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Bob Dylan and The Art of His Evolving Canvas

Bob Dylan: From Spiritual Chameleon to Accidental Capitalist

More than sixty years have passed since Bob Dylan began making his mark on American history, poetics, and culture. His prolific output of eclectic records, books, films, paintings and sculptures has long established him as the most successful polymath around. Yet so much of the inspiration behind Dylan’s poignant contributions remains mysterious due to the artist’s elusive nature. What drives Bob Dylan to compose and orchestrate such a variety of masterpieces decade after decade? How much of the bard’s output is a product of his anxiety and restlessness as an artist, and how much is rooted in his lifelong search for meaning and spiritual fulfillment? What motivates this chameleon, who hasn’t stopped changing his colors since he stepped into the spotlight?

Spiritual Chameleon

Dylan is the ultimate post-modernist and yet the definitive genre impresario. He can imitate any musical style and, in several cases, has completely redefined them. He transformed the folk scene through a half dozen albums in the early 1960s and has even changed the way some folks listen to Gospel music, producing a few spectacular records following his conversion to Christianity, including Infidels, Saved, and Slow Train Coming.

Bob Dylan at work in his studio
Bob Dylan at work in his sculpture studio

Critics noted Dylan’s versatility as early as 1961 when Robert Shelton described him in the New York Times, writing, “Mr. Dylan’s highly personalized approach toward the folk song is still evolving. He has been sopping up influences like a sponge…. But if not for every taste, his music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration all the more noteworthy for his youth.” That music review proved to be a spot-on description of Dylan’s career trajectory. In the subsequent visceral reactions to Dylan’s transformations, such as when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival or underwent his cathartic baptism, we get a glimpse of this melodic beast’s fiercely independent and evolving nature.

Many of Dylan’s fans turned on him after both the folk and Christian periods, aghast that he would dare apply a different contour to his evolving canvas. But most of them came back.

Bob Dylan, North Country Blues at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963

A portion of his audience may still be disappointed in his life choices with regard to faith in God, but for the most part, they respect him and the course he charts for himself. Some of his opinions change, but his dedication to art never wavers. Also, it’s not as if Dylan ever abandoned his humanity by turning from one belief system to another or by repositioning his moral compass. As Nat Hentoff wrote in The New Yorker in 1964, quoting Dylan’s recording producer, Tom Wilson, “Those early albums gave people the wrong idea… he’s not a singer of protest so much as he is a singer of concern about people. He doesn’t have to be talking about Medgar Evers all the time to be effective. He can just tell a simple little story of a guy who ran off from a woman.”

Over his storied career, Dylan has explored the political, socio-cultural, religious, economic, and natural phenomena surrounding all of us. And his sacrifice, or indulgence, has given us a body of work we can use to understand intercultural dynamics better. He belongs to the world but is also the product of American culture. These qualities give us a lens through which to appreciate those dynamics. They help contextualize the moving parts of Dylan’s magical evolving canvas.

Bob Dylan interview from 2004 on 60 minutes

But Bob Dylan is not simply an artist trapped between his aesthetic calling and his spiritual yearnings. It seems he has a foot in both of these worlds, finding endless ways to conjoin them rather than trying to escape or trade one for the other. His lyrics are inspired by the literature of the ages, from Greek mythology to the romantics and realists. He begins many of his stories on those back pages, using them as a foundation before leaping into a new abyss. It’s an exercise where he demonstrates how to bond literary tradition to the culture of our universe.

Accidental Capitalist

He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, and grew up in the little town of Hibbing, Minnesota. Since that humble beginning and making his entry onto the folk music scene, Dylan has been reported to have amassed a net worth of over 200 million and is arguably worth every last penny. Despite that significant prosperity, though, achieved through a resolute career devoted to hard work and selling more than 100 million records, the artist’s passionate views on capitalism, the system which made him wealthy, remain conflicted. Yet through the lens of his life’s work and a close reading of his lyrics, it is possible to draw some insights into his layered thinking and strong feelings about several major economic and political systems. As with so many of his unique views on love and hate, war and peace, life and death, and tradition vs. change, his judgment isn’t black and white. To Dylan, capitalism is a multi-faceted system capable of benefiting society while also being corrupted by it.

