By Sean Latham
Ken Burns’ 2017 documentary about the Vietnam War opens with the apocalyptic lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” playing over a montage that matches shots of soldiers and protesters to this song about a “blue-eyed” son who has journeyed out in the world and come back home. The singer tries to explain to his mother the horrors that he has seen and Burns, like many before him, bends this strange song to his own purposes, essentially making Dylan synonymous with the anti-war movement. Neither this song nor any other tune in the Nobel laureate’s vast catalog, however, mentions the word Vietnam. Indeed, when pressed on his fact by a fellow songwriter in the mid-sixties, Dylan snapped “what makes you think I’m against the war?” War, it turns out, is a far more complicated subject in Dylan’s work than either Burns or the songwriter’s millions of fan are willing to allow.
Some of Dylan’s greatest works, in fact, are explicitly about violence, bloodshed, courage, and cowardice, especially as those qualities played out though the bloody turmoil of the American Civil War and its aftermath. In his memoir Chronicles, Dylan remembers spending his youthful days in the early sixties not among protesters, but at a microfilm reader in the New York Public Library where he read newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s. “It wasn’t like it was another world,” he writes, “you get the feeling that the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everybody will perish.” For the next fifty years, it is not Vietnam, but this explosive war—which first ripped the nation apart then allowed it a chance to enact its greatest hopes—to which Dylan returns again and again in his lyrics.
This talk will explore why Dylan rooted his songwriting in the Civil War and what those nineteenth-century newspapers taught him about the idea of America, the virtues of courage, and the permanent stain of slavery on the nation’s ideals of freedom and equality. It will be rooted in the extraordinary materials in the Bob Dylan Archives here in Tulsa and will focus, in particular, on the way Dylan comes to understand war as something more than mere savagery, but instead as part of the fabric of a human experience this “blue-eyed” son tries to witness as honestly as he can. That act of witness stretches across his entire body of work, from those landmark sixties albums to the late masterpieces like “Love and Theft” (released on September 11, 2001) and Tempest that interweave contemporary life with battles stretching back from Gettysburg through the Roman Empire, and even back to Homer’s Greeks. Dylan’s genius, I’ll contend, derives from this capacity to graft popular forms like rock and folk music onto multilayered epics of people struggling to master the tragedy, heroism, and chaos of war.
Walter Professor of English and Director of the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies