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Drew Fagan: Inspiration or appropriation? The answer is Blowin’ In The Wind

Commentary

In an interview on the release of his 2004 autobiography, Bob Dylan was asked whether it was true that he’d written Blowin’ In The Wind in 10 minutes.

“Probably,” Dylan responded. And where had the inspiration come from? “It just came,” Dylan continued dismissively. “It came from, right out of that wellspring of creativity, I would think.”

Dylan never thought the song, which quickly became the anthem of the civil rights movement, was one of his best. A case can be made that it’s the most important song of the post-War era, encapsulating the ’60s idealism and youth culture that remains influential. It’s also one of the most recorded popular songs — by Peter, Paul and Mary and Stevie Wonder, famously, but also by many who swung and missed on it, like Elvis Presley and Marlene Dietrich.

Dylan’s view was summed up in his response to George Harrison when the former Beatle asked him a very long decade later to play it at the Concert for Bangladesh. Dylan, in turn, asked Harrison — they’d been recording together — whether he’d sing I Want To Hold Your Hand. (Dylan, in the end, did play it that night.)

Blowin’ In the Wind was mostly written on the afternoon of April 16, 1962. Dylan wrote the first verse (“How many roads …) and what became the third verse (“How many times …) as fellow folkie David Cohen strummed chords under Dylan’s guidance. The second verse (“How many years …”) was added days later. (Cohen, who performed as David Blue, is possibly most famous as the man sitting cross-legged on the cover of Dylan and The Band’s 1975 album The Basement Tapes.)

The song was “hot off the pencil,” in the words of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse MC who introduced it that night to a crowd that sat stunned after hearing it, then erupted.

But it was also a century old. Dylan based it on a Civil War-era song called No More Auction Block, which likely originated with former slaves who escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad. Dylan had heard the song days earlier from Delores Dixon, the only African-American member of the New World Singers.

Blowin’ In The Wind — Peter, Paul and Mary sang it at the 1963 march where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech (and Dylan sang two other songs) — might be considered today, then, to be cultural appropriation.

No one thought like that then. Dylan sang No More Auction Block often in Greenwich Village in 1962 and into 1963. He’d become attuned to black music, Little Richard especially, as a teenager in northern Minnesota by staying up late to listen to the crackling sound of a Louisiana radio station. Blowin’ In the Wind caused Mavis Staples to ask in amazement how a 20-year-old white boy could capture so perfectly the indignities and aspirations of black people.

“… there is a long history of artists taking on identities that aren’t theirs, as well as building their artistic output on the shoulders of others.”

On Sunday, a livestream concert by Dylan, who turned 80 on May 24, is set to premiere. Titled Shadow Kingdom, an Internet clip suggests he’ll focus on his early songs, possibly including Blowin’ In The Wind. It was an encore staple during his so-called Never Ending Tour, in which he played an average of 100 dates a year for three decades, until the pandemic. The concert also might be considered a bookend as the pandemic winds down (fingers crossed), opposite release at the beginning of the pandemic in spring, 2020 of his 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways.

Meanwhile, New York City plans to mark its reopening with “Central Park Comeback” on August 21, including half-a-dozen star performances, culminating with Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen. Simon will be 80 in October; Springsteen is just 71.

Simon and Springsteen, in their own ways, are magpies and shape shifters too. In his hit show Springsteen on Broadway, which reopened in late June, Springsteen takes note of topics that have dominated his 50-year songwriting career. He can hardly claim that descriptions of working-class anxiety and the draw of the open road are autobiographical, he says, though he wasn’t raised in a comfortable home.

“I’ve never done any hard labour. I’ve never worked nine-to-five. I’ve never worked five days a week until right now. I don’t like it. I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up. That’s how good I am.”

Simon, for his part, was responsible for one of the biggest artistic leaps by a mainstream American artist during the heyday of pop. He was still a star in the mid-80s but seemingly without inspiration or a path forward until he went to South Africa and recorded the immensely popular album Graceland. This was during apartheid, and he was criticized widely for engaging with local artists instead of boycotting the country and regime. But he also gave unprecedented attention to African music, then virtually unknown in the West, and helped to launch the musical genre known as Worldbeat.

As concert halls reopen, there is heightened attention to diversity in programming, just as there is in terms of workforce. The opportunity that comes from casting a wider net was brought home forcefully in a big multicultural city like Toronto some years ago, during the Pan/Parapan American Games, when nightly concerts drew 20,000 fans for artists well beyond the Can/Am mainstream.

Likewise, Canadian music venues should be thinking more about nurturing homegrown talent, especially from Indigenous, black and racialized communities. When venerable Massey Hall reopens in late fall, the complex also will include three smaller venues with capacities in the hundreds; two of them in a new building attached to the 1894 hall, which has been renovated and updated.

Those are perfect settings to give greater effect to cultural objectives that go beyond just putting on shows, and are written right into the founding documents of the non-profit Corporation of Massey Hall & Roy Thomson Hall, as one key example: “to advance the development of the performing arts in Canada (and) to provide opportunities for Canadian artistic talent.”

