Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Serve God and be cheerful"

People still often ask me, "Why Bob Dylan?" Well, here's an excellent essay entitled "The Patriotic Bob Dylan," by Paul Cella that may help explain it. To start off here's a short excerpt that illustrates what Dylan was actually doing in the infamous sixties, who spent most of the radical period of the protests of the 1960s at home with his wife and five children:
Dylan would go on to hurl many scornful polemics at the generation which was as ridiculous as a mattress on a bottle of wine, the 1960s — as he would at many targets. Then, the bitterest cut: he would consummate his defiance of the 60s by releasing in the year 1968 an album of simple country songs, of sincerity and regret, which uttered hardly a word about war when the Vietnam War was all his peers seemed to care about.

I fancy what really turned him against the 60s generation was its anti-patriotism. So many of these people found America in a basic sense hateful. He could never accept that. Even as a Leftist Bob Dylan was a particularist, which is the first and most vital step in patriotism. He could never hate his particular native land. And when the system or philosophy of the 60s got done with its platitudes and abstractions, when it finished with street theater and clownish posturing, it was going to destroy America. It may yet accomplish our ruin. But the man who is sometimes foolishly said to have put this 1960s philosophy to song, the proclaimed Voice of a Generation, very certainly repudiated it. He repudiated it using the same sneers by which it was made.
But then Cella turns to the major controversy of Dylan's career, that dwarfed even the legendary booing at Newport in 1965 or shouts of "Judas!" in 1966. Dylan as "the most natural antagonist of enlightened society in the West," is the "born contrarian" who didn't convert to fashionable martini-at-five religion, but to old fashioned American evangelicalism:
How else is Bob Dylan a true American in his songs and performances? It is, of course, the very thing that, however experimental, open to novelty and scornful of precedent it may in any given era be, now appears the most natural antagonist of enlightened society in the West — I mean serious traditional religion, Old Testament religion.

Bob Dylan is a born contrarian. In an age of shining Christian faith, he might have been a pop-culture Voltaire. But by the fine irony of providence, he lived in an age of faddish unbelief. He lived in an age when Chesterton’s famous line about the problem with the man who stops believing in God — not that he believes in nothing but that he believes in anything — was exemplified, and exemplified above all in the counterculture which imagined that Dylan was its poet and minstrel. And indeed there is a magnificent poetry in Dylan’s astonishing initial conversion. He didn’t convert to highbrow Anglicanism, or sophisticated intellectual Calvinism, or even to serene Roman Catholicism, with its ballast in the long history of the world. No: what Bob Dylan did was convert to apocalyptic evangelical Christianity.

There is arguably no book of the Bible that seems more calculated to arouse the fury and indignation of American pop-culture than the Book of Revelation. Naturally, Revelation became Dylan’s touchstone. And how marvelous it is to see liberals, who in any other circumstance would argue fervidly for the independence of the lyrical content of songs, squirm when faced with the lyrical content of these great songs of Christian hope and faith and judgment. If a rapper writes a song about sexual assault, the most brutish misogyny, we can be sure that music critics will solemnly counsel against letting moral repugnance get in the way of aesthetic evaluation; yet let those same critics hear a Dylan song which speaks of the vengeance of a righteous God, and likely that mask of critical detachment will slip.

Nothing is less “cool” in urban fashionable and enlightened society than orthodox biblical religion of the apocalyptic variety. Nothing, therefore, so distressed, bewildered and annoyed the society which accumulated around Bob Dylan and his music, than his very public conversion to Christianity. But still he could not be ignored. Only a fool (or someone narrow enough to judge only on the evangelism of its lyrics) could deny the greatness of, for instance, Slow Train Coming (1979), no matter how it confounded his fans. When it wasn’t the horrifying imagery — “Can they imagine the darkness / That will fall from on high / When men will beg God to kill them / And they won’t be able to die” — it was the hard words of St. Paul, as when Dylan put some of the themes of the Book of Romans to song in “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

Now and then the attentive reader will hear it reported that Dylan has repudiated his Christian faith. What a relief, you can almost hear the liberal music critic say; we can cheer Dylan again, now that he’s gotten over that weird evangelical enthusiasm. I specifically recall reading that Dylan, while still spiritual, now professes no “organized religion.” Ah the platitudes of modern argot! In truth the language of biblical Christianity has pervaded most of his lyrics — even before his public conversion. Let someone argue that “Gates of Eden” or “Shelter from the Storm” is innocent of biblical influence.

In Modern Times and Tell Tale Signs the influence is abundant, both open and subtle. I said above that even in many of Dylan’s darker songs, there are subtle clues to a deeper joy. This is the quintessence of Dylan, if you ask me: that unexpected touch of joy added to the darkest squalor. An excellent example would be his slow, mournful, astounding Civil War song, “‘Cross the Green Mountain,” with its echoes of the Book of Daniel: “Something came up out of the sea / Swept through the land of the rich and the free”; its stark musings in judgment: “all must yield to the avenging God”; and it similarly stark (and, indeed, quite true) statement on the death of “the great champion” (presumably Stonewall Jackson) who is “shot outright . . . by his own men.” And yet there it is again, the hope:

Let them say that I walked in fair nature’s light
And that I was loyal to truth and to right

Serve God and be cheerful, look upward beyond
Beyond the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn

“Serve God and be cheerful.” I am hard-pressed to find a better and more succinct counsel for an old troubadour to bequeath to his admirers. Bob Dylan is the great 1960s bard of radicalism, whose hurled imprecations against this or that ever speak of something deeper, of faith and of purpose. He is the voice of an anti-American generation who could never be at ease because he so loved his country. He is the poet of squalor whose signature touch is joy. He is an innovator of language and sound, and a man haunted by the God of the Scriptures. He is an American.
Read it all here - please. Excellent reading. Serve God and be cheerful. Not a bad motto indeed.


Jill C. said...

I'm beginning to understand. Thanks, Mary, for pointing us to this essay to mull over. I will read on . . .

Recovering Sociopath said...

Nice piece. I was convinced of the eternal influence of apocalyptic Christianity on Dylan's work when I first listened to the album "Time Out of Mind."

It's not dark yet-- but it's getting there.

Anglican Beach Party said...

Great article, BB; thanks for presenting it! (And the last entry, also on Dylan, as well.)

As for me, Recovering Sociopath, I first became convinced of the eternal influence of apocalyptic Christianity on Dylan's work when, in the mid-1960s, my parents played me Peter, Paul, & Mary's cover version of Dylan's When the Ship Comes In.

I still rank that as the greatest apocalyptic popular song of all time.

Whitestone said...

Sometimes we forget:

'Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say rejoice' is written in Scripture.

'Make me to HEAR joy and gladness, that the bones Thou hast broken may rejoice' (Psalm 51) Returning to joy is part of the healing.

Joy and thanksgiving are listed in Scripture as sacrifices that are pleasing to God...these are the states of heart that follow penitence 'a broken and contrite heart' according to Psalm 51.

The Joy of the Lord is our strength.