The Patriotism of Dylan

Sean Wilentz’s new book, Bob Dylan in America, includes this passage describing Dylan’s 1966 performance in Paris at which he draped a U.S flag on the stage for the second half of the concert eliciting “U.S. go home!” jeers from the French audience:

…the curtains part, and there they see to their horror, attached to the backdrop, the emblem of everything they are coming to hate, the emblem of napalm and Coca-Cola and white racism and colonialism and imagination’s death. It is a huge fifty-star American flag. And Bob Dylan, the emblem of American rebellion and imagination’s rebirth, has hoisted it aloft.

Was it a joke? But it is no joke…this Stars and Stripes stuff turns a musical challenge into an assault, an incitement…In England, the idol had traded  insults with the hecklers, but in Paris, on this, his twenty-fifth birthday, he strikes first.

There was probably an element of contrarian rock ‘n roll swagger in Dylan’s defiance of French expectations. Although Dylan had penned many songs containing lacerating criticisms of his own culture, he apparently decided he wouldn’t take any of that from the French. But I think I read something else in it too – something more humble and grateful, especially after absorbing this book. If Dylan declined to give comfort to European young people in their loathing of mainstream American culture, it might have largely been because Dylan recognized how derivative his art was of that culture. And not just derivative of the parts of American culture that European leftists were willing to embrace, but all of it. Often criticized for failing to acknowledge that his songs are a patchwork stitched together and sampled (in brazen acts of “love and theft”) from hundreds of sources, the anti-American sentiments that Dylan encountered in Europe prodded him to cite his most important source of artistic inspiration: America.

The nearly impossible task of tracking down all of Dylan’s acts of love and theft is one reason why being a student of Dylan’s work is so much inexhaustible fun. And why the dozens of passages like the one below from Bob Dylan in America are like crack cocaine to me (links are to YouTube videos for the songs I was able to find):

After awhile, a listener stops looking for antecedents and sampling and begins to wonder which versions of the quoted songs (and bits of quoted songs) might have been in Dylan’s head, not necessarily with the idea of emulating them, but to learn what he could about phrasing and dynamics. “Sugar Baby” contains one line – “Look up, look up, seek your maker/ For Gabriel blows his horn” – taken word for word, and note for note from the “The Lonesome Road, ” credited to the 1920’s hit maker Nathaniel Shilkret and Gene Austin (though it sounds like a much older African-American spiritual) and recorded by dozens of performers. Did Dylan have in mind Paul Robeson’s version of the song, recorded in 1929; or Stepin Fetchit’s, released that same year, at the conclusion of an early film version of Edna Ferber’s Showboat; or a young Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s recorded version from 1938 or her movie version from 1941; or perhaps Frank Sinatra’s stylish, hipped-up rendition, on Sinatra’s album A Swingin’ Affair! released in 1957? Sinatra, the original Ol’ Blue Eyes, should not be discounted: Sinatra also sang “I Cried for You,” as part of his starring role in the film The Joker is Wild from 1957.

Bonus patriotic swagger: I couldn’t help thinking of this song, too – crafted from samples of an Otis Redding song called “Try a Little Tenderness” (itself reworked from a 1933 Bing Crosby song with the same name) and featuring a huge American flag and the lyric “I guess I got my swagger back”:

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One Response to The Patriotism of Dylan

  1. Dylan quite clearly could divine obnoxiously self affirmed anti-Americanism from reasoned questioning. I quite like him for that. Add to that the fact that he alienated legions of his fans who had gone the way of militant atheism when he became a born again Christian and I like him all the more, despite my own secularism. Seems to me he was the true blue seeker.

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