Monday, 2 February 2009

In Defense of Bob Dylan (1965)


Just between you and me, I would like to ask you to sheath your critical swords so I can get a word in edgewise. I couldn't help but notice the frontal attack on brother Bob Dylan lately, who is being criticized a lot more than most of us thought possible.

It is as if the entire folk community was a huge biology class and Bob was a rare, prize frog. Professor Silber and student Wolfe appear to be quite annoyed that the frog keeps hopping in all different directions while they're trying to dissect him.

It seems the outrage occurred at Newport, and there are many different confusing versions of what went on. Was Dylan raped by success? Did Dylan rape his fans? Did Dylan's fans rape Elizabeth Cotton? Nobody seems to know for sure.

And so Irwin Silber wrote an open letter to Bob telling him he couldn't really write about the world honestly without writing protest songs and accused him of relating only to himself and his cronies.

I agree, and I would like to add my name to the list of accusers. I hereby publicly smack Bob's hand and demand that he be made to stand in a dark corner, preferably at Newport, and be forced to write "Forgive me, Joe Hill" at least a thousand times.

Who does Dylan think he is, anyway? When I grow used to an artist's style I damn well expect him not to disappoint me by switching it radically. My time is too precious to waste trying to change a pattern of my thought.

If you're reading this, Bob, you might as well consider this an open letter to you too. Where do you get off writing about your own experiences? Don't you realize there's a real world out there, a world of bombs, and elections, folk music critics and unemployed folksingers? Instead of writing about your changes like "My Back Pages", for example, you could write a song about Joanie called "My Back Taxes." Oh well, you'll get yours. See if they try to give you any more medals.

In order to prevent this from happening to another angry young man of song, I hereby suggest the formation of an annual prize for the most militant protester in the form of a Silber bullet, on which is inscribed "Go get 'em, kid!"

In the last issue of Broadside Paul Wolfe handed me the topical crown saying I had won it from Bob at Newport and states the future of topical music rested on me. Then he went on to attack the former champion for the low level of his new writing and his lack of consideration for the audience at Newport.

Well, I'm flattered by the compliments but I'd like to point out several misconceptions in the article. In the first place it's not really important who is the better writer and it's pointless to spend your time arguing the issue. The important thing is that there are a lot of people writing a lot of fine songs about many subjects and what concerns me is getting out the best number of good songs from the most people.

In point of fact, when Bob came to Newport he had completely changed the basic subject matter of his songs, and his only real choice as an artist was to be honest to himself and the work he was doing at the time, not how his fans would react to the change. To cater to an audience's taste is not to respect them, and if the audience doesn't understand that they don't deserve respect.

It didn't take any more nerve for me to go on the Newport stage and sing strong protest material since protest songs are so accepted. In reality I didn't show any more respect for the audience than Bob did, because we were really doing exactly the same thing, that is writing naturally about what was on our minds.

With so many good writers around, the future of topical music clearly rests in many hands. And if you want to give credit where credit is due, I pay the greatest homage to Guy Carawan, who not only writes songs, but devotes his full time to the civil rights movement in the South, actively working in a real struggle, promoting workshops on how to use music in the movement, and getting his banjo broken over hi head on a picket line.

As for Bob's writing, I believe it is as brilliant as ever and is clearly improving all the time. On his last record, "Ballad in Plain D" and "It Ain't Me Babe" are masterpieces of personal statement that have as great a significance as any of his protest material. How can anyone be so pretentious as to set guidelines for an artist to follow?

As a matter of fact, in order to save you folks out there from needless aggravation, you may now consider me sold out, completely depraved, and happily not giving a damn about where your tastes happen to be at the moment. I am not writing out of nobility; I am only writing out of an urge to write, period.

My major concern is how honest and well-written I can make a song, not how well it can be used by the movement or how well it fits into the accepted pattern.

These rigorous requirements for songwriters could really get out of hand. Before long you may hear some enraged voice screaming backstage at a Broadside Hootenanny, "You're sorry?....You're sorry?....You wrote a non-topical song and you're sorry?"

It seems you just can't win; no matter what you do these days you're criticized. I really don't see what's so wrong with Bob and I putting all our royalty money into chemical warfare stock.

And so the question still remains. Can I withstand the pressures of fame? Will I be chewed up by the American success machine? Perhaps I might mold topical music into a significant voice in a new and revolutionary America. Or on the other hand you might pick up the Times one day and read the startling headlines: OCHS TURNS TABLES ON TOPICAL TRAITORS.... UNDERGROUND FBI INFORMER ASTOUNDS FOLK WORLD BY ARRESTING DYLAN AND PAXTON AT HOOT.... CITES TAPE RECORDINGS OF SECRET CONVERSATIONS AS DAMAGING EVIDENCE.

As for you, Mr. Levine, some of your movies are really quite bad.

Phil Ochs

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