Bob Dylan: He A-Changed The World

23rd January 2015

Language is such a powerful force. It can evoke emotion and memories and can lift you from your chair into action. A truly magical thing

Memories? I noticed that my 14-year-old son is voicing his approval with the word ‘Sound’.

“So what did you think of that, then?”

“It was sound,” he says, which is then accompanied by a series of under-stated nods and the slight pursing of his lips. I used to use the same word when I was his age.

Emotion? When I first heard the word, “Enjoy!” from a waiter in a local café, after being served a particularly appetising Full English I was taken a-back but thought the expressive use efficient and quite cute. It rapidly transmogrified, with over-use, so that now, every time I hear the word used by a weary waitress (or even worse, a chirpy, chipper, chick delivering chicken), I not only cringe but wonder at the infectious, viral qualities of your typical inane, cheap, lazy, Americanism.

Don’t start me on those people who, in reply to a direct question, demanding a ‘yes’, no’ or similar definitive answer, instead, begin their reply with, “So…” First time I heard that, I wondered if I had just entered the conversation, half way through a sentence.

Action? Ah, that would be Bob Dylan then, wouldn’t it?

One of the largest criticisms of the 60s as a cultural framework for a modern day renaissance, the associated hippie movement that was mocked because and for its casual and rather cloudy, structure of sincerely held beliefs and, above all, the notion that music would change the world was that, well, it didn’t. Cynics say that music and those times in general, changed nothing.

This is plain lazy. Some observers expected to sit back and watch as if Blowin’ In The Wind was about to sprout legs and stride, like some quaver-bedecked Godzilla, over to the Whitehouse to pound some sense into the President. That wasn’t the point of the culture-changing music scene. In addition, it wasn’t even up to Dylan to personally climb up the nearest nuclear missile and disarm it with his pen-knife. The idea of music changing society as a whole – which Dylan certainly did, oh yes – was to move people’s ideas and thoughts. Intellectually, we are all on a path that will result in us taking actions A, B and C. If we are influenced by strong external forces then our path will change so that, instead, we will take actions X, Y and Z. It’s not (nuclear) rocket science. This sort of thing happens all of the time.

Sometimes those forces will be based on ideas, philosophies, speeches, books, poems and, yes, songs. Face it: World War Two, seven and a half million and more dead, the crumbling of old country boundaries to be replaced with wholly new maps plus aftershocks such as the Cold War, economic ructions and fundamental changes in every society in the world were the ultimate result of an initial, compact set of Nazi ideals, partly printed in a readable form, partly spoken, partly imposed via terror and, afterwards, infused into the culture in a hundred different ways.

Nevertheless. The basis of the entire dictatorship were words. Just words.

Dylan has created a myriad of words that have become a catalyst for change. This is even more important than being responsible for a single political movement because his lyrics have not been bogged down within a single dogma and, hence, have never become tired, hackneyed or old fashioned. When Dylan retreated from direct politics back in 1964, his work became more cutting, cynical and direct. He reacted with disgust at those who saw the world as simply black and white. Hence, Maggie’s Farm from the LP, Bringing It All Back Home, combines class and generational rage with a rejection of wage labour. It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding, from the same album, is an indictment of a society built on hypocrisy and greed.

From the Anti-Vietnam protestors in the sixties who chanted his lyrics in front of the Whitehouse to today’s anti-war and global justice movements, who see his songs as a fundamental bulwark against corporate and governmental mismanagement, Dylan has changed and continues to change minds, thoughts and actions.

Dylan’s words can all be found, neatly packaged, like a folio book set, in Bob Dylan Complete Album Collection Vol. One CD box set, released a wee while ago, featuring 35 studio titles, six live albums and a 2-CD rarities collection. This is all well and good but I was more intrigued by the £250 box set alternative which features all of that material on a single USB stick which is installed within a faux harmonica, the Dylan instrumental icon.

On the USB stick are both MP3 (320kbps) and FLAC (16bit/44.1kHz) versions of the music along with a digital version of the hardcover booklet, housed in a limited-edition, numbered box. You could be disappointed that the music is not offered in at least 24bit/96kHz or you may be happy that the task of transferring the entire CD box set to your Astell & Kern AK120 has been done for you. No matter, what you get is an archive of great music and, possibly more important, words of distinction that made and still make a difference.

Words are the most powerful force known to man, they are more than elemental in nature. For one man to produce such a concentration of influential texts, however, is not only remarkable, it borders on the prophetic. Even if the man’s music leaves you cold and are irritated by his delivery, and for me it does and I am, there’s no denying his power as a communicator of ideas. 

A couple of thousand years ago, those sort of people were more than controversial, they were positively dangerous. Well, he once had the long hair, but can you imagine Bob in a pair of flip-flops and a smock?

From the pen of Paul Rigby