7 reasons to lay off Bob Dylan

American columnist Maureen Dowd thinks Bob Dylan is a big sell-out. His crime: leaving the ancient protest songs “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin'” off the set list for concerts in communist China and Vietnam.

You can read more informed opinions than mine on the Dylan-Dowd teapot tempest, but if you’d like a two-bit summary that does the thinking for you, as Dowd presumed her audience did, here goes:

1. Where’s the evidence Dylan’s set list was censored?

This whole furor started when Maureen Dowd speculated that Dylan’s set list had been scrubbed for China, and went off in high dudgeon. No investigation, no sources. That approach would be familiar to a communist audience.

2. Bob Dylan is not a protest singer.

While songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” were part of the zeitgeist of the 60s, Dylan hasn’t written songs like that for years, and he rarely plays those ones in concert.

Interestingly, Dylan’s set list in “Godless” China included the defiant gospel number “Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin’. Chinese Christians, an oppressed minority if ever there was one, were probably delighted.

3. If Bob Dylan starts making statements, where should he stop?

Dylan could be protesting the airline he flies with, the size of California’s public debt, the exclusion of Elizabeth May from the Canadian election debates, disrespect for Native American treaty rights, or whatever, depending where he’s playing. Where do we draw the line?

4. Maybe dissing China isn’t as powerful as playing in China.

If there’s any good to be found in Dylan’s music, you can guarantee it’s going to gain a lot more ground if Dylan actually gets to play it. The mere fact of Dylan playing in China is arguably doing more good than him making a statement about Chinese human rights.

5. Hypocrisy is the greatest luxury.

Presumably, Bob Dylan wants to do business with China more than he wants to take China to task. Sound familiar? Our government and corporations feel likewise, and we enjoy many of the household products we use on a daily basis as a result.

6. Does anyone understand what Bob Dylan says anyway?

At any given point in a concert, for all the audience knows, Bob Dylan could be reciting the UN Declaration of Human Rights over the chords for “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” Now imagine the audience is composed of Chinese citizens with a rudimentary grasp of English. You do the math.

7. Bob Dylan doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

None of this is new. We’re talking about Bob Dylan, here. Bob Dylan embarrassed everyone at Live Aid with off-message comments about suffering American farmers, and a rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that just plain stank. Bob Dylan sold the right to use “The Times They Are A-Changin'” to a major Canadian chartered bank. Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian. Bob Dylan presented an album of classic folk tunes as if they were his own. Bob Dylan went on tour plastered with Tiny Tim style pancake makeup. Bob Dylan showed up randomly at Neil Young’s childhood house hoping for a tour of the place. Bob Dylan acted like he was Woody Guthrie’s kid. Bob Dylan hijacked a version of “House of the Rising Sun” from Dave Van Ronk. Bob Dylan plugged in and went electric at Newport and hurt Pete Seeger‘s poor ears. Bob Dylan was found wandering around in a hoodie, mistaken for a hobo, and picked up by the cops. Bob Dylan claimed his voice was going to be used on automobile GPS units.

Conclusion? Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan. He’s a weird dude. He doesn’t care what you think, what Maureen Dowd thinks, or what any of us think. Bob Dylan thinks for himself.

Take that, Maureen Dowd. Take that, angry commentators chiming in.

Come to think of it… a man who thinks for himself? Take that, Communist China!

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  1. avatar
    John Zytaruk 14 April, 2011 at 16:52

    Dead-on Mr. Newland. Needed to be said! The way I put it recently on Twitter was basically; who would presume to know what or what are not Dylan’s ideals? Keep up the good work! -John

  2. avatar
    Dennis Brown 14 April, 2011 at 16:56


    This is a great editorial. Good points, good humour. Keep up the good work.


  3. avatar
    Joanne Crabtree 15 April, 2011 at 11:42

    I love Maureen Dowd, love her cynical wit, her clarity of thought, her clever turns of phrase. She writes terrific, cooly fired-up opinion pieces. She is why I get The Times delivered to my inbox, but she wrote this Dylan article as if it were a task she’d been handed that morning and as if she really doesn’t know the first thing about Bob Dylan. Certainly she has no obvious intuitive grasp of his character. The protest songs she refers to are ones he wrote when he was little more than a boy, just barely beginning to develop as an artist. We do not demand our grown children stand by their undergraduate essays. Hanging my head, I admit I was upset with Bob after Newport and did not buy any of his records after Highway 61 Revisited. That’s because I was still a folky at that time and he had moved on. Now, of course, I love the way he changed the face of rock. I still love his lyrics because who he is first and foremost is the greatest American poet of our generation. For those of us who were there, it was thrilling to have him to speak for us, and how bitterly we rebelled when he took up speaking for himself. Now that I am developing my own serious body of work, I am once again finding Bob’s life a never-ending fountain of inspiration.

  4. avatar
    Mike Flynn 15 April, 2011 at 13:03

    Bob Dylan is a combination of every song he ever wrote. He doesn’t
    have to sing each one of them to prove anything.

  5. avatar
    Jim Yates 15 April, 2011 at 13:08

    Good points as usual David.
    You said,”Bob Dylan hijacked a version of “House of the Rising Sun” from Dave Van Ronk.”
    I read that Dave said that after Bob started singing this song he had to quit because people kept saying,”You got that from Bob Dylan, didn’t you?” Dave got his revenge when the Animals recorded his version (learned from Dylan) and people started saying to Dylan,”You got that from the Animals, didn’t you?”

  6. avatar
    Mitch Podolak 18 April, 2011 at 12:07

    I agree with John for the most part especially about Dylan not giving a shit about what anybody thinks. He certainly is not a “protest” singer anymore, its been decades since he expressed any of that kind of concern. He is a major part of the music industry. Whatever he did to animate a gig in China which suffers from intellectual constipation under the leadership of a Stalinist bureaucracy is entirely within the framework of an intelligent approach to that place and those amazing people. Dylan doesn’t piss off socialists, at least real socialists who mostly understand ,the difficulty involved in maintaining ideas through thick and thin.

    I remember when Von Rock nominated Dylan for membership in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the SWP turned him down because they knew a guy like Dylan had a restless mind and they knew that he would eventually quit and they didn’t want to be the party that Dylan quit. I always thought that was hilarious.

    I loved Dylan when he was a Guthrieite folksinger and its hard not to love whats he’s done to rock & roll. He’s probably the most important cat we know about. His goddamn tunes reverberate.

  7. avatar
    Howard Gladstone 27 April, 2011 at 17:53

    Great article, David, and insightful commentary from others. An anecdote: I was recently in Vietnam; checking the internet, I saw a picture of Bob Dylan on the Google home page with an article in Vietnamese. Intrigued, I had it “micro-translated” and discovered that Bob was playing Vietnam, along with dates in China, and other Asian stops. That day we had toured the War Relics Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saignon) and seen the photographs of death, resistance and moving forward. While Dylan’s anti-war songs , and memories of the anti-war movement came to mind, another Dylan line immediately sprang into my consciousness, “Forget the dead you’ve left, they will need bother you” from “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. That’s the way it seems to in Vietnam – they look forward, and “don’t look back.” In China, it’s erase the past altogether. And – Oh, Mitch, it is a Maoist (not Stalinist) bureaucracy(more like totalitarianism) and it’s got little to do with socialism – more like state-controlled capitalism, and you can make as much money as you want, as long as you don’t challenge the political structure. Ok, that’s my two reminbi worth .

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