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Reviews in American History 32.2 (2004) 274-281

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The Intellectual as Fan

Robert Coles.Bruce Springsteen's America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing. New York: Random House, 2003. 256 pp. $23.95 (cloth); $12.95 (paper).
Mark Marqusee.Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art. New York: The New Press, 2003. 336 pp. $24.95.

"I was pushed out of the main road pretty early and had to come up along the ditches and the mud and the weeds," Woody Guthrie once wrote in a letter to his second wife Marjorie. Once up from the gutter, Woody's question became what to do with all of those serious people who now took him so seriously. "Now I'm picked up out of this kind of life and find myself camped along the trail of the intellectuals. . . . I hear their words that run like rain clouds and splatter a few drops across some hot pavement—and the sun and the wind turn the words to steam and they go up in the air like a fog."1 Indeed, any intellectual who approaches the power of popular music must proceed with a certain humility given that, compared to the real creative acts and the real performances, their words risk being little more than haze rising off the blacktop. The line between fandom and intellectual seriousness is difficult to navigate and the price of failure can be a little embarrassing—either the humid pontification that concerned Woody or the hagiography that tends to define the genre. The maddeningly-good critic Lester Bangs once wrote that the point of rock 'n' roll was to be "blasted outside yourself"—and that is, simply put, a rather difficult position from which to formulate a research agenda. With these two books on two of the biggest icons in the business, the score is better than most. One out of two succeeds in its mission.

Any self-respecting Bob Dylan fan is going to be suspicious of Mark Marqusee's book after a quick glance at its cover. Alarms ought to go off at the photo of a young and purposeful Bob decked out in jeans and a flannel shirt standing out on the docks with his acoustic guitar. Such an image appears to make an argument that has more to do with the singer of the left's hopes and dreams—a cardboard cutout of the protesting, prole heir to Woody Guthrie—rather than the complexity of the cantankerous and elusive Dylan. As anyone familiar with the artist's opus knows, he was that The-Times-They-Are-a-Changin' [End Page 274] figure, at least for a little while, but he was much more complex a character. The book's title, Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art, deepens suspicions. It makes reference to one of Dylan's most overtly political songs, but one he quickly distanced himself from and rarely played. In that 1964 cut, sound and image are united as chimes of freedom "flash" "for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight" and "for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night." It is an anthem of solidarity for the oppressed and dispossessed that he crafted after a Guthrie-esque journey through SNCC's Mississippi, the carnival of Mardi Gras, a visit to Ludlow, and finally to Berkeley. Brilliant as it was, "Chimes" was one of his last protest songs, and one that he stopped playing shortly after it was released—hardly the foundation for a book about the full range of Dylan's politics.

Fortunately, once inside this book, it quickly becomes clear that Marqusee knows his Dylan—in all of the artist's complexity. Less a celebration of that Guthrie-esque figure on the cover, Chimes of Freedom is an explanation of what happened to him, his mission, and his generation. The wonder of this analytically keen book and the beauty and subtlety of its conceptualization is how Marqusee manages to trace the folkie, protesting Dylan into the brilliantly sneering, pointy-shoed, surrealistic...


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