Tom Sharpe, comic novelist, born March 30 1928, died June 6 2013
Tom “PG Wodehouse on Acid“ Sharpe, who died today, was the laugh-out-loud author of farce-cum-satire, probably best known for his ‘Wilt’ books about further education and ‘Porterhouse Blue’ set in an Cambridge College. But he was also a savagely witty critic of apartheid in South Africa, where he lived and was politically active in a low-key sort of way (as a social worker) between 1951 and 1961, when he was deported.
He excoriated white South African racism, arrogance and stupidity in two wonderful books, ‘Riotous Assembly’ (1971) and ‘Indecent Exposure’ (1973). Here’s a little taster for you:
Riotous Assembly (excerpt from Chapter 2)
Miss Hazelstone was telephoning to report that she had just shot her Zulu cook. Konstabel Els was perfectly capable of handling the matter. He had in his time as a police officer shot any number of Zulu cooks. Besides there was a regular procedure for dealing with such reports. Konstabel Els went into the routine.
‘You wish to report the death of a kaffir,’ he began.
‘I have just murdered my Zulu cook,’ snapped Miss Hazelstone.
Els was placatory. ‘That’s what I said. You wish to report the death of a coon.’
‘I wish to do nothing of the sort. I told you I have just murdered Fivepence.’
Els tried again. ‘The loss of a few coins doesn’t count as murder.’
‘Fivepence was my cook.’
‘Killing a cook doesn’t count as murder either.’
‘What does it count as, then?’ Miss Hazelstone’s confidence in her own guilt was beginning to wilt under Konstabel Els’ favourable diagnosis of the situation.
‘Killing a white cook can be murder. It’s unlikely but it can be. Killing a black cook can’t. Not under any circumstances. Killing a black cook comes under self-defence, justifiable homicide or garbage disposal.’ Els permitted himself a giggle. ‘Have you tried the Health Department?’ he inquired.
It was obvious to the Kommandant that Els had lost what little sense of social deference he had ever possessed. He pushed Els aside and took the call himself.
‘Kommandant van Heerden here,’ he said. ‘I understand that there has been a slight accident with your cook.’
Miss Hazelstone was adamant. ‘I have just murdered my Zulu cook.’
Kommandant van Heerden ignored the self-accusation. ‘The body is in the house?’ he inquired.
‘The body is on the lawn,’ said Miss Hazelstone. The Kommandant sighed. It was always the same. Why couldn’t people shoot blacks inside their houses where they were supposed to shoot them?
‘I will be up at Jacaranda House in forty minutes,’ he said, ‘and when I arrive I will find the body in the house.’
‘You won’t,’ Miss Hazelstone insisted, ‘you’ll find it on the back lawn.’
Kommandant van Heerden tried again.
‘When I arrive the body will be in the house.’ He said it very slowly this time.
Miss Hazelstone was not impressed. ‘Are you suggesting that I move the body?’ she asked angrily.
The Kommandant was appalled at the suggestion. ‘Certainly not,’ he said. ‘I have no wish to put you to any inconvenience and besides there might be fingerprints. You can get the servants to move it for you.’
There was a pause while Miss Hazelstone considered the implications of this remark. ‘It sounds to me as though you are suggesting that I should tamper with the evidence of a crime,’ she said slowly and menacingly. ‘It sounds to me as though you are trying to get me to interfere with the course of justice.’
‘Madam,’ interrupted the Kommandant, ‘I am merely trying to help you to obey the law.’ He paused, groping for words. ‘The law says that it is a crime to shoot kaffirs outside your house. But the law also says it is perfectly permissible and proper to shoot them inside your house if they have entered illegally.’
‘Fivepence was my cook and had every legal right to enter the house.’
‘I’m afraid you’re wrong there,’ Kommandant van Heerden went on. ‘Your house is a white area and no kaffir is entitled to enter a white area without permission. By shooting your cook you were refusing him permission to enter your house. I think it is safe to assume that.’
There was a silence at the other end of the line. Miss Hazelstone was evidently convinced.
‘I’ll be up in forty minutes,’ continued van Heerden, adding hopefully, ‘and I trust the body-’
‘You’ll be up here in five minutes and Fivepence will be on the lawn where I shot him,’ snarled Miss Hazelstone and slammed down the phone.
The Kommandant looked at the receiver and sighed. He put it down wearily and turning to Konstabel Els he ordered his car.
