Dylan in 1963, Public domain photo.
This year the Nobel Committee gave the prestigious Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan, the first prize ever given to a songwriter.
Even though Bob Dylan didn’t actually show up at the ceremony to claim his prize (sending rocker-poet Patti Smith as his singer-stand-in), the award reminded me of how his music helped carry many of us through times of change in America in the 60’s and early 70’s.
Patti Smith, standing before a prestigious crowd wearing tuxes and tiaras, made international news as she faltered twice while singing Dylan’s “Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.” (“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m so nervous.”) It was as if her falter highlighted the power living in Dylan’s music, a power many of us remember from the 60’s and early 70’s when music from Dylan, other songwriters, and people around the world reaching out for their freedom gave some of us courage to believe that we could come together to fix a broken system.
In times that “…are a changin’,” music has power to send a message pulsing around the globe, to support dissenting voices, and to convey the urgency for change. Where we may filled isolated in a private angst about a political system that leaves many behind, music can weave us together and fill us with a sense of common purpose. When I think of the 60’s, when so many of us believed that we could change the system and halt the war in Vietnam, music fed our courage, even when President Nixon refused to listen. During the 70’s, as people started to rise up in Chile and Latin America, an exquisite music supported them. Gospel music in the United States gave a dignity and power to a people violated by slavery, helping them maintain their subversive right to their own voices. The documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution showcased the role music played throughout the Civil RIghts Movement. And we can find similar examples around the globe.
A young Pete Seeger in community. Public domain photo.
I’ve noticed, traveling and working in different countries and continents, that singing together is a natural way for people to come together, create community, and share what they care about whether it be in the fields of Mali or at business retreat sites in India. But here in the United States, my boomer colleagues, who once were glued to Dylan’s words, often decline the invitation to sing with others, muttering “I can’t sing.”
Singing together is not about having perfect pitch, but claiming the voices we have.
Voices need to ring out more in destitute times when the soul searches for light. Can you imagine a hit song that describes the wonders of greed and destroying the environment—except as a parody? Music that uplifts our spirits aims us toward something more.
Music is a secret code because it touches the heart. Our intellects come up with improbable justifications—or as we’ve seen over the last nine months—outright lies. But music, especially the songs of the people, can remind us of who we are and who we can be. Music can echo a political message, give voice to the marginalized, or send a call of hope by sending a reminder to the higher angels of our nature that “all is not lost.”
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slowest now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
Cause the times they are a-changing
Bob Dylan The TImes They Are A Changin’
As we ponder what is our power for good given the enormity of needs calling us to stay alert and to act before it is to late, I hope that we will come together and sing. We will find our hearts, find our causes, find each other and work together for change, despite the odds. The music of people coming together cannot be taken down by false power. And it can help us go the next round.
So now to you, dear reader, what are the songs we need to be singing or the music that will carry us into the new world we are wanting to create?