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Dylan in Vietnam - Part 1: Dylan and the Vietnam Mythology

By: Garage Bar Phnom Penh Posted: March-23-2011 in
Garage Bar Phnom Penh

Bob Dylan is set to play a concert at RMIT University in Saigon on April 10. In the early press for the concert it was billed as part of a tribute to Trinh Cong Son, "Vietnam's Bob Dylan", who died ten years ago.

The announcement of Dylan's concert has made headlines, which, it is hoped. will help sell out the 8,000 seat venue in Ho Chi Minh City's District 7. Interestingly, most every article which has appeared attempts to connect Dylan in some fashion to the movement against the war in Vietnam, screaming headlines such as "Anti-War Bard to Perform in Vietnam"

, many even making specific connections between Dylan songs, such as "Masters of War" and "Blowin' in the Wind" to the Vietnam era anti-war movement.

Perhaps it's simply the passage of time and the reporters simply weren't there, or perhaps it makes good copy and fact checking is not so important, but as anyone who was a part of the movement would know, Dylan wasn't a part of it in any form or fashion, much to the dismay of many. Dylan would be the first to acknowledge this, as he's worked quite hard to distance himself from the "spokesman for a generation" role that he was awarded. Songs like "Like a Rolling Stone" and Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" may be part of the soundtrack of America's war in Vietnam, but making any further connections between Dylan and the anti-war movement is hard to do.

Let's recall the chronology.
Dylan wrote "Blowin' in the Wind" in March 1962, and "Masters of War" approximately nine months later. At this point in time the U.S. had several hundred Green Beret advisors in Vietnam. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had just been founded (the Port Huron Statement dates to March 1962) but there was not yet an anti-war movement focused on Vietnam. The cold war with the Soviet Union was at its peak and the civil rights movement gaining momentum and it was these issues which Dylan's work increasingly spoke to in 1962 and 1963.

The last of Dylan's topical "protest songs" were written by November 1963 for inclusion in the Times They Are A-Changin' LP which was released in January 1964. None of these songs had any connection to the developing war in Indochina. He continued to perform his pre-1964 topical material -- songs about civil rights and the cold war - through 1964 and early 1965 when the first U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam, but by the time of the '65 summer and fall tours, Dylan, age 24, had moved on as an artist (and ended his relationship with Joan Baez) and the protest songs were gone entirely from the concert repertoire, never to reappear until long after the war was over. Songs like "Restless Farewell" and "My Back Pages" made it quite clear that Dylan was not interested in being a spokesman for anybody's movement.

With Dylan leaving the protest song behind it was left to Phil Ochs ("Talking Vietnam", "Draft Dodger Rag", "I Ain't Marching Anymore") and other folk associates of the "Anti-War Bard" to actually contribute songs related to the Vietnam conflict. By this time Dylan wasn't impressed with the efforts of his friends who continued in the tradition he once embraced, famously once throwing Ochs out of a taxi and shouting "you're not a folksinger Ochs, you're a journalist."

Dylan's absence was more than artistic. Dylan never appeared at an anti-war rally or concert, and, as far as I have been able to discern, never made an anti-Vietnam war public comment. He was pressed to do so in 1966 in an interview with Nat Hentoff for Playboy, and again in an interview conducted by his friend Happy Traum for Sing-Out magazine, and on both occasions he chose not to show support for the anti-war cause.

Dylan wrote just one more topical song before the last Americans soldiers left Vietnam, a 1971 tribute to George Jackson, the Black Panther leader killed weeks before the record's release. During the almost seven years between the end of his 1966 British tour and the end of American involvement in Vietnam, Dylan lived almost completely outside of the public eye, raising a family, and released just three albums of original material (John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and New Morning).

In 1984, Dylan finally did record a song referencing the American experience in Vietnam, "Clean Cut Kid" appearing on Dylan's Empire Burlesque album:

They said, "Listen boy, you're just a pup"
They sent him to a napalm health spa to shape up
They gave him dope to smoke, drinks and pills
A jeep to drive, blood to spill

They said "Congratulations
You got what it takes"
They sent him back
Into the rat race without any brakes

He was a clean-cut kid
But they made a killer out of him
That's what they did

Dylan's early work in topical song is brilliant. But it had nothing to do with Vietnam.

All that being said, I will be in Saigon on April 10. Dylan himself may not have been a part of the movement against the war in Vietnam but his influence was immeasurable.

It should be a good show

Part II - Dylan in Vietnam - Part II: The Concert

Part III - Dylan in Vietnam - Part III: The Press and the "Idiot Wind"


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