Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Obama-Dylan connection

Forty-four years after Bob Dylan released liberal America's audio Bible, The Times They Are A-Changin', the 67-year-old is backing change-candidate Barack Obama for the presidency.

This is an exciting time to be alive.

Obama was two years old when Dylan released songs like "Only A Pawn In Their Game." In the context of Obama's perceived problem with "working class whites" and his infamous bitter comment, Dylan's lyrics are startling:

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid /
And the marshals and cops get the same /
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool /
He's taught in his school /
From the start by the rule /
That the laws are with him /
To protect his white skin /
To keep up his hate /
So he never thinks straight /
'Bout the shape that he's in /
But it ain't him to blame /
He's only a pawn in their game.

This is one of the most insightful deconstructions of American race/class relations I've ever encountered. The words raise the hairs on my arms. Dylan does it right: He still leaves himself open for the elitist label ("Who's this guy telling me I can't think straight??!"), but he can't be accused of being condescending. If anything, he offends political leaders, not those who vote for them.

Imagine Dylan, the man who never stops touring, traveling across Appalachia performing songs like "Pawn" to rural crowds. Imagine this --

-- only in the year 2008. It's taken a man like Barack Obama to awaken Dylan from his decades-long stretch of public political apathy. I can only dream of what a re-energized, socially-charged Dylan could do for Obama in the fall. In my fantasy, he writes and performs new finger-pointing songs, awakening himself from political apathy and those who hear his music, stressing divisions of class over divisions of race (a classic Old Left tactic), reminding young and old that Dylan's ideas from the '60s aren't dead historical objects -- they are alive and more relevant today than in any time in the last 40 years.

Consider another powerhouse track from The Times They Are A Changin', "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll," which uses the true story of a rich white man murdering a poor black woman to discuss class in unbelievably moving ways:

William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years /
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres /
With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him /
And high office relations in hte politics of Maryland /
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders /
And his swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was a-snarling /
In a matter or minutes on bail went out walking /
[ ... ]
Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen /
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children /
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage /
And never sat once at the head of the table /
And didn't even talk to the people at the table /
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table /
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level /
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane /
That sailed through the air and came down through the room /
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle /
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.

Watch Dylan perform the whole song below:

A figure like Dylan is exactly what Obama needs to help win over these mythical working-class white voters. At his old best, Dylan used pathos to help listeners see how they've been "bent out of shape by society's pliers." He didn't condescend; he showed how even reasonable, sharp people (re: not bitter working-class dupes) could unknowingly perpetuate societal divisions of race and class. He also revealed who stood to benefit from such divisions.

Obama is running to unite the country, but, thus far, his attempts at Dylan-esque insight have backfired. People tell him he's running to be the president, not the "sociologist in chief." It isn't surprising that Obama's tried to take a few pages out of the Dylan play book -- the senator, after all, does list Dylan as one of his favorite musicians on his Facebook profile. But, let's face it, Obama will never have the realness, the folksy cred Dylan earned in the early '60s. People will listen to Bob strum on an acoustic guitar and tell them they're being used like tools. They might have a harder time listening to a Harvard grad who bemoans the skyrocketing price of arugala. It's not fair, but it's the unfortunate reality.

Alongside other supporters like The Boss and Neil Young, Dylan could be an excellent pitch-hitter for Obama. Imagine these all-American rock legends -- each of them as real as the day is long -- invigorating older, Americana voters for the Obama cause.

The Boss addresses the working-class, Dylan the disenfranchised, and Young preaches to the anti-war choir.

As far as rocker-surrogates go, you couldn't ask for three stronger voices. Barack should get these guys performing shows in the Rust Belt ASAP. Dylan would take some serious arm-twisting, but I'd bet on Springsteen and Young drawing crowds on the senator's behalf.

Someone make this happen.