My First (and only) Encounter with Bob Dylan

Bob_Dylan_in_November_1963
Bob Dylan in late 1963

Richard Sahn

On a snowy evening in January 1965 four friends, including myself, drove across the Hudson River from Tivoli NY, where we were living at the time, to Woodstock. We had heard that the folksinger, Tom Paxton, was singing at the Café Espresso. I had become enamored of Paxton’s music so I was anxious to see and hear him in person. What we didn’t know was that the rising counter-cultural folk star, Bob Dylan, was also going to be there. By the time we arrived I was wondering whether it was good idea to drive the twenty miles for this mini-concert. The roads were treacherous.

As a college student in 1965 I hadn’t heard much about Bob Dylan but I did like some of his music, which my dorm mates at Bard College played constantly.  Dylan was sitting at the next table when we entered the cafe. There were only a handful of customers, mostly from the area.  As Paxton started singing some of the patrons were still talking. Suddenly, Dylan shouted at them to shut up. Perhaps he was already experiencing his celebrity because his manner was slightly intimidating. Heck, he was just a scrawny, unimpressive kid, about my age—one year older, actually.

paxton guitar
Tom Paxton

During a brief intermission of Paxton’s mini-concert I found myself in a backroom with the two (not too distant) future giants of counter-cultural folk music, the heirs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Dylan wanted to show Paxton, if memory serves me, some chords on the guitar. There were four of us in the room, including my classmate, Paul, who was the driver of the car to Woodstock. I can’t remember how this little gathering happened, what permission or lack thereof we had to witness this intimate discussion between Dylan and Paxton.  I do recall thinking that I should not give up the chance to be as close to Bob Dylan as I could get.

At one point during this strange encounter Dylan looked at me directly with a penetrating stare. I was nervous and amused at the same time. Did he know something about me I didn’t know or did he see me as a kindred spirit?  I’ll never know.

Fifty one years later I still listen to the music of the “old Dylan.”  I still marvel at the fame he’s achieved since the time I met him in person when we were both barely beyond being “kids”—at least by today’s standard of what it means to be a “kid.”  Today, I can appreciate the impact songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a’ Changin’” have had on my generation especially.

What I don’t take for granted is that the younger generation, the “kids” I teach today, can appreciate, much less have heard of, the lyrics of those songs. I don’t believe they would find Dylan’s music or even Paxton’s music inspiring.  Their clarion call for a change in the status quo wouldn’t seem relevant to them or even “cool.”

Richard Sahn teaches sociology and embodies the mission of Bracing Views.  In his own way, he’s as cool as Dylan.

Six Patriotic Songs for Labor Day Weekend

sunset july 2014 006

W.J. Astore

(Also at Huffington Post at this link.)

This year the USA celebrates the 200th anniversary of The Star-Spangled Banner.  Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics, inspired by the battle at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, and it officially became the National Anthem in 1931.  Notoriously difficult to sing (my favorite rendition is Whitney Houston’s, complete with combat jets at the end), it’s a song of resolve and resilience suffused with images of battle, which only makes sense given the conditions under which it was composed.

Along with the National Anthem, the other patriotic song most commonly sung at sporting events and other official gatherings is God Bless America.  Penned by Irving Berlin in 1918 and made famous by Kate Smith’s renditions, it’s usually performed today without its placatory preamble (“While the storm clouds gather far across the sea/Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free/Let us all be grateful for a land so fair/As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer”).  Most performances that I hear today are neither solemn nor placatory; they’re boastful in the sense of suggesting that God uniquely blesses America, that of course God blesses America.  We’re so great — how could He not?  Here I recall the saying of Abraham Lincoln that we must not presume God is on our side, but rather we must be concerned we are on His side.

A third and unofficial anthem for many Americans today is Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, with its refrain “And I’m proud to be an American,” the popularity of which is consistent with the strongly affirmational qualities of the National Anthem and God Bless America.

What I miss today are three other patriotic songs from my youth: America the Beautiful, My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, and This Land Is Your Land.  Of course, these songs are still performed, but at least in my experience they are far less common than the preceding three.

