Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012...1:22 pm

Bob Dylan: ‘Prophet’ and Medal of Freedom recipient

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Biographers of Bob Dylan, one of this year’s 13 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, talk about how Judaism permeates his work

By ROBERT GLUCK / JointMedia News Service

Most rock stars are retired by 71, but not Bob Dylan. He’s touring, performing and later this spring receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given by the United States.

President Barack Obama will present the medals to Dylan, Israeli President Shimon Peres, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and 10 others.

Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman to Jewish parents and raised in Hibbing, Minn. Many of his fans might not truly appreciate how much Dylan’s heritage infuses his work. But Seth Rogovoy certainly does. In his book Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, Rogovoy explores how Judaism influenced the songwriter.

Rogovoy reveals the ways in which Dylan walks in the footsteps of the Jewish prophets, explaining the profound depth of Jewish content — drawn from the Bible, the Talmud, and the Kabbala — at the heart of Dylan’s music, and demonstrating how his songs can only be fully appreciated in light of the Jewish themes that inform them.

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the 1963 March on Washington. (Photo: U.S. Information Agency)Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the 1963 March on Washington. (Photo: U.S. Information Agency)

According to Rogovoy, Dylan’s spiritual roots are evident throughout his 50 albums.

“Bob was raised in a traditional Jewish household with Yiddish-speaking grandparents living in the house with a great-grandfather nearby who would daven every day and study Talmud every afternoon. Bob was exposed to all of this,” Rogovoy told JointMedia News Service. “His family was at the center of the Jewish community in the town he grew up in.”

Another profound experience outside Dylan’s home, Rogovoy said, was his experience at summer camp.

“Like many Jewish boys and girls of his generation, Bob went for four summers to Camp Herzl, the Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin,” Rogovoy said. “A testimony to the impact it had on Dylan is that several of his lifelong friends are people who he met at Camp Herzl. You can take the Dylan out of Hibbing but you can’t take the Jew out of Dylan.”

According to Sean Wilentz, author of Bob Dylan in America, being brought up in a Jewish household on the Minnesota Iron Range in the 1940s and ’50s could only have influenced every aspect of his life and work in some way, especially his spiritual side and its appeal to audiences.

“Every poet — and, I suppose, every artist — has a spiritual side,” Wilentz said. “If you mean specifically his roots in Judaism, I suppose it’s done something to appeal to some listeners who don’t ordinarily take popular music too seriously.”

Dylan was praised in the White House’s April 26 Medal of Freedom announcement as being among “the most influential American musicians of the 20th century,” for “his rich and poetic lyrics” and for work that has “had considerable influence on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and has had significant impact on American culture over the past five decades.”

Wilentz said Dylan’s art “transcends the national and linguistic barriers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, precisely the time when American popular culture reached a new apogee of influence around the world.” Dylan “tapped into and then enlarged an international, American-inspired youth culture that was unprecedented, then held that audience while touching the imagination of a later generation,” he said.

Howard Sounes, author of Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, told JointMedia News Service that, “Jewishness is absolutely integral to [Dylan’s] life and work.”

“It is who he is,” Sounes said. “As one of his Jewish friends said to me when I was researching the book, ‘He’s really Jewish. He was Bar Mitzva-ed!’”

When Dylan attended college in Minnesota, he moved into the Jewish fraternity house Sigma Alpha Mu, and in September 1983, he visited Jerusalem for his son’s Bar Mitzva.

“He is a true and original artist who interprets his own life and the world in a way that makes us think about our own lives in a deep and powerful way,” Sounes said.

Rogovoy acknowledged that Dylan did make up stories about his background, but not to hide his Jewish heritage. To Dylan, the most important things are the songs he writes and sings, Rogovoy said.

“One of the first original songs he ever wrote and performed was ‘Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues,’” Rogovoy said. “‘Hava Nagilah’ was probably the most famous Jewish song of the 20th century and it was played at every [Jewish] wedding. In many of his songs he addresses directly, lyrically, issues of Jewish history.”

