Monday, July 16, 2012

Some thoughts on Bob Dylan, music and working class life.

"People see what they want to see and disregard the rest"  Paul Simon

"My old man was born to rock, he kept tryin' to beat the clock"
"I don't know, but I've been told, you never slow down, you never grow old"

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Some of us on a discussion list we are on are chatting about the importance of music to working class culture. One comrade shared the quotes above.  Another responds below:

Thanks Stephen for the quotes from singers. My companion is a big Tom Petty fan and she liked the one you put on from him. This is a good one from Paul Simon also. When I think how rigid the old CWI , the socialist organization I was in was,  it makes me ashamed. It was fashionable in the CWI to describe Dylan as a "whining petit bourgeois." This about the man who wrote about the white working class in the US in "Only a Pawn in the game," and many other class based songs. Yes there were others he wrote that were not so good. Then I along with most others in the CWI scorned John Lennon because he did not put the transitional program to music. Okay I am slightly exaggerating here. I was so busy and so focused on organizing in the 1970's and 1980's that I missed a whole era of music. My favorite of this era is Sam Cooke Things are going to change or Times are going to change.

I think that every workers' event, meeting rally etc should if at all possible be accompanied with music song and dance. Look at how the churches use this. Let every meeting start with music and let every meeting end with music and let us rebuild the real traditions of the movement.

And not just workers music. Let us reclaim all the great art, literature and music for our own class. I had a friend in Dublin who was a classical musician. We used to have big socials there of mainly working class people. I eventually convinced her to sing and convinced other Comrades she would be appreciated. Most at first resisted. She was classically trained. She was handed the mike. She took it and set it aside and then she began to sing without a mike. No mike. Her beautiful trained voice singing a piece of classical music brought the entire room of working class Dubliners who were well into some pints to a total silence. It was very moving. We must not underestimate our own class. And we must not let the capitalist class capture and hoard all that is great in music literature and art.

I was working in a mine in Canada when I was twenty. There was a native Canadian working there. He was discriminated against. He took to me as I was one of the only non Canadians and non racist. He asked me home one night for a drink and to listen to some music. Full of stereotypes I thought yes some country and western music. We went into his shack. He petted his fat cat. He poked the fire which he paid a lady to light for him every day. He got out a bottle of brandy. Poured himself a fat half glass full. Asked me if I wanted some. I said no I did not drink. He chuckled: "Do not worry you will before it is all over." He was right on that.

Then he put on the record and sat down on his armchair with his brandy and his cat on his chest. Then the music started. Blasting, then going down to the most gentle and tender and then blasting, and rolling on and on, loud, tender, blasting, loud, tender, down and up.  What the? I had never heard such a thing before. It went on and on. Eventually the one side was finished and he got up to turn it over. "Did you like that Irish?" he said. "No that is the rich man's music," I said. He answered: "Hah what are you talking about. Do they not keep everything good for themselves and leave us the scrap. Well, f... them, here I am taking their music. Listen and you will learn and get to like it." He was right on that too. And that was the first time I heard Beethoven's fifth symphony.

We need to take all that is best from the capitalist culture and make it ours. What about some classical music. Maybe Beethoven's fifth to start all anti fascist rallies. Merging this with the best of workers songs and music and we would be a force to be reckoned with.


I had the same reaction to Dylan when I was young because art students and students in general listened to it; it was folk and beatnicky. I always loved classical music though because my parents did, actually, they loved Johann Strauss but that started me off and I then moved on to the first two pieces I liked, Tchaikovsky's Capricio Italien and Mussorgsky's Night on  Bare Mountain, there was no stopping me from there. I was brought up listening to the blues mainly and then the British, blues/rock scene.

But my class bias prevented me from listening to Dylan, perhaps one of the greatest 20th century poets.  Fortunately things have changed.  I remember listening to his song Mr. Tambourine man with another comrade, who was still stuck in that "whining petty bourgeois" stage and he started to thrash the song, I said listen to these beautiful poetic lines:

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin'
I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.

Though you might hear laughin', spinnin' swingin' madly across the sun
It's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin'
And if you hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn't pay it any mind, it's just a shadow you're
Seein' that he's chasing.

Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

He wrote this for or about his tambourine player I understand.  What beautiful descriptive words, "skippin' reels of rhyme"

But even stuff that is more abstract like Gates of Eden, I used to mock it like I did abstract art.  Who cares if you can't fit it in to a simple package, explain exactly what it means.  If it evokes emotional feelings that's enough, don't try to analyze it.  As Sean mentioned, I think Pawn in the Game is one of the best songs about whites and racism in the US, it doesn't have that "whining petty bourgeois" element to it, it explains it in a real class way.  That album, Times They are a Changin is a great political album, and includes The Ballad of Hattie Caroll. 

Like Dizzy Gillespie said, "I don't care to much for music what I like is sounds"


If you have some comments others might like to hear about music and politics send it we'll have a look.

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