As they drove up the hill to Jacaranda Park, Kommandant van Heerden knew he was faced with a difficult case. He studied the back of Konstabel Els’ head and found some consolation in its shape and colour.
If the worst came to the worst he could always make use of Els’ great gift of incompetence and if in spite of all his efforts to prevent it. Miss Hazelstone insisted on being tried for murder, she would have as the chief prosecution witness against her, befuddled and besotted, Konstabel Els. If nothing else could save her, if she pleaded guilty in open court, if she signed confession after confession, Konstabel Els under cross-examination by no matter how half-witted a defence attorney would convince the most biased jury or the most inflexible judge that she was the innocent victim of police incompetence and unbridled perjury. The State Attorney was known to have referred to Konstabel Els in the witness box as the Instant Alibi.
Telegraph obit here …
and the Graun‘s here
Above: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
The prisons in Perm and Mordovia are some of the harshest camps in all Russia, known for severely unhealthy conditions, a complete absence of privacy and a brutal social hierarchy where convicts are subject to abuse and sexual violence by both prison guards.
This summer, Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, began two-year prison sentences there for daring to stand against Vladimir Putin. Now Nadezhda has been hospitalized after toiling in prison yards around the clock — and sources say her life is in danger.
Media attention this summer already caused Putin’s puppets to stop pushing for the maximum penalty and pardon one member of the group. Don’t let Nadezhda become a martyr for dissent: call for Pussy Riot to be transferred to a Moscow facility now!
PETITION TO VLADIMIR PUTIN AND RUSSIAN PENAL AUTHORITIES: There is no reason to deny Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova the right to serve their two-year prison terms in Moscow to be closer to their children. The world is watching: Transfer Maria and Nadezhda now!
Thanks, — The folks at Watchdog.net
P.S. If the other links aren’t working for you, please go here to sign: http://act.watchdog.net/petitions/2390?n=15462140.Vmv12W
H/T: Rosie H
Re-blogged (with very minor changes) from Tendance Coatsey
Charlie Hebdo has published some new Mohammed cartoons.
Middle East onLine reports,
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Wednesday anyone offended by cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo could take the matter to the courts.
But he emphasised France’s tradition of free speech. “We are in a country where freedom of expression is guaranteed, including the freedom to caricature,” he said on RTL radio.
You can see some of the cartoons (including the most controversial one) on this video-clip here.
The Editor of Charlie Hebdo, Charb, (Stéphane Charbonnier) is a supporter of the Front de Gauche and the French Communist Party (PCF).
Charlie itself is one of the last living representatives of ’68′ gauchisme.
There are many, including not a few on the French left, who will accuse it of ‘provocation’.
This is like complaining that chilis are hot.
A minority on the French left, like the Les Indigènes de la République,* self-appointed enforcers against Islamophobia, will be up in arms about the cartoons.
Indigènes de la République excelled themselves this weekend by physically threatening gay secularist Caroline Fourest at the La fête de l’Huma and preventing her from speaking (you can see a video of their violence here).
Emboldened by their menaces against a lesbian feminist, and, according to those who were at the fête, a North African woman steward, they will no doubt rage against Charlie.
As will many, many, others.
This is Charb’s response,
More extensive interview with Charb in Libèration (in French), «Pas plus de provocation avec l’islam qu’avec d’autres sujets».
The leader of the French Communist Party (PCF), Pierre Laurent, is cited in the same paper,
Charlie Hebdo fait partie d’une certaine tradition. A ce que je sache, le délit de blasphème n’existe pas dans notre pays. Après, il y a des gens qui aiment et des gens qui n’aiment pas Charlie Hebdo.
Il n’y a en France qu’une dizaine de salafistes. Il ne faut pas exagérer la situation et ne pas faire de la publication de ces caricatures un drame qui n’en est pas un”
Charlie Hebdo comes from a specific tradition. As far as I know blasphemy is not a crime in our country. There are, following that, those who like and those who dislike Charlie Hebdo.
In France there are only a dozen Salafists. We should not exaggerate the situation, and not create a drama out of these caricatures when none exists.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Parti de gauche) has just said on his Facebook page,
La caricature est un droit dans ce pays, et la protestation tout autant : le tout dans le respect de la loi.
* Indigènes de la République‘s particular interpretation of “anti-Zionism” (sic) has led them to support Hamas and Hezbollah, according to Wikipedia.
I first heard ‘Ukelele Ike’ when I was 8!
I was ukelele mad and my father searched far and wide for any ‘uke’ records to satisfy my addiction. Little did I know that an ‘Ike’ record would set me on a career in vintage jazz.