For example, Dylan writes about the Holocaust in his song “With God on Our Side”:

“When the Second World War came to an end

We forgave the Germans

And then we were friends

Though they murdered six million

In the ovens they fried

The Germans now too

Have God on their side.”

But it’s not just the horror of the Holocaust Dylan writes about; he writes about mystical experiences.

“Dylan is always talking about face-to-face experiences of the divinity,” Rogovoy noted.

As Dylan and his band get set to perform in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico, audiences continue to celebrate his work. WVUV, Fordham University’s listener-supported radio station, hosts Dylan Fest 2012, a celebration of his songs with Adam Green, Fabrizio Moretti, Nicole Atkins, Cory Chisel and Boz Scaggs, May 24-25.

Rogovoy said Dylan performs in the mode, style and message of ancient prophets. He said Dylan is one of the best at channeling the moment into a transcendent experience for the listener. There is no formula.

“It helps to see Dylan in the context of the biblical prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both in terms of subject matter, and his relationship to the people he’s prophesying to,” Rogovoy said. “The main purpose was to scold. You’re not living up to your end of the bargain. He’s berating them for not living up to the moral and ethical agreements they have and warning them of the consequences. Bob Dylan has done that from the very beginning and he’s still doing it.”

(American Jewish World, 5.25.12)

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1 Comment

  • Warning to Dylan haters, the fnllowiog comment will make you gag.Bringing it All Back Home: that’s the chronological start of the Dylan I love. Electric Dylan. It’s the music you love when you are 17 that sticks with you all your life.I used to think that too, but not so much any more. And that’s because of Dylan. I’m a latecomer to Dylan. Which is surprising, because (as a Generation X-er) I used to fancy myself quite the music geek/ connoisseur, but for some reason never got into Dylan. Didn’t even broach him really– I guess because I had some idea of “Dylan” (the folky “political” Dylan) that put me off. It’s only in the last few years– my mid to late 30s– that I’ve delved into the Dylan canon. And have come to love his music more deeply, I think, than any music I ever loved in my youth. It’s an interesting experience, because my relationship to his music (as someone about 2 decades past 17) is one I haven’t felt for many years– something like the kind of intense intimate involvement I felt for my favorite music between the ages of (say) 14-21. I didn’t think I would ever feel like that about any musician again. And I feel like Dylan’s music is likely to be a companion to me for the rest of my life. Whereas much of the music I loved in my youth no longer speaks to me, no longer deeply moves or touches me. Let me amend that: it does move and touch me, but much of that is due to nostalgia, the Proustian rush, the poignancy of reembodying (remembering through the bodily experience of listening to that music) what it felt like to be the girl I once was (and in some sense will always be). It’s difficult to put into words what the relationship to certain music– music that serves as something like the soundtrack of one’s inner life– is like. It’s as much a meditation with/ into oneself as listening to the voice of an external other. Some verses of Wallace Stevens’s on poetry come to mind. In a way I’ve only just begun with Dylan. Started with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde: these 3 albums were pretty much all I listened to, compulsively, for almost a year. They made me a Dylanophile for life. Then I got into late 60 to mid 70s Dylan: these are the albums I probably listen to most often these days, especially John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Blood on the Tracks, Basement Tapes, Desire. But love the others too: Self Portrait, New Morning, Pat Garrett, Planet Waves, some of the concurrent live albums. And that’s as far as I’ve gotten. Late 70s and 80s and beyond, all that awaits me. Looking forward to listening to it all. (That’s such a great feeling. It’s like falling in love with a prolific novelist, poet, film maker, whatever, and having a great deal of his/ her oeuvre still before one, yet untapped.)As a longtime Althouse reader, I have to say, her love for Dylan probably played a part in my my decision to seriously check him out. That, and my love for Luigi Ghirri– one of my favorite photographers– who deeply loves Dylan too. So, thank you Althouse. Even aside from your blog (one of my favorite blogs), I owe you so much– just for playing a part in my discovery of Dylan, at a time in my life when that’s just what I needed and just what I wanted.

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