One of the most amazing pop culture stories of the past few years is the resurrection of Bob Dylan as a vital and relevant artist. Since 1997, Dylan has recorded three albums that have been critically acclaimed, used in movie soundtracks, and even sold well. In late 2004, he published Chronicles, Volume 1, the first of three projected volumes of memoirs, and it, too, was widely praised and purchased.
Then, in 2005, Dylan sat down for a long on-camera interview for Martin Scorsese’s PBS American Masters documentary No Direction Home. In those interviews, Dylan actually looked into the camera and answered questions about his life and how it has felt to live it. He was grouchy, funny, and, especially when he talked about Joan Baez, achingly sad.
In September 2006, Dylan’s most recent album, Modern Times, hit number one on the Billboard sales chart, making it his first number one in 30 years. The very next month saw the opening of a Broadway musical, The Times They Are A-Changin’, based on Dylan’s songs and choreographed by the legendary Twyla Tharp. Meanwhile, Dylan has been moonlighting as host of a weekly radio show on the XM satellite network where he plays American roots music interspersed with wisecracks, hep talk, and history lessons.
He’s also stayed on the road constantly, playing at least 100 concerts a year. And did I mention that Dylan turned 65 last year?
FOR MOST PEOPLE who care about American music, Dylan disappeared from the screen sometime in the 1980s. I formed a vague impression that his endless touring had turned into his own version of an oldies act, recycling endless, eccentric, and almost unrecognizable covers of his own legendary material—like the speed-metal version of Masters of War that he played at the 1991 Grammy Awards.
But, also like most rock-and-rollers, I have a history with Dylan. For one thing, my review of his “Christian” album, Slow Train Coming (1979), was the very first popular music piece to appear in this magazine. I liked that album a lot, and I still do. I didn’t like it because it was Christian. And I didn’t like it simply because it was Dylan. Even in 1979, he had turned out more than his share of dismal records. I liked Slow Train Coming because it had its feet firmly planted in gospel music (mostly black gospel) and because of the righteous anger in Dylan’s voice when he snapped off the line, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” It was another one of those Dylan lines that begged to be carved into stone, even as it burned into your soul.
From this vantage point, lo these many decades hence, the most amazing thing about Dylan at 65 is that he remains exactly what he was when he hitchhiked out of Minnesota 45 years ago—a poet of the American folk music tradition. He arrived in New York singing traditional ballads and blues that he’d learned from recordings. In the decades that followed he wore many disguises—he’s been a Woody Guthrie imitator, a rock god, a prophet of psychedelia, and country crooner, to name a few. And he has seemed to espouse many disparate beliefs—left-wing politico, surrealist aesthete, born-again Christian, Hasidic Jew. But he’s ended up right back where he began—with those mysterious old songs of death, love, and redemption that floated up from the holiness churches, railroad gangs, and prison farms of 19th- and early 20th-century America. Check the playlist from his radio show (at xmradio.com) to see what I mean, and listen to Modern Times, which is bursting with quotations (musical and lyrical) from that great reservoir of truth and beauty, “public domain.”
In 1997, when he was just catching his third wind as an artist, Dylan summed it all up when he told Jon Pareles of The New York Times, “Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book. ... I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing ‘I Saw the Light.’ I’ve seen the light, too.”
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor and author of Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.