Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I've been reading Taylor Branch's book, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years. It's the second volume of three. I read the first one, Parting the Waters, two years ago and have been eagerly waiting a break in course reading that would allow me to get into volume two.

It's stunning reading, revolving around the civil rights movement. The information about the big figures, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, J Edgar Hoover, Malcolm X, is all fascinating. But more stunning are the stories of lesser known figures who put their lives on the line for a new future. Bob Moses is a new hero of mine. He went to Mississippi when no one else would and over time made an amazing difference. His is a story of leaven and mustard seed. Small beginnings, amazing results. And I was struck by his leadership style, never pushing, always allowing local leadership to emerge, never seeking the limelight. I am so thankful that Taylor Branch has dedicated so much space to him.

Dylan shows up in this volume. He went to Mississippi in 1963 and sang for civil rights. These were his Woodie Guthrie years: Blowin in the Wind, Masters of War, The Times They are a Changin. He was a movement man, something he seems to run away from in his autobiography. I had all my Dylan songs on shuffle this morning and was struck with jarring force by hearing The Times They are a Changin right up against Things Have Changed, a song off the more recent, Modern Times. I like both songs and Things Have Changed is one of my recent favorites. The lyrics are genius. The refrain is "People are crazy and times are strange, I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range, I used to care, but things have changed." I used to care, but things have changed.

I don't know if Dylan's measuring the distance between The Times They are a Changin and Things Have Changed. But I know if I want a song about Iraq or some other social issue, I'm much more likely to get that from Springsteen or Ben Harper than I am Dylan. Everyone has commented on this. It's a hardly a new observation. When Dylan plugged in, so did his themes over time. He's relevant, but in a different way. He moves me, but not to social awareness.

1968 was a memorable year for me. I remember the King and Kennedy assassinations. They devastated me. I went to hear Eugene McCarthy speak with my Dad on the University of Oregon campus and wanted him to be president, promising to end the war. At eight years of age, my world was dominated by the Dallas Cowboys, civil rights, and the Viet Nam war. And I cared passionately about that kind of stuff until Reagan got a second term. Reading about Bob Moses and others has made me wonder what happened to that kind of passion. "People are crazy and times are strange, I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range, I used to care, but things have changed."

This is loss for me, not just a different phase of life. Obama's election has kindled new stuff in me, and I know people who work on the front line of suffering who have brought tears to my eyes, and my son is challenging my aquisitive life. I hope its not too late for me. I can feel the passion stirring again. Bob, sing me a song.

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