Bob Dylan: Be True to Yourself, Not to any Agenda

Bob Dylan: Be True to Yourself, Not to any Agenda

Being true to oneself and being a member or leader of any recognized group can be a contradiction. But what does often happen if anyone expresses “powerful new realities” (to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan), others can become attracted to that person; especially if it fulfills part or all of their own agenda.

Even though Robert Allen Zimmerman did abandon his given name, through his experience,imagination and knack for acute observation, Dylan drew to himself an entire movement that held an aesthetic as well as a political agenda. When he ventured out of the pure folk arena and plugged in, some thought he’d betrayed them and all of what folk music “stood for.”

Being authentic seems to work like this. It can draw more criticism than high praise and the group that thought you were representing their highest ideals can turn against you in a New York minute, regardless of how obscure or renown you are in the public arena. Yet going against the grain has become so fashionable these days that it might be hard to tell a bogus from a real minted coin. Any crazed or drugged-out fool can wrap a snake around their neck and walk through a city park. Maybe Robert can help us out here.

In his autobiography, Dylan reflects on his perceived role in the turbulent 1960’s, after he chose to take a temporary hiatus from the road:

“All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of . . . My destiny lay down the road with whatever life invited, had nothing to do with representing any kind of civilization. Being true to yourself, that was the thing. I was more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper . . . I really was never  any more than what I was— a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze.” (Chronicles: Volume 1, p. 115-116)


  • sam broussard
    Posted at 17:39h, 19 September Reply

    I’m aware that he didn’t want to be the voice of the anti-war or any other movement; he believed and desired that his songs should be sufficient statements. He had other concerns, like pure writing and provocative but meaningless amphetamine visions. Those who pulled at him to be the Voice were not unreasonable, given that 50,000 boys my age died in Vietnam, and neither was he. If I had been him, 50,000 would have swayed me, but that’s just me. His part in ending Vietnam was almost as effective as Cronkite’s, and that’s a powerful legacy. Personally, if today he would write about Wall Street, reductionist political ideology, or the wealthy getting the less wealthy to drink their Koolaid, I’d buy more of his records along with James McMurty’s.

  • David Bankston
    Posted at 14:46h, 21 September Reply

    Here is a little historical perspective. Sing Out was THE magazine of the “folk movement”. I remember it well, when it came out. I’ll post more later.

    Sing Out! November, 1964

    Dear Bob:
    It seems as though lots of people are thinking and talking about you these days. I read about you in Life and Newsweek and Time and The Saturday Evening Post and Mademoiselle and Cavalier and all such, and I realize that, all of a sudden, you have become a pheenom, a VIP, a celebrity. A lot has happened to you in these past two years, Bob — a lot more than most of us thought possible.

    I’m writing this letter now because some of what has happened is troubling me. And not me alone. Many other good friends of yours as well.

    I don’t have to tell you how we at SING OUT! feel about you — about your work as a writer and an artist — or how we feel about you as a person. SING OUT! was among the first to respond to the new ideas, new images, and new sounds that you were creating. By last count, thirteen of your songs had appeared in these pages. Maybe more of Woody’s songs were printed here over the years, but, if so, he’s the only one. Not that we were doing you any favors, Bob. Far from it. We believed — and still believe — that these have been among some of the best new songs to appear in America in more than a decade. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “Hattie Carroll,” “Restless Farewell,” “Masters of War” — these have been inspired contributions which have already had a significant impact on American consciousness and style.

    As with anyone who ventures down uncharted paths, you’ve aroused a growing number of petty critics. Some don’t like the way you wear your hair or your clothes. Some don’t like the way you sing. Some don’t like the fact that you’ve chosen your name and recast your past. But all of that, in the long run, is trivial. We both know that may of these criticisms are simply coverups for embarrassment at hearing songs that speak directly, personally, and urgently about where it’s all really at.

    But — and this is the reason for this letter, Bob — I think that the times there are a-changing. You seem to be in a different kind of bag now, Bob — and I’m worried about it. I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people. It seemed to me that some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way. You travel with an entourage now — with good buddies who are going to laugh when you need laughing and drink wine with you and insure your privacy — and never challenge you to face everyone else’s reality again.

    I thought (and so did you) of Jimmy Dean when I saw you last — and I cried a little inside me for that awful potential for self-destruction which lies hidden in all of us and which can emerge so easily and so uninvited.

    I think it begins to show up in your songs, now, Bob. You said you weren’t a writer of “protest” songs — or any other category, for that matter — but you just wrote songs. Well, okay, call it anything you want. But any songwriter who tries to deal honestly with reality in this world is bound to write “protest” songs. How can he help himself?

    Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, innerprobing, self- conscious — maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion. And it’s happening on stage, too. You seem to be relating to a handful of cronies behind the scenes now — rather than to the rest of us out front.

    Now, that’s all okay — if that’s the way you want it, Bob. But then you’re a different Bob Dylan from the one we knew. The old one never wasted our precious time.

    Perhaps this letter has been long overdue. I think, in a sense, that we are all responsible for what’s been happening to you — and to many other fine young artists. The American Success Machinery chews up geniuses at a rate of one a day and still hungers for more. Unable to produce real art on its own, the Establishment breeds creativity in protest against and nonconformity to the System. And then, through notoriety, fast money, and status, it makes it almost impossible for the artist to function and grow.

    It is a process that must be constantly guarded against and fought.

    Give it some thought, Bob. Believe me when I say that this letter is written out of love and deep concern. I wouldn’t be sticking my neck out like this otherwise.

    Irwin Silber

  • David Bankston
    Posted at 14:53h, 21 September Reply

    I’ve always assumed this was Dylan’s response to Irwin Silber. The song came out the next year.

    Positively Fourth Street

    You got a lotta nerve
    To say you are my friend
    When I was down
    You just stood there grinning

    You got a lotta nerve
    To say you gota helping hand to lend
    You just want to be on
    The side that’s winning

    You say I let you down
    You know it’s not like that
    If you’re so hurt
    Why then don’t you show it

    You say you lost your faith
    But that’s not where it’s at
    You had no faith to lose
    And you know it

    I know the reason
    That you talk behind my back
    I used to be among the crowd
    You’re in with

    Do you take me for such a fool
    To think I’d make contact
    With the one who tries to hide
    What he don’t know to begin with

    You see me on the street
    You always act surprised
    You say, “How are you?” “Good luck”
    But you don’t mean it

    When you know as well as me
    You’d rather see me paralyzed
    Why don’t you just come out once
    And scream it

    No, I do not feel that good
    When I see the heartbreaks you embrace
    If I was a master thief
    Perhaps I’d rob them

    And now I know you’re dissatisfied
    With your position and your place
    Don’t you understand
    It’s not my problem

    I wish that for just one time
    You could stand inside my shoes
    And just for that one moment
    I could be you

    Yes, I wish that for just one time
    You could stand inside my shoes
    You’d know what a drag it is
    To see you

  • antoinette lundgren
    Posted at 19:40h, 24 September Reply

    I found the lyrics from Bob Dylan quite profound. There are many times in one’s life that they can be utilized.

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