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Ron Radosh

The idiot wind is blowing again, and this time it is comprised of all the pundits going after Bob Dylan for singing in China, and agreeing to abide by an approved list of songs submitted to him by Chinese censors.

First, here is a report about Dylan in China. As Keith Richburg writes, his set list was “devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.” Richburg notes that it did not include “Desolation Row” or “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which he did sing in Taiwan. Nor, he comments, did Dylan sing “Chimes of Freedom.” Dylan’s appearance coincided with reports of increasing government repression and arrests of Chinese artists such as Ai Weiwei, and the imprisonment of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.

The ignorance the media has about Dylan is most apparent in this AP dispatch appearing this morning in The Washington Post. Take the very first sentence about a forthcoming concert Dylan is to give in Vietnam: “After nearly five decades of singing about a war that continues to haunt a generation of Americans, legendary performer Bob Dylan is finally getting his chance to see Vietnam at peace.” The writer, obviously a very young person without any familiarity at all with Dylan’s work, does not realize that Dylan never sang about the war in Vietnam, and never joined one single protest against it.

In his famous 1968 interview (the very year of protest) conducted for Sing Out! by his friends John Cohen and Happy Traum, Dylan was asked by Traum: “Do you foresee a time when you’re going to have to take some kind of a position?” Dylan answered in one word: “No.” Traum, obviously upset, argued that “every day we get closer to having to make a choice,” because, he explained, “events of the world are getting closer to us … as close as the nearest ghetto.” Dylan’s answer: “Where’s the nearest ghetto?

When he got to the issue of the Vietnam War, Traum told Dylan: “Probably the most pressing thing going on in a political sense is the war,” and that artists like him “feel it is their responsibility to say something.” Dylan responded by telling Traum: “I know some very good artists who are for the war.” He then added that this painter he knows is “all for the war. He’s just about ready to go over there himself. And I can comprehend him.” Moreover, when Traum suggested he argue with the painter, Dylan asked, “Why should I?”

Yet the anonymous AP reporter still refers to Dylan as an American “folk singer,” a label he strenuously rejects, and the author of “classic anti-war tunes.” That the president of the Vietnam Composers’ Association thinks that Dylan used music “as a weapon to oppose the war in Vietnam” only reveals his ignorance as well, and speaks to an image of Dylan that never in reality was warranted. Nor is it accurate to say that Dylan’s music “during the tumultuous 1960s touched thousands of young people…angry that a draft was being used to send young men off to die in Southeast Asia — to take to the streets and demand that Washington stop the war in Vietnam.” One might say that about the openly anti-war John Lennon, who even led a march in New York City, but definitely NOT about Bob Dylan.

Yet Human Rights Watch, a group whose credibility has been recently questioned by its founder Robert Bernstein for its constant one-sided attacks on Israel as a human rights violator, felt no compunction in releasing a statement that “Dylan should be ashamed of himself.” Brad Adams, executive director of its Asia division, said that Dylan has “a historic chance to communicate a message of freedom and hope, but instead he is allowing censors to choose his playlist.”

Contrary to Keith Richburg, who chastised Dylan for not singing “Desolation Row” in Beijing, it turns out that he did sing it, as Sean Curnyn points out, in Shanghai. That song, as anyone who has heard it knows, casts up fierce images of a future world that is confused, topsy-turvey and in disarray. Some in China, undoubtedly, could also read “Hard Rain”  as a warning to its leaders to do what is necessary to curb the nuclear appetites of its ally, North Korea. As Curynn comments, “We might forget how radical, how world-upturning these songs were when many of us first heard them (and that goes even for us who heard them many years after their original release). It’s nice to think of them causing wonder and excitement, if only for a few, in China and in 2011.”

Curnyn also notes that no one has seen any specific prohibitions from the Chinese government as to what Dylan could and could not sing, and all such articles are based purely on speculation. Curnyn asks the fundamental questions:

For the sake of the historical record, hopefully we will at some point find for sure the answer to two questions:
(1) Did the Chinese regime prohibit certain songs?
(2) Did Bob Dylan ultimately abide by those prohibitions or not?
This isn’t from a judgmental point of view — for me anyway — but purely out of a healthy curiosity.

Clearly, since Dylan alters his set list each night, we do not know what they asked him to sing. He had to give them his lyrics in print, and as Curnyn writes, “The mental image of these communist bureaucrats going through all of those songs, trying to figure them out, is an oddly pleasant one.”

Even the reporter for Time understood that Dylan’s song “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall,” which he sang in Beijing, has meaning that obviously the censors let go by, probably because they did not have the imagination to comprehend it. Jenny Wilson wrote: “The Culture Ministry accepted his song ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,’ perhaps because it’s often examined in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But lyrics like ‘I heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’’ may reflect a call for government reform. Not convinced? In the same song, he speaks of a land ‘Where the people are many and their hands are all empty/Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters/Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,’ bringing to mind poverty and pollution prevalent in modern China.”

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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