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Duty to Warn: The Social Gospel According to Dylan

Duty to Warn: The Social Gospel According to Dylan

by Gary G. Kohls, MD
May 14, 2014

Bob Dylan was born in Duluth, MN on May 24, 1941. Next Saturday (May 24, 2014) will be his 73th birthday. The week before his birthday, on May 17, Duluth will be celebrating with a series of events lasting some 10 days, starting with “A Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan” at the Sacred Heart Music Center (201 West 4th St). The concert begins at 7 pm.

This kick-off concert is a fund-raiser for the Duluth Armory project and features 19 artists who will be performing many of Dylan’s songs. (Included among the artists will be Scarlet Rivera, the violinist who so famously strengthened Dylan’s 1975 “Desire” album and was part of the subsequent Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-1976.)

There are events scheduled for nearly every day up to May 29, when the celebration winds up with the “Blood on the Tracks Express” - a North Shore Scenic Railroad trip from Duluth to Two Harbors and back featuring local bands on board. See the schedule of events advertised elsewhere in this issue of the Reader or click on http://dulutharmory.org/events/.

Each day from May 16 through May 22, there will be events at various venues that include VIP Pizza, Carmody’s Irish Pub, Tycoons Alehouse, The Red Mug, Beaner’s Central, Valentini’s and the Redstar Lounge. Hibbing is hosting a number of Dylan Days events on May 23 – 24 as well.

Every Monday afternoon at 5 pm, KUMD’s (103.3 FM) features a radio show called “Highway 61 Revisited”. It is hosted by local Dylanologist John Bushey. Be sure to tune in on Monday May 19 for updates on the week’s events.

Dylan’s Anti-war, Anti-establishment and Anti-imperialist Stances Shaped a Generation

Bob Dylan was the poetic voice of conscience for the era of my formative years (the 1960s and beyond). He was a prophetic, anti-authoritarian voice that alerted his listeners about important issues that included civil rights, the Vietnam War, poverty/income inequality and warned us about the dangers of pollution, nuclear weapons, militarism and corporatism. For confirmation, just read some of the excerpts from his songs and listen closely to his apocalyptic warnings in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Dylan’s “North Country Blues” critiqued the inevitable boom and bust cycles in the mining industry that controlled the economy of his hometown, and he is best known for his calls for justice in his famous folk anthems “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changing”.

Dylan was one of many 1960s-era folk-singers that sang about peace and justice and inspired protests against the criminal war that the US government, the Pentagon and the corporate war industries were perpetrating in Vietnam. Those folk-singers were a huge influence in the development of the political thinking of millions of open-minded, anti-establishment young people; and that influence often became inter-generational, with many of the children and grandchildren of Dylan’s generation being similarly influenced.

The Gospel According to Dylan

Anybody who has studied Dylan’s songs, especially those from the early phases of his 50 year career, has noticed the amazing number of lyrics and themes that relate to ethical and religious issues. Dylan, who was raised in the Jewish faith (probably Reform Judaism), interestingly uses Christian New Testament themes in his songs as much as he uses the ethical themes that are found in the Hebrew scriptures. Many fans have noticed, even before his brief conversion to fundamentalist Christianity in 1979, his frequent use of Christian scriptures and traditions.

Dylan elicited severe criticisms from fair-weather fans during his “born-again” phase that lasted from 1979 - 1981. He was accused of heresy then as vociferously as he was when he “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

But what didn’t change in his song-writing was his obvious concerns about justice and his criticisms of blind patriotism, prejudice, war, economic oppression and the American Empire. After his three born-again albums (“Slow Train Coming”, “Saved” and “Shot of Love”), Dylan then re-explored his progressive Jewish roots and wrote a powerful affirmation of the nation of Israel with “Neighborhood Bully”. Since that time, there has been much speculation about Dylan’s current theological leanings.

