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Ron Radosh

Somehow, that great mind us readers of the Sunday New York Times, Maureen Dowd, does not get that. Somehow failing to understand that Dylan was opening up China officially to his music, and managing as Wilson writes to “get through the cracks” despite their censorship, Dowd writes her entire column today attacking Dylan, calling it “Blowin’ in the Idiot Wind,” not so cleverly putting together titles of two Dylan songs. The great Dowd, who has nothing to sell out because she stands for nothing, complains that Dylan “may have done the impossible: broken creative new ground in selling out.”

Like all the others, because Dylan did not sing “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,’” she has accused him of selling out. Nor did he sing his didactic but musically compelling song about Rubin Hurricane Carter, “Hurricane”; somehow Dowd did not notice that Dylan has not performed it since 1976 — possibly because he was burnt out of doubts that arose about whether or not Carter was ever innocent. Dowd sets up a perfect straw man: because Dylan does not sing the songs she thinks are real protest songs, he has sold out. So she crudely comments that Dylan “sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.”

Yes, Communist China — capitalist in economics and totalitarian in politics — is continuing political repression, something which defines the very essence of Communism. To many young Chinese, Dylan himself stands in his very identity for freedom, the freedom of the artist to define his own path, and to reject government control as a necessity for the creation of art. When Dylan at age 22 walked off the Ed Sullivan Show because Sullivan refused to let him sing “Talking’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” he was protesting a censor in his own country, demanding the right to sing what he wanted and to not let commercial TV people tell him what to do.

By going to China and singing songs obviously the censors could not make head or tails of, Dylan was making a major breakthrough, and allowing Chinese youth who do not know about him to listen to all of his songs, including the ones Dowd thinks are essential.

In the rest of her article, Dowd contradicts her main argument by quoting from music critic David Hajdu and from Dylan’s own Chronicles to show that Dylan never considered himself to be any kind of voice of a generation or a protester, and consciously rebelled against the label put on him — one, obviously, that still sticks, despite the fact that many of those writing about him by now should know better.

Hajdu is right. Dylan knows that much of his earlier work was too polemical and hard-edged. You will never hear him singing his one biggest mistake, “George Jackson,” about the murder in prison of the black revolutionary. Dylan fans know that Dylan lambasted the late Phil Ochs as a “journalist,” not a songwriter, and objected to what he called “finger pointing songs.” And Sean Wilentz, who told her that the Chinese were “trying to guard the audience from some figure who hasn’t existed in 40 years,” is dead on right.

The Chinese censors, perhaps, have a reason to not understand Dylan. But Dowd, who is an American writer, does not. She quotes his lyric from “Masters of War.” It reads: “I think you will find/ When your death takes its toll/ All the money you made /Will never buy back your soul.” Dylan does not have to worry about losing his soul. The words apply far more to Maureen Dowd.

UPDATE:

A blogger at GetReligion.org writes that, in fact, Dylan easily worked his way around China’s bosses. His opening song was “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” which obviously does not meet the pundit’s list of “political” songs, but which includes these verses:

Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules

Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules

Gonna put my good foot forward, and stop being influenced by fools.

So much oppression, can’t keep track of it no more

So much oppression, can’t keep track of it no more

Sons becoming husbands to their mothers, and old men turning young daughters into whores.

Stripes on your shoulders, stripes on your back and on your hands

Stripes on your shoulders, stripes on your back and on your hands

Swords piercing your side, blood and water flowing through the land.

The song, from his gospel period of “Slow Train Coming,” obviously has a message that most people can see relates directly to China today. The Party censors, obviously on the lookout for direct political messages as in some of his earliest songs, did not relate these words to anything that might resonate among China’s youth. The Dylan fans there, however, probably had no problem doing just that.

And what would they make of the religious message in the song, as in this verse?

You can mislead a man, you can take ahold of his heart with your eyes

You can mislead a man, you can take ahold of his heart with your eyes

But there’s only one authority, and that’s the authority on high.

So in fact, Dylan was NOT silent in China. Take note, Ms. Dowd, and admit that you know little about Dylan, and your column reveals your utter ignorance about him and his work.

Finally, James Fallows at TheAtlantic.com makes the same point as the GetReligion.org blogger. So read Fallows, which is even more confirmation. Keep on keepin’ on, Bobby!

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Two other first rate comments have come in on Dowd and Dylan in China. The first is by Sean Curnyn, who has also posted a comment on this site. You can find his dicussion of the issue here.

The second is by Sean Wilentz, author of the recent best-selling book about Dylan,  Bob Dylan in America, and you can find his comments here.

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