American Masters, the PBS series that may be the finest program on television (an honor it claims quite easily in this age of reality based shows about fat people losing weight, and narcissistic showcases like American Idol), spotlighted Joan Baez in a recent episode. Baez, who turned 71 this year (she shares a birthday with Richard Nixon), was a bestselling recording artist and the subject of a Time cover story when Bob Dylan was still a struggling Woody Guthrie wannabe. He was writing songs and making quite an impression in Greenwich Village folk clubs, but, it could be argued, his success was assured only after Baez dragged him on stage to sing with her. Soon, he was the “voice of a generation” that protested the Vietnam War and followed Martin Luther King’s lead in demanding equal rights for blacks. Dylan would reject that role and even snicker at those who marched and carried signs, but Baez was and would remain an activist, jeopardizing her life and career. She spent time in jail and visited the war zone while bombing was in progress. It was, she noted, the kind of situation that could even make an atheist believe in God. She came from a family of Quakers and was brought up to be a pacifist, something Dylan never claimed to be. The man himself, looking old and grizzled, appeared several times. He said he was flattered to be the subject of her self-penned “Diamonds and Rust,” though in her biography she claimed it had been written about her husband, David.
It was my interest in Dylan more than Baez that made me tune in to the American Masters segment. If Baez is a typical leftist, Dylan is not, assuming he’s a leftist at all. A website called Right Wing Bob makes the case that he's quite the opposite. Despite having praised Barack Obama, there is evidence to suggest this voice of the counterculture (when there was such a thing) is something of a conservative. In his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan claimed his favorite politician, circa 1961, was Arizona senator Barry Goldwater who accepted the 1964 republican presidential nomination with his now infamous speech extolling the benefits of extremism (“Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice.”) To the liberal camp supporting Lyndon Johnson’s reelection, Goldwater was a warmonger and a right wing extremist whose conservative principles were woefully out of touch with the modern world. To Dylan, whose songs like “Masters of War” seemed an indictment of such a man, Goldwater was reminiscent of Tom Mix, the all-American cowboy of dozens of B westerns in Hollywood’s silent age.
Even when Chronicles appeared in 2004, a good 40 years after Goldwater’s overwhelming loss to LBJ, some readers obviously liberal in their politics, dismissed Dylan’s statement as disingenuous. Clearly, the man who wrote “The Times They Are-A Changin’” was joking, right?
Dylan didn’t seem to be joking in a 1968 interview with Sing Out when he refused to be pinned down on the Vietnam War. “I know some very good artists who are for the war,” he said, and cites a painter friend, a man he admires, who even considered enlisting to fight in the jungles. When he says he never argued with his friend about his stance, the interviewer pressures him, but Dylan refuses to budge, eventually asking a question of his own that undoubtedly raised eyebrows of readers on the left. “Anyway, how do you know I’m not, as you say, for the war?”
One thing that definitely separates Dylan from many of his left leaning admirers is his belief in God. Even before his very public conversion to Christianity in 1979, God was in his songs and his thoughts. In 1978, Dylan told Phillip Fleishman, “The whole world is a prison. Life is a prison; we’re all inside the body. . . Only knowledge of either yourself or the ultimate power can get you out of it. . . Most people are working toward being one with God, trying to find him. They want to be one with the supreme power, they want to go Home, you know. From the minute they’re born, they want to know what they’re doing here. I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t feel that way.”
© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks
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