The NC folklife center in Chapel Hill put up on facebook a video of Bob Dylan receiving the American hot dog Presidential award. Bob, himself, showed his perfectly predictable let-me-outta-here attitude, dark glasses, rebel rocker in enemy territory. What struck me was Obama standing behind him, much younger, looking at him just maybe a foot away, THE one and only, the real deal Bob Dylan standing there so close to him. Dylan has been Dylan throughout Obama's life. Dylan has always been in his world. The look in Obama's face was one of deep inner reflection, silent awe, a moment inside himself admiring the nearness of the man who began his career as a legend. The actual Bob Dylan. He looked like he was more impressed standing beside Dylan than Dylan looked standing beside the President. Dylan has a history of refusing an invitation to dinner at the Nixon Whitehouse. Dylan, the artist, cultivated a stand-offish presence from the beginning. Probably it is self-defense learned in the beginning. An artist, a true artist, needs his own time and will have it despite all. I don't know that we've had a greater star in my lifetime. Or artist. We have William Faulkner. There was Frank Sinatra and Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones. Dylan as a rocker is there with the Stones and the other remnants of that generation in rock. Dylan as a songwriter is out there by himself the best there ever was and probably ever will be, like Scotty Stoneman on bluegrass fiddle.
I'm glad Bob Dylan was allowed to grow into his 70s. How many book volumes of songs has he written? All of them good. All of them poems with a solid place in American poetry. Dylan is probably more an influence on this present generation of poets than any other single poet. It would be silly to call Dylan a genius. That word is too misused. He seems like an advanced soul who was sent to earth in this lifetime to inspire an awful lot of people in very real ways. I saw his first concert tour at the Omni in Atlanta. He changed the arrangement of every song he sang to eliminate sing alongs. An audience of 10,000 or more singing along would drown him and the band out, no matter how loud they played. Everybody knew all the words. Like many of the older rock stars, Dylan has to keep going to keep the money flowing in to pay for alimony and child support. I don't believe, however, that is his motivation. He is a fountain of music. He's a Mozart of American music with a long life. This is why he was given the award. American pop music and American poetry, and probably American serious music, will look to Dylan as the great one for possibly hundreds of years to come. I believe his songs will eventually be, if they aren't already, considered Traditional American music. I can imagine Dylan would enjoy drinks and conversation with Samuel Barber and Aaron Copeland, privately, artist to artist. And maybe not. I have no way of knowing.
He's always been evasive in interviews and autobiographical writings. Even the pictures on his early albums were out of focus or at an odd angle so you couldn't see his face clearly. His autobiographical writings are evasive about who he is. Considering he writes, spills out who he is probably every day, has a long list of albums full of who he is from first note to last. Like an answer I heard he gave a guy who asked him the meaning of some lines in a given song. Dylan said, paraphrased, It's mine to write them; it's yours to figure them out. He's been so evasive of the territory of who he is, I took it early on that he needed his privacy, he was telling us to allow him himself; he needs his private life too. I quit wondering about his life at a certain point, when I realized what he was saying, it doesn't matter to me. It's not my business. Scorcese's film about him, No Direction Home, showed him overrun in the beginnings of his career as a musician, first, thereabouts, by the folk music world that believed they owned him, and the venom when he set out on his own and went electric. Rock was his independence. I like him as the folk singer and I like him as the rocker. He was a difficult one to have in the rock scene. He was difficult not to write or make music like after hearing him. His style is so much his own that anything inspired by his style sounds like him. He's like Ralph Stanley's banjo; you know it the first three seconds you hear it.
It was a long period of years that I listened to Dylan regularly. He took a new direction frequently, which kept his music fresh. When he made that album Saved, I had to let go. Dylan was didactic enough. Bob Dylan Baptist preacher was over the edge. I listened to one side of it; you better, you oughta, you gotta, you needta, you should, or else. I gave it away to get it out of the house. It was one of the biggest disappointments of my life. Bob Dylan becoming a Baptist preacher. Been there, done that, not going back. I let him go and never looked back. Several years went by, maybe ten years or more before I was able to give him a listen again. I'd bought Blood On The Tracks and Desire, liked them quite a lot, glad he'd outgrown his religious zeal. By then, there was so much Dylan, so many albums, I couldn't process it all. I was listening to punk, the next generation, then discovered mountain music, old-time and bluegrass. Dylan kind of faded to the past, but all the time he was also present. By now, I'm seeing him the grand old man of American music with his radio show I would love to be able to listen to. Dylan, in his Woody Guthrie way, is getting his protest songs adopted for anthems by the people who would have nervous tremors if they knew the origins of some of the songs, like This Land Is Your Land. The songs that were protest songs in their time made children's songs for the next generation of kids. Like Blowin In The Wind, The Times Are A-Changin. And that was half a century ago.