A few months ago I had the pleasure of creating the album artwork for Ben Keyes’ (rhymes with “skies”) first solo album. Ben is one of the members of Ordinary Time, a folk acoustic trio from Vancouver, Canada, and is a member of TCC Wayland, where I work. The cover (in my completely unbiased opinion) reflects the bluegrass/gospel roots of Ben’s music. Check it out!
I’ve always known my mother is a big fan of Bob Dylan. From an early age I remember hearing her sing “Tangled up in Blue” along with the stereo, and every time one of Bob’s songs would play on the car radio, we’d turn it up.
What I didn’t know was that my mom is also a scholar! She took a class taught by pianist/composer Ken Berman titled “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and The Music of Bob Dylan” from Stanford’s continuing studies department.
For her final project, mom wrote a paper about Dylan’s prophetic penchant, his religious learnings, and the critical response to his conversion to Christianity in the late 70s. A main theme throughout the paper is Dylan’s artistic and spiritual convictions as a songwriter, irregardless of the reaction of the culture and critics. Because of this it makes sense that many regarded him as a prophet.
“From the beginning people noticed something different about Bob. His approach, his way of speaking (writing, singing), his subject matter and his insistence, were unique. He went beyond the typical folk writer and spoke again and again to the heart of his listener – connected with what that generation of folk and rock enthusiasts mostly needed and often wanted, although not always, to hear. Many songs told a story, but just as often held a message. He preached with his songs. When Ginsberg first heard The Times They Are A’Changing he was quoted as saying: “[Dylan just] knocked out this sort of biblical prophecy. Poetry is words that empower – they make sense: a subjective truth that has an objective reality.””
Dylan is unconcerned with selling records, appealing to the public, or preaching a specific message. Bob just wants to sing his songs. It’s a moral, personal imperative.
“It’s not like you see songs approaching and invite them in. It’s not that easy,” says Dylan, “You want to write songs that are bigger than life. You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen. You have to know and understand something and then go past the vernacular.”
I like this. So often we try to focus our energy and attention on preaching the Gospel in “the vernacular.” We (rightly so) try to communicate in a language that the common person will understand. Bob’s complex metaphor and rich imagery is not the language of the common man, yet his music resonates. Why? There’s something there! There’s real creativity, wit, philosophy, all wrapped up with prophetic wisdom and that raspy don’t-tell-me-how-to-sing-a-melody voice. Fantastic.
Here’s my favorite line from the paper, explaining how the critics changed their minds quickly after his conversion to Christianity.
“The odd thing is that as he preached the gospel from his electric pulpit, those who had previously called him a prophet found him anything but.”
Thanks mom for the good read! Now I have to go listen to more Dylan.