‘Ukelele Ike’ (or to give him his real name, Cliff Edwards), has been almost totally forgotten in the history of jazz, cabaret, film singing, etc. But he did it all! Space doesn’t permit me to list his achievements, but the only well-known and commercial aspect of his career was that he was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the Walt Disney cartoon version of Pinnochio. This brought him great success and money, but, as always with Cliff, it never quite worked out.
Edwards had made lots of money over the years (a reputed four thousand dollars a week in 1925!!), but he seemingly got divorced more times than he got married.
He didn’t really understand the tax laws and was partial to a drink or two. It’s easy to see him as a tragic character, but I don’t think he was — he loved life and lived it to the full.
While on tour of in the USA years ago I met a chap who’d been a pal of Edwards’; I of course asked the question, “What was he like?” The old gent replied, “Every day with Cliff was like New Years’s Eve!”
This Upbeat CD of Edwards is a gem. The balance of the content is superb — early vaudeville hits, hot jazz recordings, sentimental ballads, Howaiian exotica, British recordings, and a few naughty ‘party’ recordings. Using original records, the sound quality is warm and clear. Some radio transcriptions give us a chance to hear the man in a different setting. I have never previously heard the title track, I Did It With My Little Ukelele, so hats off for finding this beauty.
Mike Pointon’s research for this album is incredible; the sleeve notes alone are worth buying, but this is the studious, caring approach that we have all come to expect from the Pointon pen.
I know I’m biased as I’ve spent the last 30 years championing Edwards, but I can wholly recommend this release. It’s all here, and I defy anyone not to find all of it charming. In fact, when I listen to Edwards sing Just like A Melody From Out Of The Sky, it’s not just charming, it’s class that we just don’t hear these days.
Three cheers for Cliff!
This is a slightly edited version of Spats’ review of the Upbeat CD I Did It With My Little Ukelele that appeared in Just Jazz magazine, February 2012.
It is my intention to have an arts, TV, cinema or music article every Friday: if you’d like to contribute, please let me know, via the comments box, or to email@example.com -Jim D.
“But, now that we are all at last preparing to act, a new form of social organisation is essential. In order to avoid further uncertainty, I propose my own system of world-organisation. Here it is.” He tapped the notebook. “I wanted to expound my views to the meeting in the most concise form possible, but I see that I should need to add a great many verbal explanations, and so the whole exposition would occupy at least ten evenings, one for each of my chapters.” (There was the sound of laughter.) “I must add, besides, that my system is not yet complete.” (Laughter again.) “I am perplexed by my own data and my conclusion is a direct contradiction of the original idea with which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that there can be no solution of the social problem but mine” – Shigalev, a character in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed.
Anyone foolish enough (in the light of his pompous bleatings today) to take the self-important charlatan Assange at his own, inflated, estimation, should ponder the man’s willingness to grovel before autocrats and denounce their opponents to them, his evident belief that he should be above any law, his support for, and employment of, a notorious anti-semite and neo-Nazi, his crude sexism (whether or not he’s actually a rapist)…but most of all, this (from the Daily Tech):
David Leigh of England’s Guardian newspaper has leveled a shocking accusation against Mr. Assange in the special.
He recalls a meeting he was invited to about the publication of the war memos. He remembers pleading with Assange to redact the names of tribal elders and U.S. informants who were exposed cooperating with the U.S. and could be the subject of deadly retribution. He comments, “Julian was very reluctant to delete those names, to redact them. And we said: ‘Julian, we’ve got to do something about these redactions. We really have got to.’”
“And he said: ‘These people were collaborators, informants. They deserve to die.’ And a silence fell around the table.”
Mr. Assange seemingly denied the allegation calling it “absolutely false… completely false.”
But he qualifies, “We don’t want innocent people with a decent chance of being hurt to be hurt.”
The possibility is left open that Mr. Assange views U.S. allies (such as cooperating tribal leaders) as culpable accomplices, and is obfuscating the fact that he indeed wishes them ill.
It is unknown whether the publications have caused any deaths, but Newsweek reported last year that the Taliban, a violent Jihadist fundamentalist insurgency in Afghanistan, were using the war memos as a rally cry. Allegedly they brutally murdered a tribal elder, whom they claimed the leaked documents exposed, and promised more executions.
