Dylan, An America Divided and the Lessons of John Wesley Harding

America is divided. Trump supporters vs die hard Democrat dyed blue in the wool cheerleaders. North vs south. Vaxxed vs the suspicious and untrusting unvaxxed. Freedom dawgs vs mandate authoritarian order-keepers. We have become almost tribal. Issues are not just divisive, they are becoming mutually untenable in so far as they cannot peacefully exist alongside each other. America is jostling for position, andno one wants to peacefully coexist. The unhoused are demonized and moved on and on and on until there is nothing else to conclude except that a large swathe of the housed world wants the unhoused to simply disappear, die and do what they are told to. Stop doing drugs. Stop being untidy. Look nicer. Act different. “Just where do you want us to go?” “Anywhere but here!” the reply comes back..until the ‘anywhere’ becomes smaller and smaller and there is nowhere left for a victim of capitalist pig inhumanity to rest their bones. No sleeping. No sitting. Seriously, people, humans need to eat, sleep, eat, rest and excrete. It is what we do. Just as long as it isn’t in view of people who might be offended by the shocking reality that in order for the few to live supremely comfortable lives, the rest must suffer extreme inhumanity and lack of shelter, and do it in a way that the slap-in-the-face privileged dictate. You can’t see me, but I am raising a finger, johnny cash stylee at the system and all who bolster her. Fuck you. No compliance. No acceptance. No peace.

See how easy it is? I’ll admit it. I hate the fuckers that torture and dictate. If you made me choose a single banner to fly, it would read FREEDOM. Give me a whole wide world to ramble. Give me the open road. Give me a tent and an unfrozen faucet with drinking water. Give me a good campfire. Give me a tree and a tarp. Give me a trail and a good dog. Give me that grand American tradition of ‘passing through’. I am not from round here. I am not from ‘town’. I am an interloper. Trust me. You don’t like me. You don’t want me and my shitty tent and my unwashed family in your town circa 2017, you throw cold water on me as I fill ‘er up at the gas station. You spit on me. You let your dog piss and shit in my camping space, staring at me gawping slack jawed, open mouthed as I go about life, mothering, cooking, keeping warm and doing what I have to do to survive without the luxury of privacy and when I tell you, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off and stare at someone else, you call the cops or the rangers, or threaten and scream. Temper tantrums foot stamping yelling outraged that my existence in the campground is spoiling your vacation. I wish I could tell you how angry I was when the staring person encouraging their dog to piss and shit near my food in the space I had collected bottles and cans to pay for, who tutted as I washed my hair behind the bushes I had rented and gawped at me and my neat little camp, confronted me, and wanted me to know that my living was spoiling their holiday, wrecking their view, as the scent of dog shit mingled with the potatoes I was cooking in the embers of my safe camp fire. I was not just angry, I was gonna stroke out mad, chase after ya, wring yer damn neck furious. I was so angry my heart hurt. I wanted so very little, I had paid for my little, and I was not even allowed that in peace.

You see, I want to live with you, but it would appear that you don’t want to live with me. I fled here to save my life, and am so grateful for the help I have received, but that doesn’t make the downright abuse ok. I’m refused a divorce from my American legal husband. I am forever undocumented, living in fear of ICE, I am nervously talking with lawyers about the best way forward and VAWA visas, whilst realizing that, I am not welcome. No matter if I live peacefully and quietly, no matter that coming here saved my life and continues to do so. I don’t even feel I can open my mouth and have an opinion. Even writing this feels like a danger sport, an act of extreme recklessness, a totally bad idea. Opinions are for the privileged, not the vulnerable, and I think I have lived here long enough to say, calmly and with great sadness, that is not the America I know and love.

megaphone on white surface

I have had close connections to the heart of my beloved America since I was in my early 20s. I cut my teeth on Little House on the Prairie, and when I met the group of people who became my surrogate family, my friends, my loved ones, I realized that the stereotypes were real. There was always an adventuring little sister. A voice of female reason, a man who was always coming up with a plan, a better place just across the mountains and a basic sense of decency that sometimes got skewed. The pioneer spirit showed itself in survival in NYC, in driving hundreds of miles on three good tires, a temperamental starter engine and a bad battery. Goodness and sharing that meant life or death back in the early days of the inception of modern colonialist America, showed itself in people who would share their last slice of bologna or the final bite of a peanut butter sandwich, or a toke on their very last joint with no more weed left in sight. I added to the cast of characters who appeared.

