Friday, 1 May 2009

Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s Chimes of Freedom

by Mike Marqusee

In the course of 1964, as Dylan withdrew from current events, Ochs rushed to embrace them, in song and action. He responded to the Harlem riot--the first of the decade's major inner-city rebellions--with "In the Heat of the Summer," where he mourned the violence but also saw it as an expression of political desperation: "We had to make somebody listen." Ochs traveled south to take part in Mississippi Summer, and unleashed his social patriotic disgust in "Here's To The State of Mississippi" ("Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of / Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of"). In "Links On the Chain" he sang about the historical failure of the labor movement to support the struggle for black freedom. Long before it was fashionable, he sneered at the selective service system in "Draft Dodger Rag," whose jauntily cynical satire anticipates Country Joe's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag."

These songs made Ochs the star of Newport 1964, where he became "the new Dylan"--the first of many cursed with that tag. Broadside declared him "the most important voice in the movement." One Newport reviewer described the contrast between the committed Ochs and the introverted Dylan as "meaning vs. innocuousness, sincerity vs. self-conscious egotism." But Ochs had no interest in this rivalry, and vigorously defended Dylan. "To cater to an audience's taste is not to respect them." Ochs remained a staunch champion of Dylan's genius and his right to pursue his artistic destiny. Dylan was less generous. In private, he needled Ochs, telling him he was "a journalist, not a songwriter," and that his music was "bullshit . . . you're just wasting your time."

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