PS: just a few things the reptillian attention-seeker had to say in the course of his bleating from the balcony today, are true – that Bradley Manning, Pussy Riot and the jailed Bahraini dissident Nabeel Rajab must be supported. They’re genuine heroes and victims. But as Bob points out, Assange’s attempt to identify himself with these honourable dissidents, may be yet another example of the man’s overweening cynicism.
PPS: it goes without saying that the UK government’s ludicrous and empty semi-threat to withdraw diplomatic immunity from the Ecuadorian embassy has only aided Assange’s claim to be some kind of “victim,” and provided grist to the mill of the the populist demagogue Correa’s “anti-imperialist” posturing.
|George W. Lowen Coxhill (19 September 1932 – 10 July 2012), generally known as Lol Coxhill, was an English free improvising saxophonist and raconteur. He played the soprano or sopranino saxophone|
THE last time Tottenham burned, the local Labour Party was quick to takes sides. ‘The police were to blame for what happened,’ announced council leader and later MP Bernie Grant. ‘And what they got was a bloody good hiding’.
By contrast, current Westminster representative David Lammy has been quick to distance himself not only from last night’s disturbances, but from the events of 1985 as well. The comparison between the two stances illustrates just how far Labour has travelled over the last 26 years.
Over the next few days, condemnation will be heard from across the mainstream political spectrum. So it is worth asking such basic questions as ‘why did this happen?’
For the stupid right, it was an outbreak of thuggery, plain and simple. For Telegraph blogger Nile Gardiner – a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst, no less – the underlying problem is that the Coalition has ‘not gone far enough in reining in the deficit, and has not been forceful enough on issues like crime’.
Let me run that past you again. The proximate cause of the unrest was the action of the Metropolitan Police in shooting a man dead. Just how ‘forceful’ does Gardiner want the cops to be?
At the other extreme, past experience shows that sections of the far left regard riots as good things in and of themselves. ‘FANTASTIC TOTTENHAM – BRUTAL MURDERING MET COPS GET WHAT WAS COMING TO THEM’, proclaims obviously breathless Ian Bone.
‘Have not seen a riot like this with so much hatred, property damage and lasting into daylight since Toxteth 1981 … At last the working class have re-entered the arena. BIGTIME. THE REDISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH IN TORY BRITAIN HAS BEGUN!’
You just can’t beat a bit of good old fashioned property damage, can you? The insurance industry will of course reimburse the chain retailers for the looted plasma televisions. Let’s hope the burnt out small shopkeepers were similarly well covered. But the impact of the riot on an already depressed local economy is hardly going to be positive.
I am not a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst, or one of Britain’s best-known anarchists, come to that. My home in N16 is about two miles down the road from N17, in a broadly similar area, and I have lived in inner city north London for most of my life.
I can see the poverty and the dereliction from the window of the room in which I am typing this. I can see the racist policing, the homeless alkies, the untreated schizophrenics, the wheelchair-bound beggars, the street violence and the gang culture on an average trip to the shopping centre.
All of this goes on just a short bus ride away from the fabulous wealth of the City, which is where I work, and where million pound bonuses continue to be dished out with the same regularity as P45s are handed to low-paid shopworkers. I’m all in favour of beginning the redistribution of wealth in Tory Britain, but I’d rather start it with the hedge fund boys than the local Asian convenience store.
The argument will go that the way to change this state of affairs is through the democratic process rather than the petrol bomb. But such is the degree of disconnect between all the major parties and the street that the chances of positive engagement are next to zero. There is instead the recourse of riot.
The depressing thing is that nothing has changed since the violence in Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth and, of course, Tottenham, that scarred the Thatcher years. New Labour had 13 years in which to address the multiple problems of areas that consistently return Labour MPs. Despite some useful initiatives, its essential commitment to neoliberalism meant that it was unable to do so effectively.
Now we are back with a Tory-led Coalition determined to enact policies that will make matters worse. As a result, the Met last night got yet another bloody good hiding. Isn’t that enough to bring about a serious rethink? Maybe we should phrase it more diplomatically than Bernie did, but the least Labour could do is to make the case.
NB: Dave lives in neighbouring N16
Above: portrait of the artist as a young folkie
Bob Dylan recently performed in China and Vietnam for the very first time, prompting critics to denounce him for “selling out” — and not for the first time.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd led the charge. In a recent column she denounced the singer, ending with these powerful lines:
Maybe the songwriter should reread some of his own lyrics: “I think you will find/When your death takes its toll/All the money you made/Will never buy back your soul.”
Strong stuff indeed.
But of course Bob Dylan wasn’t writing those lines about “protest singers” who had betrayed their values.
