By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
If there dwells a pilgrim soul in this land of ours as vast as Bob Dylan, please call me.
An English friend and I heard him in concert on a recent November night. A hard rain was falling on Virginia's Highway 66 going west. But he's still traveling at age 68, touring from city to city in America like a rolling stone.
Dylan sang that '60s electric classic with a hip, youthful, and dressed-so-fine band which infused verve into the familiar sound. Remember "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright"? He sang that, too, and the parting line, "Good-bye is too good a word, babe," still stings pretty sharp.
Even the songs he didn't sing floated in the air by association. Take for example the anti-Vietnam War protest anthem, "The Times They are A'Changin'." In the verse which tells senators and congressmen to please heed the call, the meaning can be swiftly translated to cover healthcare reform on the Hill or opposing our army making more war in Afghanistan.
On a personal note, when I hear "Positively Fourth Street," it brings me back to the philosopher college boyfriend who accused me of acting like the girl portrayed by the bard: "You've got a lot of nerve/to say you are my friend/When I was down/you just stood there grinning."
Dylan's harmonica sweetened the melodies and some of the bitterness laced in the lines. As for his raspy voice, don't ask.
Edward, my friend, said Dylan's lyrics were taught at Cambridge University when he was a student there, by a professor who specialized in John Milton's poetry. Let's see, "Paradise Lost" versus "Hey Mr. Tambourine Man"? A close call.
With no ado between the old and new, Dylan sang a fresh song he wrote about aging memory and dulled passion. "Forgetful Heart" comes across as a wake-up call to himself.
This concert circled back to darker days in the nation's capital for me.
Exactly eight years earlier, on November 11, 2001, I heard Dylan sing in Washington. This event was cut clear as crystal in my back pages for it happened two months after the September 11th terrorist attacks. The people of the city were walking around fragile, shattered after seeing the fortress across the river burn. Dylan's music that night acted as a salve to the wounded world. The song that best expressed the emotional tumult: "Tangled Up in Blue." Many at the concert misted up and some broke into tears as the songwriter once again vaulted over the gates separating one era from another.
I can't tell you how comforting it was to hear him play at that hard time and place like a wandering ancient troubadour. Come 2011, he will be on the scene for 50 years, dating from his start playing folk songs in Greenwich Village in 1961. That's a long time in the life of an upstart nation.
No other singer-songwriter possesses the same geographical and cultural grasp of the country. The man from the Midwest has written some of our most vivid songs about the South in modern times, from Mississippi to Mobile to Memphis and the Nashville skyline. Houston just lately took a placename in his work and if you can make poetry out of that jingle-jangle jumble, you can make poetry out of anything.
Re-making, re-visiting, re-interpreting the ocean of experience, seeing others and feeling things as if for the first time—isn't that what it takes to be forever young?
I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving, Bob Dylan: Keep crossing the waves, letting the light shine anew. That's my ode to you.