Seventy On Seventy: The 70 Best Bob Dylan Songs, A To Z (Part Two Of Two)
(Part One is here.)
So here we are on the once-unthinkable occasion of Dylan turning 70.
When Dylan was starting out, old white men--I mean older than Pete and Woody--were mostly on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement. Older black men, if they were survivors like Howlin' Wolf or Son House, were people to aspire to. Dylan's version of being young--at least in the beginning--was to emulate the older guys on the folk blues records. Odetta, an older black woman, inspired him to go acoustic. But don't take it from me. Here he was in early '62: "I don't carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they're older people." This is Dylan at 21, talking to the great Nat Hentoff for the liner notes of his breakthrough Freewheelin' album, the one that started with "Blowin' in the Wind" and included other chestnuts he still performs: "Hard Rain"; "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright"; "Girl From the North Country."
He was so much older then. Now, he's grizzled and raspy enough where he doesn't have to try when he invokes Charley Patton on "High Water" from "Love and Theft." He opens his mouth and the croak of a sage comes out. People who are afraid of death are often afraid of age; some would rather switch the channel to the Jonas Brothers. They are missing the point. Bob became Bob because he worshiped at the shrine of his elders. He wanted to carry himself with the authority of Woody, Cisco, and Leadbelly, too, and none of those guys made it to 70. When he reinvented his persona and transfigured the Oakie and bluesman's affect--when he became, from Another Side to Blonde on Blonde, less derivative, more startlingly original in his singing--he "got young" (his words). But he could only do that after he was soaked in the wisdom of old. In other words, even though he barely attended college, he got an education of another kind, all of it with a young man's empathy for old guitar pickers, hobos, victims of racism. On this list, there are some songs that he was waiting to age into.
You may think Dylan's current incarnation sounds like a cement mixer. Or you may realize that you are hearing something lovely, dark, and deep, a raspy wisdom that only comes when knockin' on heaven's door becomes less of a metaphor every year. But let's leave Bob as the young man telling Hentoff how he hoped to carry the authority of older performers and let's appreciate how, 50 years later, he kept his word. Freewheelin' has become fate.
May he walk down many more roads, and may he--you knew I was going to say this---stay forever young.