Pod people: Dylan does his Dylan thing

It's time for another Crossroads podcast, so please click here to tune that in on your computer or head on over to iTunes. We're talking Bob Dylan and I think that it's safe to say that Dylan is in better shape right now on the whole China sellout thing than, oh, Maureen Dowd & Co. I say this because an interesting collection of voices -- including some on the left -- have started noting that Dylan was far from silent in Beijing, when he took the stage under what he knew would be a hot international spotlight.

For some scribes, the problem was that he emphasized religion, not politics (as usually defined in the mainstream press). He made a statement, but not the right one. But stop and think about that for a minute. Is there any subject in modern China more controversial than religion and religious freedom?

Truth is, Dylan spoke out on politics and religion at the same time. Friends, this is not Dylan's first rodeo in the public square.

Anyway, I jumped into the fray on the Dylan matter here at GetReligion for a simple, pointedly journalistic reason. How can anyone claim that Dylan sold out and didn't sing edgy material in China without paying attention to the lyrics of his first song in that historic Beijing concert? I mean, read the words.

I'm happy to say that some people are starting to do that. Here's a dose of Sean Wilentz blogging over at the New Yorker:

Dylan opened his concerts in Beijing and Shanghai with a scalding song from his so-called gospel period, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”

I’m gonna change my way of thinking Make myself a different set of rules Gonna put my best foot forward Stop bein’ influenced by fools

Presumably, he sang some of the revised lyrics in the version that he released with Mavis Staples in 2003:

Jesus is coming He’s coming back to gather His jewels Well, we live by the Golden Rule Whoever got the gold, rules

Or maybe he sang the original lyrics:

So much oppression Can’t keep track of it no more So much oppression Can’t keep track of it no more

How much more subversive could Dylan have been in Communist China? Especially when he went on to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and, most unnerving of all, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Depending on whatever agreement he made with them, I’d argue Dylan made a fool of the Chinese authorities, while getting paid in the bargain. He certainly made a fool of Maureen Dowd -- or she has made a fool of herself.

I would quibble a bit with the accuracy of some of the lyrics quoted there (it's "Jesus is calling" on the first line of that 2003 verse). But his blog made all of the essential points. Preach it, brother.

Which is more than I can say about this Jon Wiener piece over at The Nation online. I mean, it starts with a rejection of the Dowd camp, but then he still manages to miss the main point of what Dylan did on that stage. Here's a big chunk of that piece:

Bob Dylan did not sell out to the Chinese government when he performed in Beijing on April 6. The “sellout” charge was made in the New York Times [1] on Sunday by Maureen Dowd, along with several other people. The problem: Dylan submitted his set list to the Chinese culture ministry, according to the Guardian’s Martin Wieland in Beijing, and as a result the concert was performed “strictly according to an approved programme.”

That’s the reason, Dowd wrote, why Dylan did not sing what she called his “iconic songs of revolution like “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan thus was guilty of “a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family.”

The Daily Beast ran a feature headlined “Famous Sellouts,” with Bob Dylan in Beijing in the number-one spot, and William Langley wrote in the Telegraph that “Dylan without protest songs sounds about as useful as Hamlet without the soliloquy.”

But look at what Dylan did sing in Beijing [2], starting with “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”: that song describes a place “Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters/Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison/Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden.” You could call that a “protest song” if you wanted to.

He also sang “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” I would say that carries a pretty strong political charge.

And he sang “All Along the Watchtower”: “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth/None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” If you were looking for critical commentary on China today, this would work.

OK, is there anything missing in that commentary? Anyone notice which crucial song -- as in the opening number -- that The Nation skipped?

I was still steamed about all of this when it came time to write my Scripps Howard piece this week -- which was the 23rd anniversary of the start of my "On Religion" column for that national wire service. I opened with the last salvo in China's war against the nation's growing wave of unregistered religious groups (click here for details) and then put the Dylan show in that context.

But what's the big idea? Why are journalists struggling to get this story? Here's my take:

Many years ago, commentator Bill Moyers told me that the reason so many journalists struggle to cover religion news is that they are "tone deaf" to the music of faith in public life. That image still rings true for me, after 23 years of writing this column for the Scripps Howard News Service and more than three decades of research into life on the religion beat.

For me, the coverage of the Beijing concert was a classic example of this "tone deaf" syndrome. It certainly seems that many reporters attended, but they didn't hear what they wanted to hear.

You may have heard this already, but many journalists in the mainstream press just don't "get" religion.

Please respect our Commenting Policy