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Bob Dylan: Reconciliation and Atonement

Lawrence Bush
April 1, 2008

Dylan as a Family Man in Chronicles

by Marek Breiger
Illustrations by Marci Pepper
” . . . I had gone back to the town of my early years in a way I could never have imagined — to see my father laid to rest. Now there would be no way to say what I was never capable of saying before.”
—Bob Dylan, Chronicles
Bob Dylan, as he has so often told us, was not of the baby-boom generation. Born in 1941, he was part of an American generation of the 1950s. His ‘older brothers’ were James Dean and Buddy Holly; his youngest ‘uncles’ were Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce. His actual friends included Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Dave Van Ronk, and his voracious reading, his desire to perfect his craft, and even and especially his politics are reactions to the world he grew up in during and after World War II. “Masters of War,” Dylan has said, relates to Eisenhower’s speech about the military-industrial complex. “With God on Our Side” has a strong stanza about the Holocaust and real anger about American forgiveness of the Germans after “six million they fried.” Likewise, songs like “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “Hattie Carroll” were condemnations of American apartheid by a writer who had seen racial segregation first-hand.
Dylan’s reaction to his Jewishness also is a product of that time, a time of anti-Semitism, when many Jewish performers, though proud of being Jewish, tried to hide their roots. In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles (Vol. 1), though he is still reticent about his feelings about being born and raised as a Jew, Dylan is not reticent in terms of expressing his love for his family — his mother and father, his grandmothers and grandfathers, his cousins, his aunts and uncles.
Reading and rereading Chronicles, I was reminded of an older member of that 1950s generation, Philip Roth, and his homages to his own father in Patrimony and The Plot Against America. Like Roth, Dylan has come to a very Jewish conclusion found in the Bible: that fame, glory, riches are as nothing if one has not led a moral life.
Chronicles does not follow exact chronological time but begins and ends with Dylan’s earliest days in New York City. The book highlights the years of 1967 and 1968, as well as events from Dylan’s childhood. Included are descriptions of his comeback, which began in the late 1980s. Overall, the memoir is an emotional response to Dylan’s family and friends, and to the trends that shaped the nation, including the idealism of the early 1960s and the nihilism that hijacked that idealism. Moving back and forth in time and offering vivid descriptions of Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Van Ronk, Odetta, and others, Dylan writes of his discovery, through both rock ’n’ roll and traditional music, of the ‘underground’ America of the 1950s, and his recovery in the late 1980s as a powerful songwriter — in part as a result of his collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois and both men’s shared love of American roots music. The music Dylan would create in New Orleans — with Lanois’ help — would be a real antidote to the cultural shallowness that defined the Reagan-Bush era.
One of Dylan’s strongest descriptions is that of his own father. If Dylan’s spiritual father was Woody Guthrie, Abraham (Abram) Zimmerman was also a guide and a role model. Dylan writes:

Though we lived in Hibbing, my father from time to time would load us into an old Buick Roadmaster and we’d ride to Duluth for the weekend. My father was from Duluth, born and raised there. That’s where his friends still were. One of five brothers, he’d worked all his life, even as a kid. When he was sixteen, he’d seen a car smash into a telephone pole and burst into flames. He jumped off his bicycle, reached in and pulled the driver out, smothering the driver’s body with his own — risking his life to save someone he didn’t even know. Eventually he took accounting classes for Standard Oil of Indiana when I was born. Polio, which left him with a pronounced limp, had forced him out of Duluth — he lost his job and that’s how we got to the Iron Range where my mother’s family was from.

The Zimmerman family was close-knit. Dylan’s maternal grandmother lived in his parents’ home in Hibbing. Dylan pays homage to her also as his “confidant” and greatest supporter. Likewise, his father’s mother, originally from Turkey, a woman who lost a leg to illness, is sketched with great respect. Perhaps, one intuits, Dylan’s ability to empathize with all kinds of people came out of his own family circle. Yet Dylan’s honesty about his break with his father and his father’s world is also made painfully real. Reflecting upon his return to Hibbing for his father’s funeral, Dylan writes:

In the short time I was there, it all came back to me, all the flim flam, the older order of things, the Simple Simons — but something else did too — that my father was the best man in the world and probably worth a hundred of me, but he didn’t understand me. The town he lived in and the town I lived in were not the same. All that aside, we had more in common now than ever — I too was a father three times over — there was a lot that I wanted to share, to tell him . . .