Why is this?  I think it’s because these three songs are less bellicose, less boastful, and more insistent that the defining qualities of America are national beauty and brotherhood, liberty and freedom, and equality of access for all, rather than of bellicosity and boastfulness about being uniquely blessed and favored by God.

The most contrarian is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land.”  Most people have never heard the stanzas that Guthrie included in the original version that highlight inequality and suffering in the USA.  Yet even without those, Guthrie’s song stayed with me as a youth because it stressed that the land was made for you as well as me: that we share the land together as a form of commonwealth.

Here are the original stanzas to Guthrie’s song as he composed them in 1940:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me that endless skyway,
And saw below me the golden valley, I said:
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
This land was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.

Recalling that my father and his family went hungry during the Great Depression, and remembering my father’s saying that the rich have no use or sympathy for the poor, I think he would have appreciated the honesty and integrity of Guthrie’s song.

On this Labor Day weekend, patriotic songs will be in vogue.  But let’s not sing just the first three above; let’s sing the final three, including Woody Guthrie’s.  Let’s stress, and stress again, the importance of national beauty and brotherhood, liberty and freedom, and equality of access for all.

World War I, the Death of Chivalry, and the False End of War

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen

W.J. Astore

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of World War I.  Today in my daily “alert” from The New York Times, there are five articles related to the war.  Steven Erlanger writes about how the war brought fundamental changes to the world; Jim Yardley writes about the Yanks in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918; Alison Smale recounts the costs of German militarism, then and today; John F. Burns raises the specter of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination (on June 28th, 1914) of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and its legacies in the Balkans and specifically in Bosnia; and Tim Arango recaptures the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 and how it forged national identities among the Turks and Australians.

An immensely destructive war, World War I saw the full application of mass production and the machine age applied to warfare.  Mass production enabled mass mobilization as well as mass destruction; the machine age enabled the machine gun and automated death on such a massive scale that bodies were collected in ossuaries, boneyards of doomed youth.

Four decades ago, Paul Fussell famously captured the loss of idealism that accompanied mass death on an industrial scale in his book The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).  As Fussell noted in a separate essay on “The Fate of Chivalry,” idealistic codes of chivalry, popular in the Victorian age, became “ludicrously inappropriate” in World War I, defeated entirely by “poison gas, zeppelin raids on civilians, the machine gun, and unrestricted submarine warfare, not to mention such very unchivalric experiences as soldiers’ passively trembling under artillery shelling hour after hour or soiling their trousers for weeks with acute dysentery (sometimes requiring the cutting of large holes in the rear of their clothing), or milking down their penises monthly before the eyes of bored and contemptuous medical officers alert for unreported gonorrheal discharges.”

Wilfred Owen, a British officer and war poet, condemned the “old lie” of Horace, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country), in his famous poem, which concludes:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Amazingly, the ideal of military service and war as ennobling, even liberating, survived World War I and is thriving today, most notably in the United States.  The “doomed youth” of World War I, marching off to mass death, have become the universal heroes of the American moment, to be sent to places like Iraq as liberators.

We would do well to recall that World War I, a “war to end all wars,” has led only to new wars, with today’s unrest in the Middle East connected to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and conflicting agreements made at the time by manipulative power players like Great Britain and France.

Once again, at least in the United States, the cry is for more military action in the Middle East – more killing – as a solution to complex political, social, economic, and religious problems.  Those who are most strident in sending in more bombs, if not more troops, are usually those “donkeys” who are well past military age themselves, and most concerned about appearing tough and decisive.  Great believers in the utility of war, they seem to have no regard for the big lesson of World War I: the utter unpredictability as well as the horrifying destructiveness of modern, machine-age war.

All sides marched to war in the summer of 1914 looking ahead to decisive victories.  The fighting was supposed to be over by Christmas, and it was: well, not 1914, but 1918.  The result?  Four empires in ruin, ten million dead, and legacies of massive destruction and revolutionary change that we’re still coming to grips with.

And yet despite all this there are still those who call for more weapons and more war.  In the U.S. they are held up as serious and respectable statesmen.  Yet they are merely old men propagating old lies.

If they are so ardent for some desperate glory, let them take up the lance and charge forth in foreign fields.  Until they do, let’s hear no talk of more weapons and more war.