Certainly Dylan’s ethics have come from a variety of sources, including his Jewish roots, his personal painful experiences of racial and religious antisemitism during his formative years, the unjust Vietnam War of his growing up years and his knowledge of the “now obsolete” original form of Christianity when the nonviolent love of friend and enemy was the norm.

Dylan’s songs often protested against the insanity of war (recall his anti-war classics “Masters of War”, “With God on Our Side”, “John Brown” and “Clean-cut Kid”).

I present below some of the lyrics that have stayed with me over the years and that illustrate what I am trying to convey in this column. The first long excerpt below is from “Clean-cut Kid”, a song about the psychological consequences of a soldier that had been duped into engaging in homicidal violence. That song helped me - a physician who was certain that psychological trauma was the most common root cause of mental ill health - to better understand the American plague called Combat-Induced PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder):

“Everybody wants to know why he couldn’t adjust.
Adjust to what, a dream that bust?
He was a clean-cut kid but they made a killer out of him.
That’s what they did.

They said what’s up is down, they said what isn’t is.
They put ideas in his head that he thought were his.
He went to church on Sunday; he was a Boy Scout.
For his friends he would turn his pockets inside out.

They said, ‘Listen boy, you’re just a pup’
and they sent him to a napalm health spa to shape up.
They gave him dope to smoke, drinks and pills, a Jeep to drive, blood to spill.
They said ‘Congratulations, you got what it takes’
and they sent him back into the rat race without any brakes.

He bought the American dream but it put him in debt;
the only game he could play was Russian roulette.
He drank Coca-Cola, he was eating Wonder Bread,
ate Burger Kings; he was well fed.

He could’ve sold insurance, owned a restaurant or bar;
could’ve been an accountant or a tennis star.
He was wearing boxing gloves, took a dive one day
off the Golden Gate Bridge into China Bay.

His mama walks the floor, his daddy weeps and moans.
They gotta sleep together in a home they don’t own.
Well, everybody’s asking why he couldn’t adjust.
All he ever wanted was somebody to trust.

He had a steady job, he joined the choir.
He never did plan to walk the high wire.
They took a clean-cut kid
and they made a killer out of him, that’s what they did.” – from “Clean-cut Kid”

And Dylan is equally hard on other often hypocritical authoritarian institutions, including the judiciary, the clergy, physicians, lawmakers, racists, antisemites, the rich, the militarists, the war-profiteering corporations, and the punitive police state agencies - just as one would expect from prophets and dissenting peacemakers.

Read these lyrics for other examples of the “Gospel According to Dylan”:
And Dylan is equally hard on other often hypocritical authoritarian institutions, including the judiciary, the clergy, physicians, lawmakers, racists, antisemites, the rich, the militarists, the war-profiteering corporations, and the punitive police state agencies - just as one would expect from prophets and dissenting peacemakers.

Read these lyrics for other examples of the “Gospel According to Dylan”:

"Tolling for the rebel; Tolling for the rake;
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned and forsaked;
Tolling for the outcast burnin' constantly at stake" -- from “Chimes of Freedom”

“I saw thousands who could have overcome the darkness. For the love of a lousy buck, I’ve watched them die.” -- from “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky”

"Well, I try my best to be just like I am;
But everybody wants you to be just like them;
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored.” -- from “Maggie’s Farm”

"All of Rubin's cards were marked in advance;
The trial was a pig-circus; he never had a chance;
The judge made Rubin's witnesses drunkards from the slums" -- from “Hurricane”

"He went to Oxford Town;
Guns and clubs followed him down;
All because his face was brown" -- from “Oxford Town”

One push of the button and a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions when God's on your side.” – from “With God on Our Side”

“Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy,
the law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers.

Well, the rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame.
Preacherman seeks the same, who’ll get there first is uncertain.
Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks,
Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain.