He wrote them about the arms industry, the merchants of death who profit from the world’s wars, in his song “Masters of War.”
I doubt if anyone seriously believes that Dylan is somehow the moral equivalent of mass killers.
And did any of the critics bother to check what songs Dylan did choose to perform — songs that he admittedly submitted to censorship by the Communist regimes?
The second song on his Beijing set was “It’s all over now, baby blue” — widely understood as an anti-Vietnam war song. The tenth was the powerful anti-nuclear war song “A hard rain’s a gonna fall”. The set ended with other 1960s-era classics including “Ballad of a Thin Man” with the famous refrain,
Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
This is certainly true of the critics who single out one or two Dylan songs from his early years that were not performed.
“The times they are a-changin’” is given as an example of the kind of song Dylan would have sung — if he’d had any courage.
But has anyone listened to that song since it was first recorded nearly a half century ago? It’s not about fomenting a popular uprising in a totalitarian country like China. It is full of specifically American content, such as a call on Senators and Congressmen to heed the voices of protest.
To an audience living in a completely unfree society with no free press, elections or parliament, such a song might have little impact.
But the more complex, poetic language of songs like “A hard rain’s a gonna fall” might well resonate. The last stanza of that song contains a powerful celebration of dissent and protest:
I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
To understand why some critics have got it completely wrong you don’t really need to know Dylan’s biography. He was never really all that political, as his friends and colleagues have pointed out. He never wanted to be — and probably never really was — the voice of a generation.
But even if you knew nothing at all about him but his songs, you’d understand the problem with the critics.
Dylan’s lyrics are often deeply subversive, even when they don’t seem to be about politics at all.
And some of his weakest songs are the ones that are most explicitly political. (For example, none of the critics are suggesting that he sing one of his most political songs —“George Jackson” — which is regarded as one of the worst he ever wrote.)
Finally, why do Dylan’s liberal critics assume that any political message he’ll want to deliver is one they would want heard?
In a career spanning a half-century, Dylan has not fit into anyone’s neat boxes, and some of his most explicitly political songs would actually be an embarrassment to some of the liberals who are now criticizing him.
For example, would they want him to sing the bitterly ironic 1983 song “Neighborhood Bully” with its explicitly pro-Zionist message?
Singing that song in Tel-Aviv when he performs there in June will not require much courage. But maybe the real test would be if Dylan sings it two days earlier, when he performs in London?
(2) Did Bob Dylan sell out?
The implication of the initial question is that Bob Dylan was a committed, full-time member of the early 60s movement that we will call ‘folk protest’; and then later on he sold out, abandoning his left-wing principles in the name of making different types of music – more personal songs, a rock and roll style.
Well, clearly as the 60s progressed, Dylan moved away from protest songs and made many different types of music. But far too many histories of the era take a very, well, dialectical perspective, based on two types of Dylan: one, the author of Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, and all the rest; and the other, the cool, disengaged rock and roller of the mid sixties, who dismissed his earlier songs as “finger-pointing songs”, a phrase calculated to upset the likes of us, and rejected all that they represented.
This way of looking at things rules out so many important factors – including his pre-Greenwich Village life, and the almost four decades since he played those shows with The Hawks and caused such outrage, and most importantly, the reasons for and the nature of the shift that undeniably took place. I think implicit in the question of whether Dylan sold out is another question – ‘Did Dylan buy in?’ If we can look more honestly and realistically about where Dylan was coming from in the early and mid sixties, we can make a more meaningful assessment of that ‘selling out’ era.
As a general point, I find it best not to be surprised, or too disappointed, when my musical heroes don’t agree with me politically. I have always felt that it was best not to judge my musical heroes, with left-wing tendencies, by the same standards as I would judge say, members of the same political party as me, or colleagues of mine in the trade union I work for, or people who explicitly claim to be something like a socialist, a Marxist, or whatever.
Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, none of them have ever claimed to be proper socialists. Bragg comes close; Earle even closer in some ways, claiming he is a borderline Marxist, but although I think he is head and shoulders above those others, politically, I am not sure he fully knows what that means. Anyway it is far better to have low political expectations of your musical heroes. Then when they do good, solid left-wing things, it’s a bonus.
A comment from Mike Davis on the blurb of Mike Marqusee’s book on Bob Dylan caught my attention. He says that Marqusee “rescues” Dylan “from the condescension of his own later cynicism”. Now, apart from being one of those smug, patronising statements that turn people away from your cause, this quote demonstrates what I am talking about. Dylan doesn’t need rescuing!