“… promotion of a diverse range of artists is not the same thing as insisting that artists stay in their lanes based on origins and background.”

Massey Hall will reopen with three concerts by Gordon Lightfoot, as it should. No one is more identified with the hall than Lightfoot. But he, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bruce Cockburn and Mavis Staples too — all booked for the first six months of reopening — are hardly the future of popular music.

At the same time, the increased importance put on promotion of a diverse range of artists is not the same thing as insisting that artists stay in their lanes based on origins and background.

The accusation of appropriation has credence when artists claim identity with a victimized minority group that is not theirs, or only vaguely so. This has been most evident regarding Indigenous identity, as recognition grows of the impacts of Canada’s colonialist history.

But, here too, there is a long history of artists taking on identities that aren’t theirs, as well as building their artistic output on the shoulders of others.

The line is sometimes clear, but often fuzzy.

Back to Dylan, for example. Blowin’ In The Wind was of a pattern. Many of Dylan’s early songs were based on traditional songs. In his autobiography, published posthumously, folksinger Dave Van Ronk tells of a sentimental ballad he’d learned from his grandmother called The Chimes of Trinity. “He (Dylan) made me sing it for him a few times until he had the gist of it, then reworked it into Chimes of Freedom. Her version was better.”

(Dylan wrote the song, incidentally, on paper from the long-gone Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Toronto, as is displayed on the website of the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

Furthermore, Dylan’s very persona when he arrived in New York City in January 1961 was a confection. He was a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minn., which might then have been America’s wealthiest blue-collar town, but headed into decline. His family owned a string of movie theatres. (One was named after Dylan’s great-grandmother, Lybba, and closed in 1982. Dylan’s son Jesse, a Hollywood producer, launched a non-profit called Lybba 25 years later.)

Dylan claimed he was a Sioux Indian from New Mexico and showed off how to speak in “Indian sign language,” Van Ronk recalled. Dylan told the New York Times writer whose glowing review got him a Columbia Records contract — unheard of for a folksinger — that he’d survived his first weeks in the big city as a male prostitute.

Dylan styled himself after Woody Guthrie right down to his hero’s mannerisms, including on stage. It was entirely inauthentic but within 15 months he’d written Blowin’ In the Wind and in another 18 months he’d play to a Carnegie Hall audience which knew every word of his songs.

Van Ronk notes that the Greenwich Village circle figured Dylan was putting them on but they didn’t much care. Everyone there then was doing something like it. Dylan’s secret didn’t get exposed until after he learned that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who’d based his persona, songs and performing style on Guthrie, was actually the son and grandson of Jewish doctors from Long Island. Van Ronk, who was at the table when it happened, relates that Dylan literally fell out of his chair in amazement at the news.

(Ramblin’ Jack’s parents weren’t pleased at his career choice but sat up front at a Greenwich Village show after he’d been away for a time out West. Between songs, his mother said in a stage whisper: “Look at those fingers … Such a surgeon he could have been!”)

Of course, Dylan was able to construct a new identity, such that it became his real identity, because he was what amounted to an invisible minority. Asked why he changed his name from Zimmerman to Dylan, he told a friend in 1971 that it was to avoid anti-Semitism. But years later, he said simply: “You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.” (Ethel Zimmermann joked that she changed her name to Merman because she feared that her family name in lights would bake the audience.)

Dylan based much of his late career output on early 20th-century blues, mid-century country and other musical strains that were considered then, and sometimes now, to be low-brow fare. It’s been called his archaic period but, really, he was more archaic when he modelled A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall on the 17th-century Anglo-Scottish ballad Lord Randal.

Some of his best later songs pay homage to black artists — Blind Willie McTell, High Water (For Charley Patton), Goodbye Jimmy Reed — just as many of his early songs protested the injustices faced by black America, like The Death of Emmett Till, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Hurricane.

In so doing, he’s raised attention about prejudice as well as highlighted artists who deserve to be better known. He’s also done very well doing so. He sold his back catalogue of more than 600 songs to Universal Music last December for more than $300 million USD.

As he begins his eighth decade as a performer, his unrivalled career might stand as something of an exemplar of the complexities of concepts like artistic licence, cultural appropriation and, indeed, modern music.

Now, let’s see what Sunday brings.

Andrew Bennett: We need genuine humility when we reflect on our history

Commentary

“We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.” – Margaret MacMillan

Rarely have more sage words been spoken about history and how we understand it and our responsibility to accept both the good and the bad in it.

The Anglo-Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, one of the leading historians of our age, should know something of what she speaks. Through her critical work on the origins of the First World War, and on the gerrymandering of nation-states that resulted at its conclusion, she has shed new light on how 100 years later we remember that cataclysm of the last century.

Reflections on history must always be informed by a desire to seek what is true, and to work towards revealing both the successes and the failures of our collective past. It must also be shot through with a genuine humility in which we recognize that, while technology advances, little about our human nature changes.

Before we condemn the sins and misdeeds of our forebears we should reflect on our own passions for exclusivity, greed, narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and sanctimonious ideological pontificating about how enlightened and righteous we post-moderns are. 

