To celebrate Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday on Tuesday, we are digging into the Washington Post archives to share some memorable articles about America’s greatest songwriter. To kick things off, here is the first article about Bob Dylan to appear in The Post, 10 days before he performed at the Civil Rights March on Washington.
Fresh Voice Rising in the Folk Wilderness
By Leroy F. Aarons
August 18, 1963
“Man, I don’t work my songs out. I burp ’em out.”
This is the way a skinny, untidy blond youth named Bob Dylan explains the talent that seems destined to make him a show business sensation.
Dylan, 22, has captured the imagination of a large following which is spreading the word about the Greenwich Village rebel who writes and sings songs of anguished protest.
He has been called both a great poet and a phony. Pete Seeger, the sage of the folk singing set, sees him as heir to the Woody Guthrie tradition of the 1930s. Others find his sloppiness, Midwestern drawl and flip noncomfomity all part of an image designed to win him profitable notoriety.
The answer to the riddle of Dylan probably lies somewhere in between. But anyone who has watched the reaction of a young audience (such as at last month’s Newport Folk Festival) to a Dylan performance, is aware that here is someone to be reckoned with.
Dylan’s origins are obscure, and he seems to prefer it that way. He says he was born in Sioux Falls, S.D., but other reports place his birth in Minnesota and even New York.
As for education, he talks about auditing courses for six months at the University of Minneapolis. It seems he left home quite young and spent years wandering across the face of the country, finally settling in Greenwich Village.
His songs — there are now more than 200 of them — are topical, bitter and uncompromising. The words are disarmingly simple, yet there is no denying passages of great power.
Dylan delivers them with an intensity born of obsession. One can see the Furies flying about as his nasal voice performs its anguished exorcism — blond head thrown back, sharp, intense eyes clenched beneath pained brow, his thin dungareed body arched against the struggle.
The effect on his audience is electric. And it is an audience that is constantly growing. One of his songs, “Blowin in the Wind,” is a hit record as sung by Peter, Paul and Mary. His record albums are best sellers, and there is talk of a movie contract. If modern press agentry does its job (Dylan’s manager is Al Grossman, who guides the fortunes of Peter, Paul and Mary and also Odetta), Dylan could well become this generation’s James Dean.
But unlike Dean, Dylan is a rebel with a cause. His songs rage against a world dominated by the powerful and unscrupulous. The people of his songs are victimes of a great, omnipotent THEY — the bombmakers, the warmongers, the politicians, the segregreationists, the rightists.
It is Dylan’s message, combined with an almost animal sensuality, that sparks his audience. (For all his untidiness, he has sex appeal — or is it because of it?) Many older listeners are repelled, but his young following finds in Dylan an expression of their own half-formed protest against the injustices that outrage the innocent.
(His detractors have asked whether audience reaction to his songs is not merely a guilt spasm for their own lack of action.)
One of Dylan’s songs, gaining wide popularity, is “With God on Our Side,” a bitter denunciation of the ways in which man rationalizes the evils of war:
When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And then we were their friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too have
God on their side.
In another pacifist song, “Masters of War,” Dylan fantasies the destruction of the war conspirators in a final verse:
I hope that you die and your death will be soon
I’ll follow your casket by the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered down to your death bed
Then I’ll stand over your grave ‘til I’m sure that you’re dead
One feels in talking with Dylan that here is an explosive, talented youth who might well have turned to hijacking cars had not the fates led him to a more constructive expression of his inner anguish. This anguish seems to have its roots in some very personal struggle, but it takes out form in a cosmic way — namely protest against man’s inhumanity.
Dylan denies being a “protest” writer, pointing to a number of humorous, untopical songs. He also makes no claim to any special talent, hence the “burp” remark at the beginning of the article.
“If I didn’t write this stuff I’d go nuts,” he says. “I’ve got all these thoughts inside me and I gotta say ’em. Most people can’t say ’em. They keep it all inside. It’s for those people that I write my songs.”
Press agentry? Truth? Who knows? Probably a good deal for both.