Left-wing readers may need rescuing from Dylan’s later cynicism; his protest songs themselves may even need rescuing from the same thing, so that they can still be enjoyed as what they were – among the greatest left-wing protest songs ever written. But to say that Dylan himself needs rescuing is breathtakingly arrogant, because it suggests that whoever is saying it knows the mind of Dylan better than Dylan himself. Has he listened to Blood on the Tracks? Or Time Out of Mind? Or any number of Dylan’s other great albums? The rest of us struggle to understand the workings of Dylan’s mind, and so we are in no position to second-guess him, although I’m about to try. But Dylan does not need rescuing from himself.
So let’s get down to the question, or rather the two questions as I’ve interpreted it – did Bob buy in, and did he sell out. First, some basic facts, which I think these days are beyond debate.
Bob Dylan started off as a teen rock and roller with no politics or folk music in his work. He played Little Richard numbers on his piano, he rarely played the guitar, and it took a long time before he started writing songs.
Once in New York, he became part of the burgeoning folk protest movement, and in 1962 and 1963 made two albums, Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are A-Changing, which helped begin the definition of a generation. I don’t think I am engaging in hyperbole when I say that. These albums were full of acoustic protest songs which need no introduction – songs which were at once directly political and wonderfully poetic. ‘Blowin in the Wind’, ‘Masters of War’, ‘The Lonsesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’. These songs had some effect, though it’s impossible to say how much, in galvanising and broadening the appeal of the civil rights and peace movements of the early 60s.
In the mid-sixties he left the folk scene behind, wrote songs about a variety of less political and more personal topics, and made more electric rock and blues music. Subsequently, he has made great albums in many genres – older-style folk, country, rock and roll, blues…Dylan is such a great songwriter that he transcends genre. Since the mid 60s, bar the odd political song and a flirtation with born-again Christianity, he has stayed out of politics, and these days seems comfortable performing for the Pope and selling an old live recording through Starbucks.
So far, so uncontroversial.
Now I would just like briefly to cover the argument that Dylan going electric, and all of the hoo-ha that accompanied it, was a political sell-out. Many of you will have seen the footage and read accounts of the set with the Butterfield Blues Band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and his 66 tour with The Hawks. These moves were of enormous historical significance for music, but not for politics.
For an acoustic folk singer, as Dylan was then seen, to go electric was a huge deal, not least because at the time he was subject to a hell of a lot of criticism. But that was because many people felt that electric meant pop. Years later, we know that serious messages can come from electrified music. From a political perspective, we shouldn’t dwell on Dylan going electric. You can sing political and non-political songs both electric or acoustic.
‘Folk’ does not mean ‘left-wing’. Before Pete Seeger ever played a guitar, people were singing folk music about their washing lines. And some great left-wing music has been recorded with electrification. So although at the time many people did equate an abandonment of acoustic music with selling out politically, it’s not a good argument.
Whether he sold out is a legitimate question, but using Dylan’s switch to electric music as justification for arguing that he did so doesn’t hold up.
Before Dylan wrote and played his outright folk protest songs, he was already playing what you might call that authentic, older-styled folk music. The quintessentially American music that everyday people would play to each other around the camp-fire, in their homes in the country, in the fields – music which could be about anything; not necessarily even vaguely political. Music chronicled by Alan Lomax and Harry Smith, usually based on either blues or country.
Dylan went back to this music not long after the Greenwich Village days, when he recorded the Basement Tapes with The Band in Woodstock; and he has returned to that music many times since, on record and in concert. One thing seems clear: Woody Guthrie, who was an exponent of both political and what might be called “pre-political” folk music, was an early hero of Dylan’s. Not just in terms of the politics: Dylan was attracted to Guthrie’s story-song style; his finger-picking techniques; his travelling hobo persona (to the extent that Dylan invented tales of his own travels); and his politics, which were very much for the common person, against oppression, and for a fair deal.
But maybe Dylan only paid lip service to each of these aspects of Guthrie’s personality and life. The young Dylan never travelled in the same way that Guthrie did; he wasn’t satisfied with sticking to the story-song spoken blues, let alone acoustic finger-picking; and, in terms of politics, while Guthrie was a sometime member and long-time supporter of the Communist Party, who dedicated the latter half of his life to the struggle, Dylan never went anywhere near that far.
So exactly how political was Dylan?