On October 3rd, 1967, Woody Guthrie died at 55; on May 29th, 1968, Abram Zimmerman died at 56. For a span of nearly two years, Dylan performed only once, at the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert in early January, 1968, following the release of John Wesley Harding on December 27th, 1967. During that time, he was also working with The Band on the magnificent songs released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes. These songs were ‘bootlegged’ as early as 1969 and sold as part of the album called The Great White Wonder.
Dylan’s songs of that period were more than a response to the tumult of 1968; they were also deep reactions to the twin deaths of his biological and spiritual fathers. Those deaths, and Dylan’s own brush with mortality in a 1966 motorcycle accident, had brought the poet to an attitude that differed both from the radical students and from the angry right wing — each of whom were resorting to deadly violence. Dylan’s songs in 1968 rejected violent and revolutionary solutions. They were, instead, about the need for atonement and reconciliation. Dylan was not interested in demonizing the generation of his parents.
In one of the greatest songs from that era, “Tears of Rage,” he writes from the point of view of a father who is losing his daughter to a set of circumstances he cannot reverse but can only plead against. A daughter is not only leaving home; she is rejecting her parents’ love. “We carried you in our arms/ On Independence Day” the father sings and then continues: “And now you’d throw us all aside/ And put us on our way.”
In a departure from songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and even “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Dylan in 1968 wrote as a father wanting to protect his children — and as a son who has lost his father. He understands now the pain of a broken family. In “Tears of Rage,” the father begs the daughter to return home: “We’re so alone/And life is brief.” These words spoke to and about millions of young people and their parents in the late 1960s and early 70s. Dylan’s song does not point fingers at the parents or daughter but recognizes what so few of his fellow artists realized at the time: the tragedy of families being torn apart, and the humanity of both parents and children beyond any political definitions. Politics was less important to Dylan than the emotions of human beings.
At the Woody Guthrie Memorial concert, Dylan performed some of Guthrie’s patriotic songs, not as a finger in the eye of the New Left, but with the sincere belief that ‘Uncle Sam’ could and would represent what Dylan still describes in Chronicles as “the country of equality and liberty.” Fatherhood and the loss of his own father had brought Dylan to a different place from many of his contemporaries. “Even [with] the horrifying news items of the day, the gunning down of the Kennedys, King, Malcolm X . . . I didn’t see them as leaders being shot down but rather as fathers whose families had been left wounded.” He adds: “Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me.”
The evidence of his songs, however, is to the contrary. “All Along the Watchtower” with its opening, “There must be some way out of here” seems clearly to be about Vietnam. Another song, “Dear Landlord,” is not only about the poet’s relationship with God but shows an awareness of human fragility and of the need for mutual respect between the generations and the races: “If you don’t underestimate me,” Dylan sings, “I won’t underestimate you.”
In 1980, twenty-seven Novembers ago, I went to the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco to hear Dylan. Reagan had just been elected as president. Dylan, through his conversion to Christianity, had outraged many of his remaining fans. The hippie movement had left disaster in its wake; just a few years earlier, when I lived in a neighborhood bordering the Haight, I had seen nothing but the lost and the drug-addicted. Yet Dylan, despite his many complications, embodied a hope that we were still too young to discard. I was 29 in 1980; I wanted neither to give up nor to believe in an illusory youth culture, but to continue the good that my parents and grandparents had bestowed upon me. Dylan, too, was a reminder of the best of our past. He represented that part of the counter-culture that used art to cope with tragedy and loss, to sustain hope, to remember the past and build the future.
The date was November 21st. The next day would be the seventeenth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Dylan played his Christian songs and a long, long encore set of old pieces — “Girl From the North Country,” “Blowin’ in The Wind” and “She Belongs to Me,” and “One Too Many Mornings” — in a softer gentler style. He opened the concert, however, at the piano, with gospel backing, singing Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” — and he had phrased the words eloquently, perhaps expressing what his mother had told him about JFK, as relayed in Chronicles: “My mother said that eighteen thousand people had turned out to see him at the Veteran’s Memorial Building and that people were hanging from the rafters and others were in the street, that Kennedy was a ray of light and had understood completely the area of the country he was in. He gave a heroic speech, my mom said, and brought people a lot of hope . . .”
Much the same can be said of Bob Dylan himself, in all of his incarnations: Jewish and Christian, folk artist and rock ’n’ roller, protest singer and singer of love songs. He has continued and expanded Woody Guthrie’s great legacy, a legacy that Bruce Springsteen and others would not have been able to sustain without Dylan’s brilliant example.
I don’t believe that Dylan has betrayed the Judaism with which he grew up. Following his born-again Christian phase (1978 to the early 1980s), he was briefly identified with Chabad Judaism but ultimately told Newsweek (1997): “I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else.
. . . I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. . . . I believe the songs.” Dylan’s performance of “Go Down Moses” in Israel with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is solid evidence that Dylan understands the connections between his own feeling as a Jewish American artist and the folk songs and spirituals with which he first identified — songs that link the Jewish and Black experience. Indeed, many of Dylan’s own songs, including “Father of Night,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Forever Young,” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” would not be out of place in Gates of Repentence or other Jewish prayer books.
His Jewishness is apparent to me in his basic quest for morality, in his ability to judge not only others but himself, and in the search for dignity and atonement that is the signature of his art. In Chronicles, Abraham Zimmerman emerges as a figure as heroic as Woody Guthrie, and Dylan’s own Jewish family are described without a hint of estrangement.
Osip Mandelstam once said that Judaism is like a bit of perfume that permeates an entire house. That bit of ‘perfume’ has been evident from the beginning in Dylan’s attitude and in his best songs, which portray a desire for justice, compassion, and unselfish love, as well as a belief in a God of justice and mercy.

Marek Breiger’s poems and literary and personal essays have appeared in five anthologies, most recently the PEN Oakland anthology, Oakland Out Loud. He is at work on a book dealing with Jewish-American writers entitled From the Tenements to the Suburbs, which will include this essay.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.