It’s a hard rain that’s been a-fallin’ on Bob Dylan from some blustery climes. This is because the 69-year-old folk-rock icon supposedly broke the sellout meter with a Chinese concert debut in which he performed songs approved in advance by the Communist regime.
Not that it’s Dylan’s job to stand up to dictators, tyrants and thugs — whether visiting their countries or hosting them at home and, say, the United Nations. Last time we looked, that was President Obama’s gig.
Writing this week on Chinese authorities’ most severe crackdown on dissidents and activists in a decade, Heritage’s Dean Cheng warns that if these “harsh measures” are overlooked by Obama, it “would not help the dissidents but instead betray American ideals.” Cheng adds:
“Very clearly, the Chinese authorities are worried that the winds of popular discontent and demands for political reform will blow through China.”
But did Dylan, the Voice of His Generation, turn his back on the Chinese everyman by agreeing not to play “Blowin’ in the Wind,” his civil rights-era anthem, during the April 6 show in Beijing? That definitely wouldn’t be cool, given domestic circumstances such as Heritage’s Kim Holmes describes:
At least 200 million people are out of work in rural China. Its large public sector is highly corrupt and inefficient. Access to health care is so poor, China is ranked 188th by the World Health Organization. Thus, regardless of China’s rapid economic growth, its inflexibilities and repressive political practices will constrain it for years to come.”
No reason to get excited, though. Accusations hurled at Dylan’s foreign policy come not from experts on his music but from smug scribes such as Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
What they didn’t care to notice, as veteran religion columnist Terry Mattingly of Scripps Howard News Service points out: Dylan opened the Beijing show with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” It’s a clear statement of Christian faith sung in support of religious freedom to an audience that doubtless included many with personal knowledge of their government’s stepped-up persecution of unsanctioned preachers and underground churches:
Change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules
Put my best foot forward, stop being influenced by fools.
Mattingly notes that Dylan also subversively chose to sing alternate lyrics such as these:
Jesus is calling, He’s coming back to gather up his jewels
We living by the golden rule: Whoever got the gold rules.
Surprise. Faithful “mainstream” chroniclers of Barack Obama’s political ascent and current trials miss the point. Instead, they echo the Left’s bitterness that Dylan moved on more than 45 years ago from writing straight-forward protest songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” – none of which made the official cut in China, although Dylan indulgingly performs them elsewhere.
In Beijing, Richburg writes, the government censors made sure Dylan’s concert “was devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.”
What a drag, man. Dylan cares more about a paycheck and pleasing Chinese President Hu Jintao than he does about freedom, human rights and the peace that passes all understanding — even in places like Chicago or Beijing?
Set aside the question of how many English speakers in the crowd at Workers’ Gymnasium could even tell what Dylan spat out in that phlegmy rasp. Consider the songs he did play. One can make the case that at least 10 of the 17 tunes explicitly champion individual freedom and dignity, decry repressive authority and militarism or acknowledge a God who saves. They include “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “A Simple Twist of Fate,” “Spirit on the Water,” “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Honest with Me,” “Ballad of a Thin Man” and the encore numbers “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “Forever Young.”
Richburg dismisses “Forever Young,” from 1974, as “innocent-sounding.” Maybe that was Bob’s idea, since it contains these lyrics:
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
Two nights later, in Shanghai, Dylan’s changes to the set list included adding “Desolation Row,” a song Richburg had reported was forbidden by Culture Ministry censors. Among other choice Dylan lyrics heard in China are these from 1962’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”:
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.
Too bad some of Dylan’s media critics didn’t bother to know his songs before they started carping. Maybe, to borrow a line from “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the message was this: Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Hu?