We were hopeful once, and young


I just came upon a high quality clip of an unbelievably young Bob Dylan at Newport in 1963, singing one of his best early songs.  Watching it, I’m reminded of a line from another early Dylan song, “We never much thought we could get very old.”  I guess no one ever does.

Change a few particulars and the song is as timely today as it was 50 years ago.  What’s missing is the collective hope/dream/prayer of those days that music could change the world.

Maybe it can, in the sense of planting seeds.  Maybe, but if so, those seeds take longer to germinate than anyone who is young can possibly imagine.

Enjoy a great clip of “North Country Blues.”  And maybe water the seed.

Something is happening here…

Readers of a certain age will recognize the title of this post as part of the chorus of one of Bob Dylan’s iconic songs of the ’60’s, “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

And something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones ?

What brought the song to mind was another simple phrase which seemed to sum up our own time in a similar pithy way.  Strangely enough, it came from a piece on CNN.com called “Why the best thing you can do is fail,” by Eddie Obeng, founder of a virtual business school  http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/30/opinion/obeng-business-disruption-ted/index.html.  Here is the passage that caught my attention:

“What’s happened in business is that the rules of the real 21st century aren’t clear to us, so instead we spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.”

We can substitute many other words for “business” and find the phrase rings equally true.  Try it.  “What’s happened in [publishing, school safety, government, warfare, economics, international relations] is that the rules of the real 21st century aren’t clear to us, so instead we spend our time responding to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.”

Both the Dylan lyrics and Obeng’s observation put into simple words what we’ve known for some time but could not express so clearly.

One of my favorite words, liminal, stands for times like these, times of uncertainty and change in the life of an individual or a culture.  Webster’s Dictionary defines liminal as: “1 of or at the limen or threshold 2 at a boundary or transitional point between two conditions, stages in a process, ways of life, etc.”

I started a post in December concerning what fairytales have to say about living in liminal times.  Fairytales always happen in times of transition or crisis times.  Your father will die if you don’t find the water of life.  Your stepmother wants to kill you, or you find your new husband is a serial killer.  The king will cut off your head if you fail to capture  the firebird.

Can this be relevant to the 21st century?  I’m convinced that it can.

Right now I’m reveling in one of my Christmas presents, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, a fine new collection published to celebrate the bicentennial of Grimm’s fairytales.

Reading so many stories at the same time raises a number of questions.  What does it take for a character to survive their otherworld challenges?  Sometimes you have to obey a witch, and at other times you need to push her into the oven.  Sometimes not knowing is an asset and sometimes a fatal flaw.  You should listen to animals by the side of the road unless they are wolves and you’re wearing red.

I don’t expect to come up with definite answers, but I do expect to turn up some interesting questions.  This is my immediate plan; after that, I’ll do as I’ve always done on this blog, make things up as I go along.

I very much hope you’ll stay tuned.  And now, I’ll leave you with my wish for a joyous and prosperous 2013, and with a very old clip of Bob Dylan doing “Ballad of a Thin Man” in 1966 in Copenhagen…

Tempest – Bob Dylan’s latest recording

Bob Dylan in concert in Spain, 2010, CC-by-2.0

Fifty years after his first album, Bob Dylan, 71, has released Tempest, his 35th studio album, to critical acclaim.  Over half a century, Dylan has never repeated himself.

Randal Roberts of The LA Times says,  “Dylan lives in every molecule of our being, has taught us about lyrical possibility, has reveled in the joy of words and the power and glory of making things up from scratch. To learn that a new Dylan project is in the works is to know that there’s a good chance your brain will be forever changed by at least one new rhyming couplet, snarling oath or graceful guitar line. On “Tempest,”…there are many such moments.”

The songs range from light to dark, from blues to ballad, from topical references to phrases borrowed from Child ballads, all resonating to Dylan’s unique and raspy voice.

“Scarlet Town,” echoes the “Barbara Allen,” where Sweet William on his deathbed lies, but veers away from easy interpretation, much like the inviting but ultimately opaque American folklore references in Dylan’s much earlier, John Wesley Harding, 1967.  Then and now, the poetry is Dylan’s own:

Scarlet Town, in the hot noon hours,
There’s palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers
Beggars crouching at the gate
Help comes, but it comes too late
By marble slabs and in fields of stone
You make your humble wishes known
I touched the garment, but the hem was torn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born

The title song, “Tempest,” is a 14 minute ballad about Titanic, phrased as a waltz that echoes the rolling of waves as it borrows The Carter Family’s “Titanic.”

The night was black with starlight
The seas were sharp and clear
Moving through the shadows
The promised hour was near

Lights were holding steady
Gliding over the foam
All the lords and ladies
Heading for their eternal home

Tempest opens with a blues number, “Duquesne Whistle,” written with Robert Hunter, The Grateful Dead lyricist.  It’s followed by the angry and topical “Early Roman Kings.”  There is “Roll on John,” a tribute to John Lennon, “Tin Angel,” a song of murder and suicide, and it ends with “Soon After Midnight,” which sounds like a slow song at the end of a high school dance.

If you’ve ever enjoyed Dylan’s music; if like Randal Roberts it has “forever changed your brain,” I urge you to check out the songs online. I bet you’ll download some or all of cuts, and marvel at the phenomenon of an artist who has continued to grow over fifty years.