False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin.
Only a matter of time ‘til night comes stepping in.” -- from “Jokerman”

“Democracy don’t rule the world, you’d better get that through your head.
This world is ruled by violence, but I guess that’s better left unsaid.
From Broadway to the Milky Way, that’s a lot of territory indeed
and a man’s gonna do what he has to do when he’s got a hungry mouth to feed.” -- from “Union Sundown”

“I saw thousands who could have overcome the darkness.
For the love of a lousy buck, I’ve watched them die.” -- from “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky”

“All that foreign oil controlling American soil.
Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed.
Sheiks walking around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings.
Deciding American’s future from Amsterdam and to Paris.

Man’s ego’s inflated, his laws are outdated, they don’t apply no more.
You can’t rely no more to be standing around waiting.
In the home of the brave, Jefferson turning over in his grave.
Fools glorifying themselves, trying to manipulate Satan.

Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters.
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition.
But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency,
all nonbelievers and men stealers talking in the name of religion.

People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting.
Oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it does to give it.
They say lose your inhibitions, follow your own ambitions.
They talk about a life of brotherly love,
show me someone who knows how to live it.” -- from “Slow Train Coming”

“Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts.
Karl Marx has got you by the throat,
and Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up in knots.

You got innocent men in jail; your insane asylums are filled.
You got unrighteous doctors dealing drugs that’ll never cure your ills.
You got men who can’t hold their peace
and women who can’t control their tongues.
The rich seduce the poor and the old are seduced by the young.

Adulterers in churches and pornography in the schools.
You got gangsters in power and lawbreakers making the rules.
Spiritual advisors and gurus to guide your every move.
Instant inner peace and every step you take has got to be approved.

You can’t take it with you and you know that it’s too worthless to be sold.
They tell you, ‘Time is money’ as if your life was worth its weight in gold.
When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?” -- from “When You Gonna Wake Up?”

“Well you’re on your own, you always were in a land of wolves and thieves.
Don’t put your hope in ungodly man or be a slave to what somebody else believes.” -- from “Trust Yourself”

“Your Jim Crow ground can’t turn me around.
The laughter in the lynch mob ain’t gonna do no more.
Your insane tongues of war talk ain’t gonna guide my road.
You red baiters and race haters ain’t gonna hang around here.” -- from “Playboys and Playgirls”

“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
as human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark.
It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred.

While money doesn’t talk, it swears.
Obscenity, who really cares.
Propaganda, all is phony.” -- from “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”

“Half-racked prejudice leaped forth.
‘Rip down all hate’, I screamed.
Lies that life is black and white
spoke from my skull. I dreamed
romantic facts of musketeers
foundationed deep, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.” -- from “My Back Pages”

“Man thinks ‘cause he rules the earth;
he can do with it as he please
and if things don’t change soon, he will.

Man has invented his doom;
first step was touching the moon.

Now he’s hell-bent for destruction,
he’s afraid and confused,
and his brain has been mismanaged with great skill.
All he believes are his eyes;
and his eyes they just tell him lies.

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
and when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled.
Oh, man is opposed to fair play;
He wants it all and he wants it his way.” -- from “License to Kill”

“Now, I’m liberal, but to a degree I want everybody to be free.
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
move in next door and marry my daughter
you must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.” – from “I Shall Be Free, # 10”

“And suddenly a middle-aged druggist, up for district attorney, starts screaming at me: you’re the one that’s been causing all them riots over in Vietnam. Immediately turns to a bunch of people and says if elected, he’ll have me electrocuted publicly on the next Fourth of July. I look around and all these people he’s talking to are carrying blowtorches.” -- from the liner notes to “Bringing It All Back Home”

“I’m monstrously against the House Un-American Activities Committee and also the CIA; and I beg her please not to ask me why for it would take too long to tell.” -- from the liner notes to “Some Other Kinds of Songs”

*************

Dr Gary G. Kohls is a retired physician who practiced holistic, non-drug mental health care for the last decade of his career. He is involved in peace, nonviolence and justice issues and therefore writes about mental ill health, fascism, corporatism, militarism, racism, imperialism, totalitarianism, economic oppression, anti-environmentalism and other violent, unsustainable, anti-democratic movements.

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