There was Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer. Dean Moriarty and Old Bull Lee. They appeared and disappeared, tipped their hats and went on their merry and not so merry way. There were characters from the Heart of Darkness, and the depths of Poe-ean depravity. There were Scorsese sunsets and David Lynch dive bars where little guys selling mushrooms fought for supremacy with linebacker Chads who held all the telephones and shoe strings from highway 61, revisiting past high school glories; and amongst it all was Dylan – the thin wild mercury eyed Peter Pan, the Pied Piper, Mr Tambourine Man himself with his cast of revolutionary characters fading in and out of view, parrots and barking dogs, the ‘menagerie of life’ as he put it in one version of Abandoned Love. Dylan who used to care back in the days of John Wesley Harding…but then told us, with a wry smile and a ‘jitterbug’ walk, that ‘things have changed’…..

I know it is passé to suggest that Dylan holds the keys to anything, let alone to saving the heart and soul of America Her(beautiful)Self. I know that the ‘simple song and dance man’ as he put it in the infamous Dec 1965 San Francisco Press Conference, prefers to deny that he has any answers and just wants to be left to sing Sinatra covers and tease us with flashes of his old brilliance. I know he doesn’t want the responsibility or the drag of being a prophet, but his reluctance does not lessen the fact that Dylan, at least at one point, not only cared, but was inextricably tied to the American zeitgeist, to the soul and the spirit of this vast country, and America opened herself up to him, like a patient on the psych’s couch wanting to tell all, tell it big and tell it tall. Dylan was the road. Dylan was the mouthpiece. Dylan knew some things, even if he was not aware that he knew ’em, and he never knew as much as that tiny sliver of time that he spent writing and recording John Wesley Harding.

John Wesley Harding is adorned with an enigmatically meaningful cover photo, that features an older, bearded Dylan, Mona Lisa Highway smile on his face, a local carpenter, a couple of Indian mystic troubadours – Purna (or Purnam, depending on who you ask) and Luxman Das, both sons of Nabani Das Khyepa Baul, tantric door opener and musician of a particularly ancient tradition, and a white hat with a missing owner, and a whole raft of pareidolia in the scenery that can be variously seen as the members of the Beatles, Jesus, and all manner of ghosts wanting to get in on the spreading of love, understanding, warnings and storytelling, which is, in itself, a key to Dylan’s intent. The Baul musical tradition brought ancient stories to the people of India, it is real roots music, roots so deep they stretch back down into the very start of time and human consciousness. The Bauls spread love, understanding, history and meaning in life through their music. Dylan was anchoring himself to the ancient, to the Beginning of Things, to the roots of the tree of life and all that follows on it, and when that tree starts to sprout several poisonous feathers Dylan is there with words of ancient anchored wisdom and laser-like illumination to help us, the listener and traveler, see to the real truthful heart of the matter.

Dylan opens the album with the eponymous Wesley Harding, true American folk hero. This is the delicate truth of the wildness of this land, the lawful unlawful, the rules of the road, of swift justice and pragmatism. Hold up Kyle Rittenhouse against Wesley Harding. “Never known to hurt an honest man”, “lending a helping hand”, “No charge against him could they prove”…..”never known to make a foolish move..”? It is not for me to judge (partly because any modern opinion held leads to cancelling and bullying somewhere along the line), but holding up our modern gunslinger against John Wesley Harding leaves me uneasy. Have we not moved beyond this point of cowboys and vigilante justice? Is this still who we are today? Apparently so. Dylan gives us the ideal, and whether the names resound through the telegraph or the internet, I can’t help but feel the ‘foolishness’ of our modern folk heroes falls short of John Wesley Harding’s standards. I can’t help but feel that people need to leave their guns at home and I can’t help but feel like all these suffering on all sides could simply be avoided. Dylan asked the questions, he knew his history, he espoused his tenets and set forth his stall: Dylan is a snake oil vendor, selling that hard medicine, however it is not his fault when the medicine doesn’t work. The cure lies within each of us, even if the trigger for the healing is outside of us, a tough tincture with an almost futile alchemy, a hit and miss reaction. It is there for the taking, even if so many who take the cure, sit there inert and unreactive like a damp squib, a dead firework, a chemical that refuses to glow. I ask you, do the lights shine for you? Can you see the luminescent writing on the wall or do it pass you by, like the man missing his hat in the cover photo?

