One of the pleasant surprises of this summer is the release of a chart-topping album from Bob Dylan. At 79, Rough and Rowdy Ways makes him the first artist with a Billboard Top 40 album in every decade since the 1960s and the oldest musician to have led the Artist 100 Chart, surpassing Paul McCartney, who was 76 when he led in September 2018.
Dylan's most recent songs seem both to anticipate, and to offer a welcome reprieve from, this time of national tribulation. In that respect, Dylan remains an instructive paradox. An artist who has often, as Joan Baez observed early on, written about what "people feel and want to say." He's also exercised a proud independence as an artist, insisting that his work not be reduced to any particular political movement. With Baez, Dylan performed at the March on Washington but he was notoriously reticent about political activism. "Whenever I'd go to a march, or a sit-in, or a lie-in, or a be-in, or a jail-in, people would say, 'Is Bob coming?'" Baez once recalled. "I'd say, he never comes, you moron. When are you going to get it?"
At a time when everything everywhere seems bent to immediate political aims, Dylan is a salutary reminder of what we might lose if we allow political ideology to control everything.
Dylan remains acutely aware of the moment in which he is living. He remains willing to make clear moral judgments: "It sickened me no end to see George Floyd tortured to death like that," he said. "It was beyond ugly. Let's hope that justice comes swift for the Floyd family and for the nation."
At the same time, his music seems to capture our mood of anger and alienation while offering mesmerizing songs that provide both an artistic reprieve — an opportunity for healing through art — and lyrics that sustain hope. As he writes in "Crossing the Rubicon," "it's darkest 'fore the dawn."
The narrator in the slow blues "Rubicon" feels "the bones beneath my skin and they're trembling with rage." In that line and what immediately follows, Dylan seems to anticipate our current moment. He writes "these dark days ... in this world so badly bent," and pleads, "How much longer can it last — how long can this go on?" But the song more than hints at, indeed it longs for and promises, a kind of redemption. He asks, "How can I redeem the time. I feel the Holy Spirit inside and see the light that freedom gives / I believe it's within the reach of every man who lives."
Six decades since he first began recording, Dylan remains a captivating, poetic lyricist. He has done so by defending the freedom of his art, in both its process and product. That's increasingly rare these days. Any Hollywood award ceremony reveals how desperate members of that community are for their work to be seen as informed by and directly contributing to political issues — and for there to be political uniformity in that community. In response to Hollywood's secularism, a Christian film industry has arisen, with equally didactic aims.
It's not that art cannot speak to matters of politics; nor is it the case that politics and ethics have nothing to say about art. But art operates best when it operates in a certain sphere of creative freedom. Dylan says his recent works arise from a trancelike state in which the song comes through him. It is impossible to operate in that way if the conscious goal of producing didactic art dominates from start to finish. Moreover, when art becomes subordinated to immediate political gain, other human goods suffer, since we turn not to art not primarily and certainly not exclusively for political instruction or reinforcement. We turn to it for the renewal and insight that we find in Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Operating in that sphere of creative freedom, Dylan gives us fierce blues songs like "Goodbye Jimmy Reed," with its homage to the Black blues musician known for the electric blues. He also gives us "Key West (Philosopher's Pirate)," which transports listeners to a realm of enchantment in which Key West, with lush foliage, healing winds and restorative sunlight, is a stand-in for a lost Eden, with its intimation of immortality and the renewal of the natural and human order.
The artistic cultivation of the deepest human longings, which is the realm in which Dylan's music operates, is indispensable for our common life, whether it impacts politics or not.
Thomas S. Hibbs is president of the University of Dallas.