America is vast. Not so vast as the universe of course, but speaking as a human from a human scale, having traversed a good five hundred miles of its bounteous bosom yesterday, I’ll stick to that tiny word which tries to do the impossible, invoking the incomprehensible in four letters that rhyme with ‘fast’.
You could easily claim that the back catalogue of the man whose elusive shadow I’ve been chasing these past four days is pretty close to vast too, although that might be a tiny bit hyperbolic. All the same, it is a pretty respectable body of work that has once again seen Dylan nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
It’s kind of ironic that – if he gets it – the composer of Masters of War will be honoured in the name of a man who caused more explosions than most of us and not all of them benign. Irony is not hard to find when you you think of the son of an oil company accountant passing himself off as a hobo in his callow youth, breaking down doors on his way through the Greenwich Village sixties scene.
But Dylan is nothing if not a chameleon and a vast (there’s that word again) osmosis-fuelled sponge. His critics and those he has just blasted in a recent Rolling Stone interview for calling him a thief of the riffs of others, just don’t get it. This kid, even this withered ancient today, was from his mother’s breast sucking down deep on the world’s rich milk.
Originality, by the way, along with copyright is a fairly recent conceit and one I sign up for less and less (along with the Romantic loner and the expression of individual genius). Dylan is a genius of course, but he is community of genii, he is all he’s ever been given, and taken.
Reading Marilyn Chiat’s fascinating essay on his Jewish roots (Jewish Homes on the Range) in the excellent Highway 61 Revisted: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World, it’s apparent just how much of Eastern European Jewish life and traditions surrounded the receptive young artist.
She notes at the outset that Dylan “is the continuation of a long line of ‘Fiddlers on the Roof’, itinerant Jewish musicians who have been part of Jewish life wherever the Jewish people have found a home”. Dylan is part of this tradition, that of the the klezmerin; he has taken those roots, watered and conjoined them with American (and of course English traditions, deeply imbued there) and gone on the road, as minstrels do.
Those who are wondering why a fifty-five year old would set out on a Never Ending Tour and still be touring at seventy plus might be interested in who the klezmerin were (Chiat’s notes at the end of the essay pointed me that way).
The word is Yiddish (of course) and simply means “musician”, those most often seen now in the various klezmer bands, and playing at Jewish weddings. Fiddles, basses and clarinets as well as accordions are joined together in an attempt to replicate the sounds of the human voice in all its joys and sorrows.
The Jewish experience in the diaspora that settled Eastern Europe brought influences from Roma, Polish and Russian folk music into the older Jewish traditions – only to be almost wiped out by the Holocaust. Klezmer was an aural tradition and when the Jews of Europe were all but exterminated, those strands died with them.
Over two and a half million Jews however immigrated to the US in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and some of them ended up serving the tough, polyglot mining communities of the Iron Range. Which is where Bobby Zimmerman comes in, at Hibbing.
He was the inheritor, in all this richness of a tradition that was about to be extinguished by the Nazis – a plan set in motion in the very year of his birth, 1941, as Jews in the Pale of Settlement were rounded up, shot and buried in mass graves while their executioners smoked cigarettes as the machine gun barrels and pistols cooled. In the following year, his first birthday on the planet, the Final Solution was drawn up and began to be implemented.
It hardly seems any wonder now that this chubby teenager from Hibbing High should morph into the vagabond of Greenwich Village, the family man of Woodstock (briefly), the painted face of the Rolling Thunder Tour, the born-again prophet of Saved, the lost soul of the 1980s and finally (inevitably?), an American klezmer minstrel of the endless road.
And that is how America’s roads can seem: endless. When you come from a people who have a deep historical memory of un-belonging and persecution, of the highest highs and the very lowest lows humanity can manage, the road and the abandoned village are all in there somewhere. They come out in the music. Dylan to me is that story telling wanderer, the “song- and-dance man” he once called himself, who also said years ago he thought was no singer, but he had “an edge in phrasing”.
That edge, the anger, that human cry and the wail of his harmonica bespeak a depth that is the voice of more than just one man – it is the sound of a human community. Something in its raw quality, its distinctly uncomfortable barbaric yawp is to me the real America in its forgotten Jewish and European soul, its challenge to WASP self-satisfaction.
So he has to go on the road: where else? It was on that road yesterday, with less that four hours sleep that I exited Highway 35 South heading for St Paul at a little place called Stacy. I needed to rest, take a leak, get some food. Driving out to reconnect with the Highway, I saw a sign down an older, parallel road: Highway 61 (Old US) – and “God said to Abraham, give me your son”.
Pressing on, looping St Paul, almost lost on I-694 and somehow found again, whooping for joy when I made it south around the city of Minneapolis to I-35 South, I stopped at Northfield and plugged Tempest his latest album into the CD player.
When it came to his elegy for the shot John Lennon, I listened hard again to those lyrics in Roll on John that had struck me on the first play:
“Tyger Tyger burning bright / I pray the Lord my soul to keep / In the forests of the night /Cover him and let him sleep / Roll on John”.
Anyone who can take those lines from William Blake, interleaved with that old Christian child’s prayer and sing them with a voice so cracked and tender it runs me through the heart is trying to give the universe its truly human voice. It don’t care which star the radio waves have come from. Frankly, I don’t give a damn – we should be so lucky, to have such a generous thief.