Dylan, back in 1967 saw the writing on the wall, and set forth the rules of the road, the parameters of engagement. I suppose it is not Dylan’s fault if we all sang along and really did not listen. Like an unloving creator, Dylan forms songs from the potter’s very ground, and then casts them out alone to live and die as they will. As I Went Out One Morning, used to elude me. I used to stretch it this way and that. Was the woman who ‘meant (the narrator) harm’ possessed by an evil spirit? Was she a murderess on the run? Was insane and escaped from the asylum? My heart went out to the narrator in danger. I thrilled at his rescue by Tom Payne. I felt relief…then I realized the truth. The truth that was staring me in the face all along. The woman was an escaped slave. The narrator her white lover. She wanted to run for freedom with her man, and he rejected her, taking the side of the slave owner. I realized all of a sudden that the good guys were the bad guys.

The ‘attacked’ narrator was a coward and an enabler of oppression. I realized that Tom Payne was her captor and oppressor. She was speaking from the ‘corners of her mouth’ not out of slyness, but out of fear. The narrator had a chance to save her, but failed, but didn’t even try. The kicker is, the slaver apologizes to the not so outwardly vicious but still culpable narrator, for the enslaved woman’s attention. My heart broke into a million pieces. Reality hit me full in the face. I realized that although she was painted as a danger, she in fact was the one in danger.

The lesson is there – don’t believe the propaganda, that the good are sometimes the bad, that history doesn’t look kindly on cowards and oppressors, that it takes bravery to be a good human being and that to be good is risky in the face of bad that is painted as decency and the status quo. Dylan faces the horror of the history of slavery, and instead of going with his usual protest songs, tries to get us to think, to see how it was at the time, to make us realize that with the benefit of hindsight it is all clear, but at the time, evil and good are hard to easily discern. We would do well to listen. Who would not help a family being harrassed by ICE? Who would walk by police brutality? Who would be brave in the face of unamerican oppression? Who amongst us is Tom Payne? Who is the coward? Who would help an oppressed person escape? Who will history smile upon? Who will be seen as evil?

Dylan is making modern day parables, prophet-like shining his light on America. We all need our prophets. In I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine he asks us questions about who our saints are? Who are our ‘kings and queens’? What is the fire that burns in our souls What is the source of goodness? What is foolishness? Is a moment of foolishness enough to bar us from salvation? What is sin? Are we alone? Who do we worship and look to? Why do we always kill our prophets? Why do we destroy the source of our comfort? It is this spark, this balm that Dylan is selling, even if the listener is not interested in the sale. Interestingly Dylan plays around with the crossroads soul selling narrative that he liked to play up as reason for his genius, in various interviews. No one actually believes Dylan had sold his soul at the crossroads, but fame must have felt like a millstone around his neck, and we are all looking for answers and relief.

As Dylan launches in to All Along The Watchtower, taking aim at capitalism, the mystery of the have and have nots, the truth of what really matters and the hidden veil between this world and the next, it feels as if he might really have something, that although the hour is getting late. There is value to the Dylan guidebook, to his a map that could lead to a bearable future. The warnings to those who still have a possible future, warnings about the dangers our democracy face, warnings against the dangers of authoritarianism, these are our modern parables, our stories from Revelations, the sense of uneasiness about watching for the future as it comes in over the horizon. It is still not too late, even though Dylan’s businessmen have almost drunk all the wine barrels dry, and dragged all the riches from the earth.

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By the time we reach The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, Dylan is in full lecturing swing. Where did Judas get that money he lent to Frankie? At what cost riches? Can good ever come out of evil? Eternity is the name of this game, and the two friends being used to pay out Dylan’s passion play parable, like two Beckettesque bums waiting for Godot, are dragged through the machinations of salvation, friendship, loss, friendship and damnation. Even Judas has friends, and has a hope of salvation. It is pertinent perhaps that Dylan was infamously called Judas at in ’63. I can imagine Dylan offering his friend money, of which Dylan had so much it must have been almost meaningless. Dylan/Judas’s mind is on the great beyond, imagining who amongst his friends would have his back, after he was good to them, when the forever Push came to the eternal Shove. It is Frankie, not Judas who buys the farm, and is carried out to his grave by the ‘neighbor boy’, whom we are encouraged to help carry their load. After all, we all die sometime, we might as well help each other into The End as best we can.

judgement scale and gavel in judge office

Side one ends with The Drifter’s Escape, Dylan taking on justice and injustice, the theater of the law and divine intervention. An act of God fixes what injustice man has allowed in their imperfect courtrooms. Nothing changes. Justice is still imperfect, but I have yet to see God strike down the offenders. This is a real heavy hitting social justice album, taking the protest song out of the constraints of his early passionate attempts at raising consciousness, and taking a less lecturing and more humane appealing to humanity tack. Dear Landlord, takes on the plight of Americans who are at the mercy of the rental market, and landlords, a plight that is as pertinent today as it was almost 50 years ago. I Am A Lonesome Hobo, looks at personal responsibility, the cruelty of homelessness and what happens when the landlord becomes so greedy that housing is not tenable.