Richard Farina, with whom Dylan lived in the early 60s, characterises the politics of Dylan at the time as feeling “the intolerability of bigoted opposition to civil rights”. Fairly bland in itself. But Farina goes on to say that Dylan found opposition to such basic rights as an absurdity, and consequently he found it easy to write songs about it. The issue was open-and-shut, and so good material for songs; especially when there were specific, horrific case studies at hand – natural topics for songs like The ‘Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, and ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’. The nuclear bomb situation seemed similarly obvious and clear-cut to Dylan – hence Masters of War.
Even then, Farina points out that it was always the music that mattered to Dylan, not the politics. Not that he didn’t believe in what he was singing about; in that sense he was very much a part of the civil rights movement, and an important one at that. But artistically speaking, the political issues were being used by the songs, not the other way round.
And Dylan has always – always – been an artist over and above anything else. And just as Dylan’s songs made use of the issues, in a general sense Dylan himself made use of the folk protest movement. Fame was not an end in itself – but Dylan was wily enough to realise that without it, he would not get the opportunity to practice his art with as much freedom as he wanted.
But as I hope I have made clear, I don’t believe that the exploitation here was all one way. Dylan did believe in the politics he was singing about – as I have said, it was the very fact that he believed them so strongly that made him put them in song. And the exploitation that went on was two-way, as Dylan used the movement to a degree, and the movement used him.
But one of the things that impressed me most about Martin Scorsese’s recent documentary about those years was that he wasn’t painted either as an all-out left-wing firebrand or as an unbelieving and cynical user. Cynicism may have come on later, but at the time, Dylan did go far beyond what he needed to do if he was only in it to advance his own career. And Scorcese’s film makes that point with its footage of Dylan, with only an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, playing songs for black sharecroppers in a field in the Deep South.
That footage was from Dylan’s trip, along with Theo Bikel and Pete Seeger, to a voter-registration drive in Greenwood, Mississippi – the kind of gradualist method for improving civil rights that President Kennedy approved of. The trip in itself proved that Dylan had some sort of belief in, and commitment to, the protest movement of the time, and the footage made quite an impression on me personally.
The trip was to be a significant one in other ways too. He debuted ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’, a superb song telling the story of the murder of Medgar Evers, an NAACP activist. Also at the time, Dylan had long conversations with Jim Forman, the Secretary of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and Dylan was impressed by what Forman had to say – questioning the effectiveness of the slow-moving Kennedy reforms, expressing outrage at Kennedy’s refusal to protect vote-registration workers, and favouring more direct action.
Nearly all chroniclers of Dylan’s career at that time accept that Dylan, Joan Baez and the rest were an integral part of that gradual approach – basically taking up the baton from Kennedy’s inaugural address and taking it to the people. Forman and SNCC rejected their approach. And in ‘Only a Pawn’ Dylan seems to lean towards Forman’s views – the murder wasn’t simply the white murderer’s fault – “it ain’t him to blame” – he is only a pawn in their game. There was a real structural problem here which required a more dramatic approach than the non-confrontational methods favoured up to that point.
Around the same time, Dylan wrote an apology to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, for making a speech (which you may remember from the Scorsese documentary) when he accepted the group’s Tom Paine award, where he compared himself to Lee Harvey Oswald and attacked bald politicians for being bald, and bourgeois Negroes for wearing suits on the platform at the Great March on Washington, and “generally pissed on liberalism” as Dave Marsh puts it. But what is interesting is that his apology makes it crystal clear that his treatment of the ECLU event was not because he was rejecting left-wing politics; in actual fact, his behaviour represented a radicalisation, offering support to the Black Panther position that direct action led by black people, not white people, was the only solution to civil rights problems. The only thing he rejected was the liberal, white-led folk protest movement.
Dylan did perform at the March on Washington, despite Jim Forman discouraging attendance. But by this point his protest days were numbered. Dylan was increasingly struck by what the folk protest movement had or rather hadn’t achieved, its naivete, and as Marqusee points out, the authoritarian and hence hypocritical way in which it was run. He faced a choice: break off from the musical-political movement that had given him fame, and embrace a more direct form of political action; or, still break off from the musical-political movement that had given him fame, and retreat into himself, artistically.
Either way, events, lack of progress and the influence of others had helped persuade him that a new direction was required. And this is where we go back to a point I made earlier: above all else, Bob Dylan was and is an artist. So of those two choices, with hindsight, there can have been little doubt about which he would choose. And there should be no surprise. Such complicated political feelings as he was going through at the time would not make good song material.