Union Sundown by Bob Dylan

Dylan has never been a cheerleader for any form of government or financial governance model. Rather than asserting one economic ideal over the other, the artist remains more of an independent analyst and a critic of each, including capitalism, socialism, and communism. Early in his career, he repeatedly demonstrated a degree of disdain for American patriotism, for example. He went so far as to write in Sweetheart Like You, “They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings. Steal a little, and they throw you in jail, steal a lot, and they make you a king.” Yet Dylan has always honored the by-products of the free market system, celebrating American musical heritage by regularly imitating blues and other distinctly American genres. He also licenses his music to large corporations for commercials, from IBM to Airbnb to Super Bowl ads. But while he moves product and reaps the rewards of the system, Dylan understands the drawbacks of capitalism and some of the less altruistic underlying characteristics that drive it.

Some of the artist’s most intensive study of the topic is presented in albums he produced in the 1980s following his religious conversion to Christianity. In collections including Infidels, Saved, and Slow Train Coming, the artist grapples with biblical concepts like greed and avarice against the backdrop of globalism and socio-economic upheaval. His lyrics challenge his audience’s aversion to reconciling the principles of Christianity and American ideals with the more ruthless aspects of capitalism, which in excess, conflict with religious values.

Thematic throughout much of his work is his questioning of how various economic systems affect real people. When not writing directly about his psychology, journey, or romances, Dylan is consumed with concern for his fellow man and how these economic superstructures impact us. At their core, some of his songs dealing with the effects of capitalism are anthems of concern, most notably the track Union Sundown. He writes:

Well, my shoes, they come from Singapore
My flashlight’s from Taiwan
My tablecloth’s from Malaysia
My belt buckle’s from the Amazon
You know, this shirt I wear comes from the Philippines
And the car I drive is a Chevrolet
It was put together down in Argentina
By a guy making thirty cents a day

But Union Sunrise isn’t solely a protest of the practice of offshoring that defined the trade deals of the 1980s. Dylan does not harbor any malice toward the foreign workers making pennies on the dollar to produce consumer goods for Americans. To Dylan, the victims of this policy stretch from coast to coast and globally. It’s a dynamic transnational issue affecting laborers across the world and in the United States. A few lines are even directed at the hypocrisy in the individual’s desire for the cheap products of consumerism. He is searing in his accusation when he writes:

You know capitalism is above the law
It don’t count unless it sells
When it costs too much to build it at home
you just build it cheaper someplace else

In distributing blame, or accountability, in Union Sunrise, Dylan is careful not to exonerate any one political party or particular interest. To him, the solution to the problem he sees isn’t as basic as giving more power to unions for which the title of the track is named. Dylan sees union power as an equally corrupting and destructive force, noting:

The unions are big business, friend’, and they’re going out like a dinosaur

The power behind Dylan’s lyrics rests in his command of current events and US history. Union Sundown reflects an intellectual understanding of labor law and related issues. His angles are often at odds with each other and sometimes mutually exclusive. However, most of Dylan’s commentary on work and economic hardship falls on the side of the perspective of the disadvantaged. That may be because a young man Dylan was influenced by the works of John Steinbeck. This novelist wrote extensively about labor and the role of unions in America. In her examination of Working Man’s Blues #2, in her book Tearing the World Apart: Bob Dylan and the Twenty-First Century, biographer and critic Nina Goss references that inspiration. She writes, “If Dylan here is engaged in protest against poverty and economic inequality; it is at first glance a muted protest; but a more in-depth look suggests the radical implications of Dylan inhabiting, humanizing, and drawing sympathetic attention to the lives of people with limited economic means – an age-old strategy of literary critics of American capitalism like John Steinbeck. And as with Steinbeck, whose writing made a tremendous impression on the young Dylan, Dylan’s character does not shy away from articulating class resentment and from accusing the privileged classes of ignorance.”

Dylan’s commentary on micro and macroeconomics, as illustrated in his many takes on capitalism and its relationship with history, philosophy, and psychology, continues to inspire debate. It does not help that Bob Dylan himself is like a sand dune on issues such as economics, religion, and so many other topics, constantly shifting and evasive. In exploring capitalism, Dylan proves that although it is an imperfect system, by his very example and success, it is a model that produces artistic and financial benefits. While sometimes unfair, regardless of motive, its blessings flow downstream and ultimately reflect the full spectrum of humankind’s potential.

In the end, though, Dylan ain’t giving away anything for free.

Works Referenced

RAFAEL MOSCATEL is the author of the best-selling business book Tomorrow’s Jobs Today and director of The Little Girl with the Big Voice, a critically acclaimed documentary. His third book, The Bastard of Beverly Hills, a memoir about hope, forgiveness, and redemption, will be published in 2023.

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