One of the signs of age is when you see Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in concert in the 1960's and remember the excitement and passion of discovering they sang about things you cared about as a teenager. Last night on BBC4 I watched the first part of Arena: No Direction Home, a biography of Dylan's early years. The footage of him singing Blowing in the Wind, evoked more than nostalgia - a kind of pride that my generation used music as a medium of political protest, moral exhortation and ethcial censure of cynical power structures. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Peace movement and CND, the ruthless greed of corporate business, the unequal lives of the powerless poor and the powerful rich - these were issues of critical importance for humanity, and they were being sung with rhetorical power, or iconoclastic sarcasm, or blunt poltical incorrectness long before politcally correct means what it now means.
And Pete Seeger all but in tears remembering how it felt to know a singer as genuinely committed to political protest had taken up his torch, and Joan Baez reminiscing about the discovery of Dylan the soon to be phenomenon and prophet for his generation - these were significant moments of cultural history. Dylan is both perplexing and fascinating, complex and enigmatic, passionately humane and incapable of indifference, deeply religious but despising religiosity.
What was evident in last night's programme is the power of a life story to shape and direct the way others live their lives. It's going too far to talk of Dylan having disciples - but there are millions who now span at least two generations, for whom Bob Dylan has articulated what we want to say about the world, our joys and fears and loves, to tell of the things that outrage us, to sing the causes that matter because they are about human flourishing - both what hinders and helps human beings live in peace and freedom. It takes a troubled soul who looks unflinchingly at trouble to interpret what troubles, or ought to trouble, each generation. In that sense, Dylan is a prophet - flawed, enigmatic, sometimes wrong, quite often right in the diagnosis of the self-inflicted wounds of our humanity.
"Human beings are born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward..." "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity, says the Preacher". "Let justice roll down like waters...." "Now abides faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest of these...." Job, The Preacher, the Prophet, the Apostle - in secular terms Dylan weaves those strands of human experience (the tragic, the skeptic, the ethical and the romantic), into a corpus of music that is profoundly spiritual, and which for 50 years has resonated with those who question the status quo, who are restless for change, and who are looking for an exegete of their own lives' experience. It's only a thought - but if the preacher of Ecclesiastes had been looking for a way to communicate with the Western World of the 1960's, he could have done worse than being a singer song-writer who composed Blowing in the Wind....
As a coincidence of serendiptious proportions - the picture of the young Dylan above, which I saved to my picture file, is next to a photo of David Cameron used in an earleir post. Now there's a conversation I'd like to overhear - Dylan and Cameron, on the things that matter most!