I’ve had a look at the discussion on the Workers’ Liberty website, and the point is made that, from 1964 onwards, after the album The Times They Are A-Changing, Dylan still wrote political songs, damning critiques of the political elite, big business, inequality, and so on. His very next album, Another Side Of, contained some of these songs – like ‘Chimes of Freedom’. And not too long afterwards he wrote ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, one his most lyrically brilliant songs, and a superb indictment of modern society.
I think Mike Marqusee’s central thesis is that Dylan’s post-acoustic songs of the mid-sixties – during that run of three magnificent, magnificent, albums – were actually full of social and political comment: ‘Maggie’s Farm’ is a class-based cry of rage against wage labour; ‘It’s Alright Ma’ is a damning indictment of a hypocritical, greedy and corrupt society. And there are more examples.
It is certainly true that Dylan didn’t retreat totally into himself, pulling back from any social awareness. But while we don’t have time to pick lots of songs and albums apart here, I’m not sure I’m with Marqusee all the way.
It seems to me that by the mid-sixties, Dylan was taking pot-shots against all manner of people and groups. He’d sweep in, condemn someone poetically, brilliantly and concisely, then move off somewhere else. And that would be that. Just like in the past, the ideal, the opinion, served the song; not the other way around. But now he would publicly deny any politics – ok he answered hecklers with “come on man, these are all protest songs”, but they weren’t. They were commentary. As he said to folk singer Phil Ochs at the time, “The stuff you’re writing is bullshit…the only thing that’s real is inside you. Your feelings. Just look at the world you’re writing about and you’ll see you’re wasting your time. The world is, well – it’s just absurd”.
You could say that while Dylan still ruled the counter-culture, he provided its apolitical, its personal direction – not its political direction. From a political perspective, the songs became increasingly less specific, less pointed, and with less purpose. He wrote for himself, and never even attempted to use them externally – and nor would he dream of licensing others to do so. One of the most memorable instructions on the 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home was this one: “don’t follow leaders”. He included himself among those leaders. He was moving away from the movement.
And in many ways, from the same album, It’s Alright Ma’ sums up most of what Dylan has ever tried to get across in song. The tension between the peaceful, folky style of protest on the one hand, and the more direct and possibly violent solutions on the other hand is made clear with these lyrics:
As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
And while presidents, advertising and various other ills of modern liberal democratic capitalistic society are condemned, Dylan constantly refers back to his individualistic outlook, and implicitly his rejection of collective action to solve the problems he’s mentioned:
An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it.
And finally, he admits to the presence in his mind of what would be seen as impure and unworthy thoughts by his former folk protest comrades:
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.
Later on in Dylan’s career, there was the occasional direct protest song. In 1971 he released the single ‘George Jackson’, about the death in prison of the Black Panther; and more importantly, in 1975 he wrote and recorded ‘Hurricane’ – a long and detailed exposition and critique of the miscarriage of justice surrounding the boxer Reuben Carter, wrongly convicted of murder.
Dylan sings with urgency, anger and conviction. But even this song reads like a tacit admission of the failure of the folk protest movement: “if you’re black, you might as well not show up on the streets”. So much for voter-registration; inequality runs a lot deeper than that, as we know. In any case, these songs were isolated instances.
So, bringing all of this together so as to answer the original questions. Did Dylan buy in? Dylan bought in to an extent. He was a part-time member of that folk protest movement – he just happened to be by a long way its best songwriter and hence an invaluable asset to it. He did far more than he needed to if his only goal had been to become famous, cynically, on the back of the movement.
As he became more involved in the movement, he came to question it, and as a result he drifted away from it. He continued to write what from most other songwriters would be called dangerously revolutionary songs, and he continued to work and perform with well-known left-wing artists – Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez again in the 70s – but once the songs were written, that was it. He would play them live, sure, but as songs at Bob Dylan concerts, not as statements.
So did he sell out? Unless you live in the world of pigeon-holes and mass over-simplifications, then the answer has to be no. Just as he had gone into the folk protest movement both for reasons of expediency and belief, he came out of it both because he questioned where it was going and also, and moreover, because it was where his art was going. That last point is one too huge to examine here, but let us not forget that it is the central point: within two years of Another Side Of, Dylan had recorded probably the best three consecutive albums recorded by one person – Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing it all Back Home, and Blonde on Blonde. As Bruce Springsteen said in a recent interview (one which was very revealing, both musically and politically), “Trust the art, not the artist”. So did he sell out? Not really – he just moved on.