Happy birthday to Bob Dylan, who was born on May 24, 1941, and once said in an interview, “When I was a boy, Harry Truman was president. Who’d want to be Harry Truman?”

During Dylan’s 50-plus year career, it has not been unusual for him to capture the political and social climate of the times, or in some cases, predict it, in his songs. Dylan’s early compositions articulated and chronicled the social upheaval of the early 1960s, and at the end of that decade, his Woodstock lifestyle was the blueprint for the pastoral back-to-the-country movement, although Dylan was never a fan of “hippies”. His embrace of Christianity in the late 1970s foreshadowed the rise of religious fervor and televised evangelism in the following decade.

His most prescient artistic statement was his album, “‘Love & Theft’,” released on September 11, 2001, with many lines and images eerily reflecting that day’s tragic headlines.

Controversy

When promoting his album “Tempest,” Dylan may have done it again. In an interview with Mikal Gilmore, published in a September, 2012, issue of “Rolling Stone,” with the headline, “Bob Dylan Unleashed,” the music legend covered a myriad of issues, but one in particular, the history of race relations in the United States, felt as if he was prognosticating once again.

When asked if he found any similarities between America in the 1860s, and 2012, Dylan pulled no punches. “The United States burned and destroyed itself for the sake of slavery … People at each other's throats just because they are of a different color … Blacks know that some whites didn't want to give up slavery … It's doubtful that America's ever going to get rid of that stigmatization … If slavery had been given up in a more peaceful way, America would be far ahead today.”

Inflammatory remarks, for sure.

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This quote from the same article - “If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood” - led to accusations of racism in France, where Dylan’s quotes could have been interpreted as a violation of French racial hatred laws. So much for free speech and the exchange of ideas. Dylan was placed under judicial investigation, but the charges were eventually dropped.

President Obama was up for reelection at the time of the interview. While Dylan can rarely be pinned down and has even spoken with measured words of support for beleaguered former President George W. Bush, he has associated himself more with Presidents Kennedy, Carter, Clinton, and Obama, than those of the opposing party. What Dylan was referring to here, knowingly or not, was the rise of those who would vote for a reality TV star and con man who appealed to the underbelly of this country, basically using racism, sexism, and 50 other shades of prejudice as bait to appeal to people’s prurient interests.

In light of this, Dylan’s words from five years ago now feel as if he had roared out a warning. How many black people, often unarmed, were shot by police, and, in retaliation, how many police officers have been killed? Since the last presidential election, and subsequent inauguration, how many segments of society have suffered at the hands of a thriving racist and bigoted movement by a depressed and disenfranchised, and recently empowered, population? Even before slavery, our country was built on the burial grounds of the Native Americans who previously inhabited this land.

Sinatra

Over the past few years, Dylan’s recorded output of new material has consisted entirely of Sinatra-era standards, 52 tracks in all. In some ways, since turning the music world on its head, and then flipping over his motorcycle in the mid-1960s, Dylan has consistently returned to the well of his youth, full of folk, gospel, rhythm and blues, and a mid-western and Judaic sense of decency, as least artistically. He’s moving forward, always pushing the envelope, yet with albums such as “Shadows in the Night,” “ Fallen Angels,” and “Triplicate,” Dylan, like much of America, is looking back. Some are looking back to the 60s, some back to the 30s and 40s. Dylan’s recent output can be seen as a trip back to a beautiful place, a fantasy world that didn’t really even exist when they were written and recorded. While they have the feeling of nostalgia, these recordings are basically romantic recreations of what was the best in America. These compositions were written by professionals who knew about music theory, harmonics, dynamics, and diminished chords and flatted ninths. The lyrics were likewise sophisticated and were transformed by crooners and divas who knew how to sing and connect with their generation.

However, there are those who are also looking back longingly at this era, before the post-war flood of liberating change covered the earth, moving us forward as we progressed toward a common good. Both sides think of America as a democracy. On one side, the interpretation is that, as a society, we look out for each other, and for the best in ourselves. On the other side, the idea is that everyone is equal, therefore it’s every man for himself. Screw unto others. Don’t forget, the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, supported President Richard Nixon. Soul Brother Number One didn’t need anyone’s help. He made it on his own. However, not everyone can accomplish what he did. The deck is stacked against many people. While Dylan represents progress, he’s hardly a bleeding heart liberal. After all, he wrote and recorded the following lines in 1983, “A woman like you should be at home/That’s where you belong.” Then again, in the same song, he also sang, “Steal a little and they throw you in jail/Steal a lot and they make you a king.” Or a president.

As Dylan warned us, we’re doomed until we can face the racism in the country. This applies to sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other marginalized segments of society as well. It’s no sin to be nostalgic for the old days. Just make sure that you realize the consequences, and, as the great man once sang, “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.” Yes, it’s getting dark. Shine a light.

Happy birthday, Bob.