Pod people: Dylan does his Dylan thing

It’s time for another Crossroads podcast, so please click here to tune that in on your computer or head on over to iTunes. We’re talking Bob Dylan and I think that it’s safe to say that Dylan is in better shape right now on the whole China sellout thing than, oh, Maureen Dowd & Co.

I say this because an interesting collection of voices — including some on the left — have started noting that Dylan was far from silent in Beijing, when he took the stage under what he knew would be a hot international spotlight.

For some scribes, the problem was that he emphasized religion, not politics (as usually defined in the mainstream press). He made a statement, but not the right one. But stop and think about that for a minute. Is there any subject in modern China more controversial than religion and religious freedom?

Truth is, Dylan spoke out on politics and religion at the same time. Friends, this is not Dylan’s first rodeo in the public square.

Anyway, I jumped into the fray on the Dylan matter here at GetReligion for a simple, pointedly journalistic reason. How can anyone claim that Dylan sold out and didn’t sing edgy material in China without paying attention to the lyrics of his first song in that historic Beijing concert? I mean, read the words.

I’m happy to say that some people are starting to do that. Here’s a dose of Sean Wilentz blogging over at the New Yorker:

Dylan opened his concerts in Beijing and Shanghai with a scalding song from his so-called gospel period, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”

I’m gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my best foot forward
Stop bein’ influenced by fools

Presumably, he sang some of the revised lyrics in the version that he released with Mavis Staples in 2003:

Jesus is coming
He’s coming back to gather His jewels
Well, we live by the Golden Rule
Whoever got the gold, rules

Or maybe he sang the original lyrics:

So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more

How much more subversive could Dylan have been in Communist China? Especially when he went on to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and, most unnerving of all, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Depending on whatever agreement he made with them, I’d argue Dylan made a fool of the Chinese authorities, while getting paid in the bargain. He certainly made a fool of Maureen Dowd — or she has made a fool of herself.

I would quibble a bit with the accuracy of some of the lyrics quoted there (it’s “Jesus is calling” on the first line of that 2003 verse). But his blog made all of the essential points. Preach it, brother.

Which is more than I can say about this Jon Wiener piece over at The Nation online. I mean, it starts with a rejection of the Dowd camp, but then he still manages to miss the main point of what Dylan did on that stage. Here’s a big chunk of that piece:

Bob Dylan did not sell out to the Chinese government when he performed in Beijing on April 6. The “sellout” charge was made in the New York Times [1] on Sunday by Maureen Dowd, along with several other people. The problem: Dylan submitted his set list to the Chinese culture ministry, according to the Guardian’s Martin Wieland in Beijing, and as a result the concert was performed “strictly according to an approved programme.”

That’s the reason, Dowd wrote, why Dylan did not sing what she called his “iconic songs of revolution like “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan thus was guilty of “a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family.”

The Daily Beast ran a feature headlined “Famous Sellouts,” with Bob Dylan in Beijing in the number-one spot, and William Langley wrote in the Telegraph that “Dylan without protest songs sounds about as useful as Hamlet without the soliloquy.”

But look at what Dylan did sing in Beijing [2], starting with “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”: that song describes a place “Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters/Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison/Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden.” You could call that a “protest song” if you wanted to.

He also sang “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” I would say that carries a pretty strong political charge.

And he sang “All Along the Watchtower”: “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth/None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” If you were looking for critical commentary on China today, this would work.

OK, is there anything missing in that commentary? Anyone notice which crucial song — as in the opening number — that The Nation skipped?

I was still steamed about all of this when it came time to write my Scripps Howard piece this week — which was the 23rd anniversary of the start of my “On Religion” column for that national wire service. I opened with the last salvo in China’s war against the nation’s growing wave of unregistered religious groups (click here for details) and then put the Dylan show in that context.

