compelled to pursue the mystery of why these songs still haunt our memories after so many years in circulation.

Maybe it was my disgust at the poor quality of this year’s Grammy nominees. Maybe it was my disappointment at seeing how worn and jowly ex-Beatle Paul McCartney had gotten in that spiritless duet with drummer Ringo Starr — and how unremarkable Sir Paul’s output has become of late (“bland” is the word I would use).

Whatever the reason, I needed little motivation to remind readers of what true folk, pop and rock once sounded like to a generation that learned to appreciate song lyrics that were as dense and meaningful as they were occasionally diffuse; with instantly recognizable tunes that, despite the passage of time, have continued to celebrate a momentous era in America.

If I have left a favorite singer or two out, please accept my apologies. The ones I’ve chosen reflect my own preferences and are, in no way, a commentary on the abilities (good or bad) of those artists excluded from this list. To paraphrase a line from Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike: “Not much meat, but what there is, is ‘cherce.’”

Album cover for The Times They Are A-Changin' (fplreference.blogspot.com)
Album cover for The Times They Are A-Changin’ (fplreference.blogspot.com)

It’s fair to say that Dylan ushered in the times, and from there went on to inspire an entire generation of like-minded artists. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941, musician, performer and songwriter Bob Dylan (he took his surname from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose dictum, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” he took to heart) rose to fame in the Sixties as the unofficial, if habitually unwilling, spokesperson for social and civil causes (“Don’t follow leaders!” he famously insisted in 1965).

Influenced early on by Woody Guthrie, the father and pioneer of folk and protest songs, along with rocker Little Richard and Country & Western star Hank Williams, Dylan used the power and substance of language (drawing from the likes of Walt Whitman, French Symbolism, and the Beat poets) to venture forth on his own as the voice and conscience of America’s disheartened youth.

With such classics as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” made popular by the trio of Peter, Paul and Mary (who smoothed over the song’s edges with the pristine purity of their vocals), and the droning, prophetic “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Dylan sang with the stridency of a picketing union worker, the immediacy of a Baptist preacher, and the disarming yet wise-beyond-his-years boyishness that captivated audiences used to less offensive material.

“Blowin’ in the Wind,” the first item on our list, betrays strong African-American spiritual roots. In the rhetorical form of a question and answer — a mini sermon, if you will — it’s a give-and-take lifted in part from the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel. The words are simple and direct, the instrumentation (acoustic guitar with intermittent bursts from Dylan’s harmonica) Spartan and lean, the voice solemn and sincere, all persuasively arrayed to point up man’s longing for freedom and dignity in his continuing struggles against injustice:

How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man…?

The lyrics have something to say as well about outlawing armed conflict long before our country’s involvement in Southeast Asia took hold:

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned…?

A year or more before President Kennedy was killed, Dylan chanted this prescient verse:

Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?

And what’s the sought-after solution to these problems? It’s simple, really:

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind the answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Dylan himself has clarified the meaning: “Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know … and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.”

Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head and pretend he just doesn’t see…?

Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?

Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?

If there is any way out of these intractable conditions, it can be found in a later musical number — a suitably spiritual one, we should add — written by our friend Mr. McCartney in 1969, after a dream he had involving his long departed mom, Mary:

When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom: let it be

And in my hour of darkness She is standing right in front of me

Speaking words of wisdom: let it be

Let it be, let it be,

Let it be, yeah, let it be

There will be an answer: let it be.

His song offered a slightly more consoling message “in times of trouble” than, say, the lyrical fist-shaking that Mr. Dylan previously propounded. Still, Paul’s late-in-the-day composition, “Let It Be,” came at the tail end of the decade and was the last single the Beatles released before they disbanded.

Better Times Ahead?

One of Dylan’s most challenging outpourings, an oracular expression of holy-rolling writ large (and a jeremiad standard in its day), is his “The Times They Are A-Changin’” from 1964. At the time, his vision of the coming inundation, of “wars and rumors of war,” of political turmoil, of parents forced to give way to their offspring, of generational divide and quasi-scriptural proclamations that the “first shall be last” — compounded by his mumbling vocals — smacked of the ravings of a street-corner lunatic on the fringe of society.

Sadly, most if not all of Dylan’s apocalyptic imagery would de facto come to pass with the outbreak of the Vietnam War conflict. Conversely, it was exactly this kind of verbal warning shot, cloaked in the formal structure of popular song (shades of composer Kurt Weill), that so enraged the senior members of “society,” i.e., the “establishment,” as it was known back then. At the risk of making it sound like a lengthy diatribe, I print the song’s thought-provoking lyrics in full:

Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

His namesake, poet Dylan Thomas, once wrote that, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day.” Not only that, but it should “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Bob Dylan, who raged and fumed so early on in his career, crashed and burned much sooner than most — and long before the dying of his light.

Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, July 24, 1965 (rirocks.net)
Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, July 24, 1965 (rirocks.net)

To many of his diehard fans, Dylan had betrayed the folkie “cause” by going all-out electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. And the lyric wordplay, by turns virulent and elegiac, witty and bizarre, were more oblique than ever in his corresponding Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited releases, as well as the classic double-album Blonde on Blonde.

On the morning of July 29, 1966, upon his recent return from an exhausting nine-month world tour the month before, Dylan was involved in a life-changing motorbike crash near his home in Woodstock, New York, which led to his subsequent withdrawal from performing. His forty days and forty nights in the wilderness stretched into a year and a half of self-imposed isolation.

“When I had that motorcycle accident,” Dylan told a reporter in 1984, “I woke up and caught my senses. I realized that I was just workin’ for all these leeches. And I really didn’t want to do that … I was pretty wound up before that accident happened. I probably would have died if I had kept on going the way I had been.” This begs the question of whether Dylan had also been dabbling in booze and drugs, thereby using the extended “timeout” to undergo detoxification. His absence from the scene has never been fully explained.

Emerging from the dark, Dylan released two back-to-back albums of new material: the introspective John Wesley Harding in 1968, and the country-flavored Nashville Skyline in 1969. The public soon learned that he and his Butterfield Blues Band (a.k.a. The Band) had been busy documenting their latest efforts in the experimental recordings dubbed The Basement Tapes (1975), which confirmed the singer-songwriter’s growing obsession with Country & Western themes fused with rural rock.

He would not perform live again until a 1974 concert tour. Five years later, Dylan, who was born into the Jewish faith, would formally convert to Christianity. He was no longer the proverbial “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” (that honor would go to the fictional Howard Beale from the movie Network), but a man trying to confront the expected norms of artistic life. He would celebrate his conversion with the launch of Slow Train Coming (1979).

Bob Dylan’s abandonment of live performing, and the acid-tripped rock-n-roll lifestyle that went with it and that he formerly espoused, had a heavy impact on other bands and individuals, as we shall see.

(End of Part One – To Be Continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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