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Bob Dylan and Philosophy (Popular Culture…

Bob Dylan and Philosophy (Popular Culture and Philosophy)

by Peter Vernezze, Carl Porter (Editor)

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Review - Bob Dylan and Philosophy
It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Thinking)
by Peter Vernezze and Carl Porter (Editors)
Open Court, 2005
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Sep 9th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 37)

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man ?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand ?
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned ?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Bob Dylan recorded "Blowin' in the Wind" (listen to the young Dylan perform the song) in 1962 and included it in his second album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan which was released in 1963. It was, and is a moving and thought provoking (and ambiguous) song which became a kind of anthem for protesters in the 1960s. There is, it promised, an answer for the many injustices of the times – or, perhaps there isn't anything more than the insubstantial wind. Ambiguity is a feature of much of Dylan's work. Everywhere I went in the 60s in California that song was playing on radio and record players. Its lyrics, as performed by Bob Dylan or by Peter, Paul and Mary (and later dozens of artists), spoke to the protesters who were interested in fixing the world which had most recently included the Korean war and the omni-present racial injustices of the United States. There is a heartfelt, almost religious, feel to the performance.

Many words have been written about the song, about its origins, the plagiarism charge, its meaning, its power, and its sources. Dylan himself, in comments for Sing Out, writes:

There ain't too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain't in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it's in the wind – and it's blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won't believe that. I still say it's in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it's got to come down some ...But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know . . . and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it's wrong. I'm only 21 years old and I know that there's been too many . . . You people over 21, you're older and smarter. [Source]

People "see wrong and know it's wrong" – those people are "the biggest criminals". That theme runs through all of Dylan's poetry from this song until the present. Everyone in my first year English classes in the late 60s knew those lyrics and could recite them and/or sing them. It spoke to them about the coming war in Vietnam and the protest and violence of the times. It is universal. Today it is Iraq. ISIS. Ukraine. Ferguson. How many years must the cannonball fly?

This collection of essays is Volume 17 of the Open Court "Popular Culture and Philosophy" series. The volumes are all readable and valuable and provide a rich source of discussion and insight for all readers. They purposely stay away from over technical jargon and yet are able to "do" some serious philosophy. Sixteen essays comprise this volume, and the topics covered range from personal identity, to truth, to love, to the good, to authenticity, to the quarrel between poetry and philosophy. The overall theme is how Bob Dylan's work is involved in "ethical notions of responsibility and justice" and how that concern places Dylan in a long line of American notables – Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Vonnegut – who are moralists in the best sense of the word. (that is, not finger-wagging moralists, but agents of change and connection with the good).

In the opening essay "Planet Waves: Dylan's Symposium", Doug Anderson sets the appropriate tone of discourse with a convincing comparison between the recording session for Planet Waves and Plato's The Symposium. "Love always sleeps rough, on the ground, with no bed, lying in doorways and by roads in the open air; sharing his mother's nature, he always lives in a state of need." [Plato] The central topic in both works is love; from puppy love to adult physical Eros to a realization of agape, or philosophical Eros as the human desire, as Socrates would argue, for truth and wisdom. As Anderson writes, "Music, poetry, and philosophy are not the useless practices that guidance counselors tell us they are; they are the divine gifts of those who love in the highest way possible, and we fans – fanatics – both experience and understand the cash value of these gifts." [p.15]

Reading the sixteen essays is a joyful experience and on the way we learn a fair amount of philosophy and a useful bit of biographical information about Bob Dylan. His motorcycle accident brought about a sea change in his life. His conversion to Christianity another. He says in an interview for Rolling Stone that he has been transfigured:

[The interviewer]: By transfiguration, you mean it in the sense of being transformed? Or do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?

[Dylan]: Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966.1 already explained to you about new and old. Right? Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it's a real concept. It's happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it's happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It's not like something you can dream up and think. It's not like conjuring up a reality or like reincarnation – or like when you might think you're somebody from the past but have no proof. It's not anything to do with the past or the future.

So when you ask some of your questions, you're asking them to a person who's long dead. You're asking them to a person that doesn't exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I've lived through a lot. Have you ever heard of a book called No Man Knows My History? It's about Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. The title could refer to me.

And, I submit, time and chance transfigures us all.

Get the book. Get the series of books. You will find them interesting. And good choices for introductory classes in the humanities.

© 2014 Bob Lane

Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.


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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
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Porter, CarlEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812695925, Paperback)

The legions of Bob Dylan fans know that Dylan is not just a great composer, writer, and performer, but a great thinker as well. In Bob Dylan and Philosophy, eighteen philosophers analyze Dylan’s ethical positions, political commitments, views on gender and sexuality, and his complicated and controversial attitudes toward religion. All phases of Dylan’s output are covered, from his early acoustic folk ballads and anthem-like protest songs to his controversial switch to electric guitar to his sometimes puzzling, often profound music of the 1970s and beyond. The book examines different aspects of Dylan’s creative thought through a philosophical lens, including personal identity, negative and positive freedom, enlightenment and postmodernism in his social criticism, and the morality of bootlegging. An engaging introduction to deep philosophical truths, the book provides Dylan fans with an opportunity to learn about philosophy while impressing fans of philosophy with the deeper implications of his intellectual achievements.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:19 -0400)

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