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Dylan versus the Sixties

May 24, 2001

Conservatives often talk as if the Sixties were the craziest decade in American history. Liberals talk as if the Sixties were a renaissance, after the silent conformity of the Fifties. I don’t recognize either description. Having been a college student in the thick of “campus unrest,” I remember the Sixties as a mix of silly fads and raucous conformity. Consider the most durable icon of the Sixties, Bob Dylan.

Dylan, the folk minstrel of the youth “rebellion” of the Sixties, has just turned 60 himself, a milestone celebrated even in the conservative Wall Street Journal. Dylan started out singing mildly left-wing ditties, and he was adopted and promoted by his leftist elders long before he was very popular with younger audiences. As his early career illustrates, the youth “rebellion” was actually a triumph of marketing — commercial marketing by the record companies, and political marketing by the veteran Left, which had learned to manipulate youngsters through Communist front groups in the Thirties: the American Student Union, the American Youth Congress, the National Negro Youth Congress, the Student Congress against War and Fascism, and so on.

Dylan himself, always an individualist, muted his leftist politics as his career progressed and he succeeded in unimpeachably capitalistic terms. But the New Left of the Sixties bore a huge debt to the Old Left that had thrived in the Thirties. In fact, the pretense that the New Left was “new” was only a useful fiction to dissociate it publicly from its Stalin-era forebears, who had been discredited by their servility to the Soviet Union.

According to Sixties mythology, the New Left was composed of pure and idealistic young people, spontaneously united by revulsion against war and other bad stuff and needing no prompting from their elders. They’d discovered Marx on their own, we were assured, and it was absurd to think they were under any Muscovite influence.

[Breaker quote: The icon who 
saved himself]As a college student in the Sixties, I was always struck by the uniformity of all those alleged nonconformists. Since when did joining all the latest fads — and bullying those who refused to join — make you an independent thinker? Why was there so much unanimity, and so little tolerance, among people who styled themselves “protestors”? You could find so many things you could protest, if you had a mind to, but these kids of my own generation always seemed to protest the same few things. It was as if you needed authorization from liberal grown-ups as to which evils were suitable topics of mass discontent.

I liked Dylan, in spite of his leftist “protest” phase, because I sensed that he was uneasy with the groupthink of his admirers and promoters. He was original enough not to imitate others, and he didn’t enjoy being imitated. His restless sense of irony wouldn’t allow him to repeat himself; he discarded the formula of his own success. He was willing to outrage his own fans by adopting the electric guitar, a taboo in the world of lefty “folk” music. When he made himself the target of furious protest, I decided he was my kind of leftist — if such a free spirit could ever really be a leftist at heart.

Dylan’s creation of “folk rock” turned out to be an utterly brilliant career move, but he couldn’t have known that at the time. All he knew was that he was risking a very lucrative career and breaking with the people who had made him a success. He was even turning his back on the musical tradition that had influenced him most. That took a lot more guts than, say, switching from the Republicans to the Democrats.

It was also a daring repudiation of the fake-prole “authenticity” of the commercial folk revival. And it was a highly symbolic rejection of the new orthodoxies of the Sixties. He realized you can only be “authentic” on your own terms.

When an interviewer tried to prod Dylan to utter pompous liberal platitudes, he demurred, insisting he was only a singer, not a prophet. When the interviewer persisted, the exasperated Dylan replied with an exquisite put-down: “I wonder if Tony Bennett has to answer questions like this.”

Whatever else he was, Dylan was his own man. That was a rare thing in the Sixties, and it’s rarer now.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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