Dylan: “Where’s The Nearest Ghetto?”


Ron Radosh on the silly Dylan-sells-out-in-China controversy:

…The ignorance the media has about [Bob] Dylan is most apparent in this AP dispatch appearing this morning in The Washington Post. Take the very first sentence about a forthcoming concert Dylan is to give in Vietnam: “After nearly five decades of singing about a war that continues to haunt a generation of Americans, legendary performer Bob Dylan is finally getting his chance to see Vietnam at peace.” The writer, obviously a very young person without any familiarity at all with Dylan’s work, does not realize that Dylan never sang about the war in Vietnam, and never joined one single protest against it.[emphasis mine]

In his famous 1968 interview (the very year of protest) conducted for Sing Out! by his friends John Cohen and Happy Traum, Dylan was asked by Traum: “Do you foresee a time when you’re going to have to take some kind of a position?” Dylan answered in one word: “No.” Traum, obviously upset, argued that “every day we get closer to having to make a choice,” because, he explained, “events of the world are getting closer to us … as close as the nearest ghetto.” Dylan’s answer: “Where’s the nearest ghetto?

When he got to the issue of the Vietnam War, Traum told Dylan: “Probably the most pressing thing going on in a political sense is the war,” and that artists like him “feel it is their responsibility to say something.” Dylan responded by telling Traum: “I know some very good artists who are for the war.” He then added that this painter he knows is “all for the war. He’s just about ready to go over there himself. And I can comprehend him.” Moreover, when Traum suggested he argue with the painter, Dylan asked, “Why should I?”

Yet the anonymous AP reporter still refers to Dylan as an American “folk singer,” a label he strenuously rejects, and the author of “classic anti-war tunes.” That the president of the Vietnam Composers’ Association thinks that Dylan used music “as a weapon to oppose the war in Vietnam” only reveals his ignorance as well, and speaks to an image of Dylan that never in reality was warranted. Nor is it accurate to say that Dylan’s music “during the tumultuous 1960s touched thousands of young people…angry that a draft was being used to send young men off to die in Southeast Asia — to take to the streets and demand that Washington stop the war in Vietnam.” One might say that about the openly anti-war John Lennon, who even led a march in New York City, but definitely NOT about Bob Dylan.

Yet Human Rights Watch, a group whose credibility has been recently questioned by its founder Robert Bernstein for its constant one-sided attacks on Israel as a human rights violator, felt no compunction in releasing a statement that “Dylan should be ashamed of himself.” Brad Adams, executive director of its Asia division, said that Dylan has “a historic chance to communicate a message of freedom and hope, but instead he is allowing censors to choose his playlist.”…

Somehow failing to understand that Dylan was opening up China officially to his music, and managing as Wilson writes to “get through the cracks” despite their censorship, [Maureen] Dowd writes her entire column today attacking Dylan, calling it “Blowin’ in the Idiot Wind,” not so cleverly putting together titles of two Dylan songs. The great Dowd, who has nothing to sell out because she stands for nothing, complains that Dylan “may have done the impossible: broken creative new ground in selling out.”

Like all the others, because Dylan did not sing “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,’” she has accused him of selling out. Nor did he sing his didactic but musically compelling song about Rubin Hurricane Carter, “Hurricane”; somehow Dowd did not notice that Dylan has not performed it since 1976 — possibly because he was burnt out of doubts that arose about whether or not Carter was ever innocent. Dowd sets up a perfect straw man: because Dylan does not sing the songs she thinks are real protest songs, he has sold out. So she crudely comments that Dylan “sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.”

Yes, Communist China — capitalist in economics and totalitarian in politics — is continuing political repression, something which defines the very essence of Communism. To many young Chinese, Dylan himself stands in his very identity for freedom, the freedom of the artist to define his own path, and to reject government control as a necessity for the creation of art. When Dylan at age 22 walked off the Ed Sullivan Show because Sullivan refused to let him sing “Talking’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” he was protesting a censor in his own country, demanding the right to sing what he wanted and to not let commercial TV people tell him what to do.

By going to China and singing songs obviously the censors could not make head or tails of, Dylan was making a major breakthrough, and allowing Chinese youth who do not know about him to listen to all of his songs, including the ones Dowd thinks are essential.

In the rest of her article, Dowd contradicts her main argument by quoting from music critic David Hajdu and from Dylan’s own Chronicles to show that Dylan never considered himself to be any kind of voice of a generation or a protester, and consciously rebelled against the label put on him — one, obviously, that still sticks, despite the fact that many of those writing about him by now should know better.

Hajdu is right. Dylan knows that much of his earlier work was too polemical and hard-edged. You will never hear him singing his one biggest mistake, “George Jackson,” about the murder in prison of the black revolutionary. Dylan fans know that Dylan lambasted the late Phil Ochs as a “journalist,” not a songwriter, and objected to what he called “finger pointing songs.” And Sean Wilentz, who told her that the Chinese were “trying to guard the audience from some figure who hasn’t existed in 40 years,” is dead on right…

What Ron Radosh is describing is another example of the post-60’s left’s campaign to rewrite and “update” history in support of their current politically correct agenda.

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