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

By: Garage Bar Phnom Penh Posted: April-13-2011 in
Garage Bar Phnom Penh

In Part I of this series I pointed out the extent to which the press has portrayed Dylan's history, and particularly his political history just so damn wrong. Well, it's only gotten worse, much worse.

The mainstream press continues to play up Dylan's non-existent connection to the anti-war movement in the U.S. Thus Margie Mason writes for the Associated Press:

"After nearly five decades of singing about a war that continues to haunt a generation of Americans Dylan is finally getting his chance to see Vietnam at peace"

As if Dylan ever wrote any of those overt protest songs about Vietnam, which of course he did not, all those songs having pre-dated the war, and Dylan giving up singing them before US troops arriving on Vietnam's shores.

If that weren't bad enough, having reaffirmed Dylan's non-existent role as anti-Vietnam war spokesman, the press now accuses Dylan of having sold out for letting the Chinese and Vietnamese governments censor his playlists, and, more particularly, for caving in to commie pressure by not playing songs like The Times They Are A-Changin', Blowin' in the Wind, Masters of War, and Hurricane.

Referring specifically to the above mentioned songs, Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times:

"The idea that the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding."

Jumping on the bandwagon, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying, "Dylan should be ashamed of himself.

"The young Dylan wouldn't have let a government tell him what to sing," said Brad Adams, executive director of the organization's Asia division (and now, apparently its music critic). "He has a historic chance to communicate a message of freedom and hope, but instead he is allowing censors to choose his playlist."

In the first instance, Bob Dylan is a performer and a song writer, not a political activist and quite long ago, perhaps before these so-called journalists were born, made clear his lack of interest in being spokesman for any cause. Bob Dylan is not Bono or Jackson Browne, he never has been, never will be, and to suggest that's what he should be is absurd.

Second, there is nothing to suggest that Dylan allowed himself to be censored. While it was reported that Dylan was asked to submit songs for review, it is not known how many songs Dylan may have submitted, or what kind of review they may have been subject to. Dylan's repertoire includes hundreds of songs. He may have submitted his whole catalog for all we know. One reporter indicated a friend in the Chinese government told him that that Dylan lyrics were being reviewed for "bad words" and laughed at the suggestion that Dylan might be subject to political censorship (Dylan never having written a "Free Tibet" anthem).

Dylan's playlists in Vietnam and China certainly do not in any way suggest either self-censorship or censorship by either of the two governments. Indeed they suggest the opposite is true. Dylan didn't play hundreds of his songs, but what his chosen playlists suggest is that Dylan played what he wanted to play subject to nobody's censorship. Let's look at some of the particulars. Dylan is indicted for not playing "The Times They Are A-Changin", "Masters of War", "Blowin in the Wind" and "Hurricane".

Well, Dylan almost never plays "The Times". He hasn't played it in his last 150 shows (since 2009) and over the course of his entire career has played this 47 year old song about has many times as he's played High Water (For Charlie Patton) from the ten year old Love and Theft album. It's not one of his better songs, it's extremely dated, and its "come Senators and Congressmen please heed the call" lyrics would hardly have resonated with Chinese or Vietnamese audiences.

"Masters of War" Dylan does play with some frequency. But he hasn't played it since a New York concert last year and why this particular song should be singled out for the Chinese or Vietnamese is certainly not obvious to me. It was written well before Vietnam, and it's the US that seems to have its finger in a lot more war-pies these days than the Chinese.

"Blowin' in the Wind" is a song that Dylan performs semi-regularly, about half as often as "All Along the Watchtower". But the fact that The Bard chose not to play it is in no way indicative of Chinese censorship. Indeed, it is clear from the record that Dylan could have played it if I wanted to but it simply wasn't on the playlist. How do we know this? Because "Blowin' in the Wind" was actually played on Chinese State Television in a story on Dylan's upcoming appearance in China. There's a video on YouTube for anyone interested.

"Hurricane", Ms. Dowd says, Dylan should have played to speak out against political prisoners in China. Why, one has to ask? First, Dylan didn't keep this treasure of song out of the playlist to please anybody. He never plays it. He's played it 33 times in his life, and hasn't played it once since 1976. Second, as noted endlessly, this has never been Dylan's role. Perhaps Ms. Dowd should do this, that's about as likely as Dylan doing so. Or Perhaps she can offer a few tunes for Bradley Manning, a little closer to home. Mr. Adams of Human Rights Watch can sing harmony.

You know what? Bob also didn't play "Dear Landlord". That would have been such a great way of highlighting the failures of Chinese housing policies. But, hey they got to him. Bob obviously caved.

The utter cluelessness of these criticism is amplified when one looks at what Dylan did play at the three shows. What was the first song out of the box:

Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules

Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules

Gonna put my good foot forward, and stop being influenced by fools.

So much oppression, can’t keep track of it no more

So much oppression, can’t keep track of it no more

Sons becoming husbands to their mothers, and old men turning young daughters into whores.

Stripes on your shoulders, stripes on your back and on your hands

Stripes on your shoulders, stripes on your back and on your hands

Swords piercing your side, blood and water flowing through the land.

Reference to Jesus elsewhere in this pro-Christian anthem from Slow Train could only be sticks in the eye of Chinese censors if they were paying attention.

Dylan also played "Hard Rain" of course

"where pellets of poison are flooding our waters"

and "Ballad of a Thin Man"

"something's happening and you don't know what it is"

but these are obviously just moon, June, spoon types of songs that Dylan had to fall back upon to please his censors, right?

Somehow, I think that Dylan plays what Dylan wants to play the way he wants to play it. If any of these journalists or the clueless Mr. Adams actually cared to know anything about Dylan's history they would have come to a similar conclusion, to be sure.


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