But what’s the big idea? Why are journalists struggling to get this story? Here’s my take:

Many years ago, commentator Bill Moyers told me that the reason so many journalists struggle to cover religion news is that they are “tone deaf” to the music of faith in public life. That image still rings true for me, after 23 years of writing this column for the Scripps Howard News Service and more than three decades of research into life on the religion beat.

For me, the coverage of the Beijing concert was a classic example of this “tone deaf” syndrome. It certainly seems that many reporters attended, but they didn’t hear what they wanted to hear.

You may have heard this already, but many journalists in the mainstream press just don’t “get” religion.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bill

    Perhaps Dylan should perform “Positively 4th Street” for his critics.

  • Jerry

    For what it’s worth, I really liked your piece on Dylan especially because I had, unfortunately, assumed that the media perspective was correct rather than, as too often, being askew.

    And you’re certainly right about religion in China given how the Chinese are acting with Falun Gong, Buddhism in Tibet (lamas are not allowed to reincarnate where they choose) and Christianity (the state is a better choice for who is a priest than the Pope).

  • Bram

    The notion that “The Voice of the Sixties Generation” is also an Evangelical and even a *fundamentalist* Christian is more than the MSM can take. And for almost a third of a century now they have gone to any length to deny that fact. One can only guess that otherwise they would been consigned for all these years to crying “Judas!” in the wilderness through “tears of rage.”

  • Bram

    The only upside to Maureen Dowd’s typical lack of intelligence and insight here is that she would be even *more* upset if she realized that Dylan *didn’t* sell out in Beijing, and especially so if she’d realized what kind of “revolution” it is that’s been singing about for quite some time, and maybe all along. Dylan once said that if people really knew what he was singing about they would put him in jail. That’s certainly true of the leadership in Beijing, but I think it’s also more true of the Maureen Dowds of the world than they would like to believe.

  • http://ancienttruthmedia.com Athanasios Paul Thompson

    Former rock musician and friend of Robert Zimmerman during his Gospel born again period, is now a priest and Director of AncientTruthMedia.com. He calls Dylan a reluctant prophet. Although the aging American musical icon has often frustrated his fans they still trust him to say something meaningful. Journalists like the “cool” Weiner and uncool Dowd will always misunderstand. The Get Religion columnist got some and also got it right. Of course Dylan decalred truth to power. Fr Athanasios Paul says: “China!”He is an odd blend of saint and sinner who brought some long overdue truth to China. The systems of the world are in a mess and a Jesus kind of change is gonna come. Check out the song list and be spirited through and behind the lyrics. The Pantocrator is there and Dylan’s raspy whiskey voice declares it as only he can.

  • http://jochopra.blogspot.com Jo McGowan Chropa

    It is so much easier for journalists (and readers) not to engage with Bob Dylan’s radical “new” identity. Since his conversion, the press has simply not known what to do with him. Events like the concert in China make it easier for them to continue to ignore what is essentially a deepening of his prophetic voice. They liked it when it was recognizable, when he was just railing against the system and crying out for justice and peace; now that he has linked his vision with the wider one which religion provides, they are lost.

    The press not getting religion is perhaps about journalists’ discomfort with religion’s radical call. But journalists are just like the rest of us. Most of us would prefer to avoid the hard truths of a life lived in accord with the teachings of someone like Jesus. Since we have no intention of giving all our possessions to the poor, just for starters, let’s unite in trashing anyone who says the hard sayings out loud.

  • Karen

    A very amusing article which speculates on Dylan’s upcoming Israeli concert playlist, showing lyrics that would appeal to various segments of the population “Religious fans-knitted kippah”, “Secular fans”, “Religious fans-Shlomo Carlebach stoners”, “Religious fans (yeshiva/haredi)”.

    http://www.jpost.com/ArtsAndCulture/Music/Article.aspx?id=216945

  • Helen

    Even Dylan’s second encore, “Forever Young,” takes on a rather subversive meaning in the country where members of house churches are arrested on an ongoing basis: “May God bless and keep you always…”