Happy 80th, Darlin' Bard Bob Dylan

By Jamie Stiehm

May 19, 2021 5 min read

WASHINGTON — Bob Dylan made me break into silent tears once, in concert on Nov. 11, 2001. Two months from the Sept. 11 attacks, people were still shattered.

The song was "Tangled up in Blue." Pitch-perfect for the moment in time, from the album "Blood on the Tracks." Try it sometime and you shall be released.

The greatest American bard (Sorry, Walt and Bruce) turns 80 on Monday, May 24. Dylan has serenaded generations since the early '60s, when he rose from Greenwich Village folk music haunts.

The young man from Minnesota seized a breeze in the bright JFK era. The nation had an ear for the utterly new, true and fresh songs spinning off his guitar.

"Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Chimes of Freedom" set the sound stage for social protests and marches of that decade.

In the '70s, a young girl played Dylan songs on the piano. Always crowd-pleasers, among them "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" ("Goodbye is too good a word, babe.")

His eyes were bluer than robin's eggs, as singer Joan Baez wrote in bittersweet lyrics about their love affair.

With his raspy voice, sulky charm and matchless harmonica, Dylan enchants the world over.

Given the 2016 Nobel Prize for his music and literary memoir, Dylan didn't go to Sweden for the honor.

So let the songbook speak for itself. Dylan recently sold it for about $300 million. Laced in every line, the restless artist remains a mystery to be solved.

"Mr. Tambourine Man" is my favorite for dazzling wordplay. It seems a self-portrait — keeping time with a wandering troubadour who plays in the jingle jangle morning mists ("Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea").

To be fair, "Like a Rolling Stone" that ode of scorn, was ranked as Dylan's best song — by Rolling Stone magazine, no kidding. That came soon after Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival.

The song "Mississippi" captured me, from the record "Love and Theft." Don't we all know the feeling: "Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long."

Dylan's love songs are unbelievably tender under his shiny hard shell.

When sung by Judy Collins or old muse Baez ("Visions of Johanna"), their beauty truly rocks. Collins sings "Farewell" and "Tomorrow is a Long Time" in her piercing golden voice.

One exception is the plaintive song "Sara" written for his then-wife, "So easy to look at / So hard to define / ... sweet love of my life." Only Dylan could sing that song.

On the same album, "Desire," is an arresting song no writer can resist: "One More Cup of Coffee."

No other singer-songwriter possesses his psychic grasp of the country's soul, captivating over miles, tears and years. Dylan's life is the road.

The man from the Midwest wrote vividly about the South, from beloved New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama, to Memphis, Tennessee, to the Nashville skyline.

Baez's haunting ballad "Diamonds and Rust" shows just how easy — and how hard — it would be to love Dylan. ("My poetry was lousy, you said.")

In song, Baez addresses Dylan in memories that travel back in time to standing in Washington Square, where their breath comes out as white clouds, mingles and hangs in the air.

At a concert while Bruce Springsteen played, a historian who knows Dylan told me about this scene in her song.

I answered with Baez's line: "Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there."

Nailed it, history repeating itself.

Baez's 80th birthday was in January. A couple of Aprils ago, I went to a farewell concert. Boy, did she sing a lot of searing Dylan songs.

In 2020, Dylan released a major work, a montage titled "Murder Most Foul," on JFK's assassination as a tragic point of no return for America.

Innocence, optimism and common dreams were dashed by the shots that blasted a young vibrant leader. It's an apt coda, for Dylan launched in that promising period.

But he was so much older then.

Remaking the ocean of experience, seeing and feeling things as if for the first time — isn't that what it takes to be forever young?

Play it, Bob.

The Bob Dylan Center is due to open in 2022 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit creators.com.

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