In these first dark days of a Trump presidency, rock critic and author Chris Morris calls on the artistic community to honor not just Bob Dylan’s achievements but his courage by “facing down and condemning those who would deny its citizens their rights … If we stand together, the ship will come in.”
In late 2016, in the space of one month, two unexpected and seemingly unrelated events took place. On Oct. 13, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” On Nov. 8, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
Of necessity we must deal with the latter event first. Questions of Trump’s legitimacy, and many have hovered in the wake of the election, are beside the point at this stage of the electoral game. It can be stated without question that he is utterly incompetent to govern this nation. Even if his almost complete lack of understanding of the fundamentals of running a country is put aside, it is plain that he openly rejects the values and virtues that are the American bedrock.
Through his words and actions, he has proven himself to be bigoted, venal, mendacious, egotistical, predatory, craven and traitorous. His empty professions to the contrary, he has made it plain that he will work solely in the service of the privileged, moneyed few, at the expense of the poor, the weak and the helpless majority, and his accomplices in his cabinet and Congress — those stooges, terrorists and thieves — have made it plain that they will do his bidding.
In short, a new and terrifying era of homegrown demagoguery and despotism has now been ushered in. A wave of fear has overtaken many sane men and women, and over the course of the last two months, something like panic has permeated the American consciousness.
In the face of a rising tide of hatred, greed and contempt for democracy, it is incumbent upon all citizens who cherish the meaning of the U.S. Constitution to step up and resist those in government who would trample it underfoot. As the dark wings of native fascism threaten to blot out our sun, it is essential that American writers, artists, poets, journalists and musicians use their imaginative resources to push against that darkness.
Here we arrive at Dylan’s door.
Three years ago, I wrote a series of pieces about Bob Dylan’s recordings, which were published in book form on his 75th birthday last year. I came of age listening to his music as a teenager; my mother gave me a copy of his second LP on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Dylan’s art flourished at a pivotal time in American history, during an era when the battle for civil rights, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and opposition to the U.S.’s deepening involvement in Vietnam all became focal points of increasingly large and sometimes-violent confrontations in our streets. In his earliest incarnation, Dylan took his cues from his idol Woody Guthrie and other politicized folk artists who led the way a generation before him, taking the tumult that echoed around him as the raw material for songs that considered national disorder in rarified form. In his work, young people like myself found a personal expression of the meaning of social justice.
In these first foreboding days of the Trump presidency, I issue a call to my colleagues and my friends in the American artistic community. If we are to truly honor the achievements of a figure such as Dylan, we must also honor his dedication to celebrating what is right, true and good about America, and honor his courage by facing down and condemning those who would deny its citizens their rights or rob, harm or kill them, or the citizens of other nations.
As I gathered my thoughts to write this piece, I listened to The Times They Are A-Changin’, an album Bob Dylan released in 1964. Let me be honest: I don’t think all of his then-topical songs, those things some called “protest songs,” have maintained their edge. But one of them still leaps off the record: a number, clearly inspired by “Pirate Jenny,” a song from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera,” that envisioned a harsh fate for those who betrayed the republic. Dylan performed it, with Joan Baez accompanying him, in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. I look to its last stanzas, not as an antique hammered out in our country’s trouble-wracked past, but as a prophecy for a possible future, and a call to arms:
Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real
The hour when the ship comes in
Then they’ll raise their hands
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharoah’s tribe
They’ll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered
If we stand together, the ship will come in.
Chris Morris is a music journalist and disc jockey. He was music editor of the Hollywood Reporter and senior writer for Billboard. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, Musician, Mojo, LA Weekly, the Chicago Reader, Variety and other publications. The author of two books, Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press, 2015) and Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan, Chris is also prolific on Facebook, Tumblr and (less so) on Twitter. He lives in Los Angeles.
Image of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Stookey performing at the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963, used with permission from photojournalist Dan Budnik.