In the interest of righting a genuine and grave historic wrong — the great suffering of Indigenous Canadians at the residential schools — the historical hubris of our present Canadian age is distorting history yet again.

Enter the woke mobs (and the local authorities who bow to their destructive whims) that have defaced and dragged down statues of Sir. John A. Macdonald, Egerton Ryerson, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth. In doing so they desire to erase history rather than reveal it, in all of its warts and triumphs. 

History is the story of human lives interacting with one another, both the rulers and ruled, in innumerable communities since time began. It is a story of both great wickedness and great virtue, of war and peace, of saints and sinners, and of our ongoing struggle to make sense of the world and our place in it.

In discovering and teaching our history to every successive generation we have a duty as a people to teach the whole story as best we can, conscious of our prejudices. We have a collective responsibility to seek ways to illustrate, through the good and the bad of our history, the nature of our humanity. In so doing we may reveal again and again to ourselves a humanity that is fallen and prone to sin, yet that in its true nature is oriented towards great goodness, the promotion of justice, acts of charity, and a vision of the community that is imbued with an aspiration to advance human flourishing and the bonum commune — the common good. 

If we abandon this responsibility in the interest of advancing a narrow political agenda, a specific ideology, or in a misplaced desire to whitewash out the bad of history then we fail to serve the common good. Instead, we come to serve our own pride: that we know better; that we would never do what those bigoted Victorians did; that we will bring about a new age of justice and truth. 

Well, I say beware the arrogance of the new age.

If you happen to be one among the chattering classes and historical do-gooders who would consign the likes of Sir John A., Queen Victoria, Edward Cornwallis, and Egerton Ryerson and their associated edifices and effigies to the politically incorrect bonfire, you might very well find yourselves associating with some highly dubious company, including those who led brutally authoritarian regimes.

Attempts to cleanse history so that some perceived pure form of just society might result is a fool’s, or worse, a tyrant’s errand, but it has repeatedly been attempted with devastating results. 

On September 21, 1792 the National Convention in revolutionary France abolished the monarchy and declared September 22, 1792 to be 1 Vendémiaire, the first day of Year 1. Everything that came before was anti-revolutionary: monarchy, church, estates, culture was to be dispensed with.

Taking a cue from their former colonial masters, the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot declared upon their takeover of Cambodia in April 1975 that chhnam saun, Year Zero, had begun. Informed by a hyper-Marxist, Khmer nationalist, and agrarian ideology the Khmer Rouge embarked upon a destructive process of de-industrialization and re-education that sought to wipe out the existing culture, traditions, and social structures, replacing them with a new revolutionary culture. 

The same disordered zeal for a revolutionary utopia also infected Soviet Communism and German National Socialism.

Righteous anger against what happened in the residential schools is just. Yet to twist righteous anger into violence and destruction is a grave crime against individuals, their communities, and the body politic; it does nothing to foster true reconciliation. True reconciliation takes a lot of work and is grounded in tens of thousands of conversations, new relationships, and the rediscovery of trust.

The woke mob is bent on destruction fuelled by arrogance, and ignorance — passions which we as human beings have struggled against throughout history. As an American friend of mine recently said, our democracy and the common life we share is a delicate orchid, beautiful yet fragile, it needs constant tending. We must ensure that the totalitarian impulse — let’s call it by its spiritual names: pride and vainglory — that lurks in every human heart must be forever curbed else the orchid wither and die.

Such is totalitarianism. It does not tolerate dissent from an established narrative, nor does it tolerate a much more nuanced view of human action that can rightly condemn grave misdeeds while lauding great achievements. 

If we are to condemn Sir John A. and remove his image from our national life for his central role in establishing the residential schools, then surely we must do likewise for each of his successors as prime minister up until Brian Mulroney, as they were all complicit in the allowing these dens of abuse to persist. 

If we are to remove statues of Sir John A. for this reprehensible policy, then should we not rename Montreal’s international airport? After all, it is currently named for a man, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who with his Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Jean Chrétien, introduced one of the most comprehensive plans to assimilate First Nations peoples in Canadian history: the rightly reviled White Paper Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, 1969?  No. In fact, we should not rename Montreal’s airport.

What we must do is teach and advance the entire history of those who from the millennia before European contact to the present day have strode across the stage of this country’s history. How might future generations view our actions, your actions, my actions?

We must continually contemplate (and I emphasize contemplate) and assess history and how humans have acted.  We must openly and publicly discuss our failures, but also our great achievements: the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our social safety network, and Confederation itself, which has ensured the development of a flourishing democracy in this place we call home, this Canada. 

It is this democracy that permits criticism of our great men and women. It is this democracy that gives us a cultural base from which to learn from our great mistakes while also championing our great successes as a national community. It is this democracy, with all of its foibles and flaws, that supports a deep pluralism in which we can fundamentally disagree with one another yet at the same time desire to build a common life together and to lift each other up. 

This nation-building is a uniquely human venture and human beings screw up. Is this democracy perfect? No, it is not. But then again, are we?