Dylan’s hobo has a few sage words for the easy and carefree listener:

Kind ladies and kind gentlemen
Soon I will be gone
But let me just warn you all
Before I do pass on
Stay free from petty jealousies
Live by no man’s code
And hold your judgment for yourself
Lest you wind up on this road
.

I wish people had listened to Dylan. It might not be what people want to hear, but it is the truth of the American experience nevertheless, and while the message is universal, there is something uniquely American about this album. The road is vast, the code of the railcars, and the traveler is uniquely different. A person can get lost here, a person can run and hide, a person can be confronted with the extremes of have and have not, staring in a the riches of Capitalism while being necessarily the other side of the coin. Capitalism does not work without poor people, and only continues because of jealousy. It is the hope that we too can become one of those on the other side of the window looking out into the cold and deprivation.

serious woman looking through foliage

The American dream is built on jealousy, it is built on hope that we can join the economically mobile ranks, and leave the rest behind. It is the middle which collapses, it is the center of the bridge that cannot take the stress and weight of the expectations of both the poor wanting to move on up, and the rich looking to secure and protect their privileged position. The middle is weak, and society is looking like it can no longer take the stress. The Hobo’s warning is falling on deaf ears. Share and share alike, spread out the resources evenly and don’t hoard more than a person needs, and perhaps most importantly see the system as the problem, not the person. it is capitalism itself that causes the suffering people experience and see. It is the mindless pursuit of profit over people that means you have to sidestep human shit on your way to work. Blame the game, not the victims of it.

Dylan says he ‘pities the poor immigrant’, but sets about painting the immigrant as evil and unappreciative. The only way I can find around this song is to remember that all of us who are not native American are all immigrants, and fail to appreciate that country that was built on blood and suffering and death. The modern day rhetoric over immigration, and people like me – the undocumented, who came here to try and find safety, is toxic and damaging. I wonder what Dylan woud have to say about ICE if he had written this album today. We will never know, he is too busy saying nothing very prettily nowadays in an orgy of self indulgent end of life nostalgia.

Dont shoot the messenger goes the saying, but what if the messenger is evil? Is it ok to shoot then?

rocky shore under cloudy sky

All Along the Cove wiggles and jives in a happy exposition of the fundamental constant truths of life – finding a partner, loving our families, and being glad for them, it is followed by Ill Be Your Baby, a sweet ditty about the truths of human attraction and companionship, holds the basic truths that we choose to ignore about what actually matters in life. Gladness, love, affection, ‘walk(ing) together hand in hand’ through a life full of traps and pitfalls, and injustice and fear and lack of mercy.

John Wesley Harding is the most important record ever made. It is a slice of American history, an addition to the Decalogue right from the crossroads itself – Thou Shalt Listen to Dylan when he says something important and isn’t mired within the mud of wiggle wiggle wiggle or country pie, or on a nostalgia kick. Within John Wesley Harding Dylan both takes on our troubled history, our uncertain future, and the basic essential troubles and pitfalls of the society which was built on so much suffering and injustice. I fear in the not so distant future, the pigeons will come home to roost, and the piper will have to be paid. There is a price for ignoring our prophets, and for carrying on blindly because that is the easy thing to do, even when it is blatantly not the right thing. We cannot say that Dylan didn’t warn us, even if he appears to have not particularly wanted to do so. Dylan, the reluctant prophet, the man with a vision and the words to present it, the flawed, the divinely inspired and the very very strange. The macrocosm of life passes by us, seemingly faster each year, but within it sits John Wesley Harding, shining like a jewel, the bitter and sweet, the evi and the good – the entire curates egg of life in one perfectly melodic enticing package. If you listen very carefully, within it lays the seeds of hope amongst the weeds of distress and hatred. I can only hope that we all see a path forwards through those weeds of discontent towards a better future blowing in where we can at least decide to be good neighbors and share the once stolen bounty of this beautiful land, built on stolen labor, equally and fairly, within a context of tolerance and freedom, because from where I am sitting right now, something has gotta give, and I dread to see what it will be.

4 Comments

  1. Time Traveler of Life

    My son and I have been discussing the way to collapse capitalism and how best to dismantle it. Unfortunately it is so firmly entrenched, it will take a lot of good, strong, thoughtful people to care about everything but themselves. I would love to live long enough to see it happen. Even if we get stupid again in the distant future and allow it to sneak back in. Maybe if we learn our lesson well enough we can nip it in the bud, before in seeds and takes root again.

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