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Identity of the Artist: Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Essay

Early on in his rambling memoir, Chronicles (2004), Bob Dylan expresses a surprising affiliation. I’d read that stuff. Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, Montesquieu, MartinLuther—visionaries, revolutionaries…it was like I knew those guys, like they’d been living in my backyard. (p. 30) This “backyard” of the songwriter, identified through much of his career with subversion and rebellion, is a striking revelation, though the “intellectual” content of his most famous early albums may, in retrospect, be viewed as a preparation for it.

In various other ways Dylan is surprising. It seems likely that he took on the writing of the book out of a drive to clarify his life-motive, to “set the record straight” with regard to both his artistic heritage and his character as a man. The stereotype of the “misunderstood artist” applies in his case, in a manner to highlight not his inner reality as a mystagogue, or political luminary, but as a man, relatively, of convention—family-oriented, taking pleasure in consumption, in friendship, in home ownership, in success as a parent and provider.

With marriage and fatherhood, in fact, Dylan seems decidedly to take the measure of his own would-be character. Political/cultural spokesmanship is not for him. In fact he repeatedly deplores the sort of activist political role others try to cast him in. In the “New Morning” chapter, he writes: The events of the day, all the cultural mumbo jumbo were imprisoning my soul—nauseating me—civil rights and political leaders being gunned down… —the whole shebang. I was determined to put myself beyond the reach of it all. I was a family man now, didn’t want to be in that group portrait. (p. 109)

Bob Dylan’s Chronicles 4 Fame and political miscasting evolve eventually into a martyrdom. Seeming proud of his acquaintances among the conventionally and competently famous (actor Tony Curtis, singer Frank Sinatra Jr. , country music star Johnny Cash), he wants no part of either his starry-eyed fans, or his politically revved-up and misguided disciples. His home is no refuge. Pursuers follow him to the country. Intolerably besieged, he moves from Woodstock in rural New York, to New York City, to the West Coast, to East Hampton on Long Island, where at last he seems find partial refuge.

Visited there by Bono of the radical group U2, he shares not so much any politically “correct” views, or high-powered visions of change, as his recollections of small-town Minnesota: memories of ordinariness: the giant kitsch statue of a Viking in the town of Alexandria, the Mesabi Iron Range where he grew up (pp. 174-175). One of the more impressive aspects of Chronicles is Dylan’s candid self-assessments, especially in the “Oh Mercy” chapter. My performance days in heavy traffic had been grinding to a halt for a while, had almost come to full stop. I had single-handedly shot myself in the foot too many times.

…You have to deliver the goods, not waste your time and everybody else’s. …There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him. (p. 147) Here the artist appears as an honest workman. His fame established, he recognizes that his live performances have grown shoddy. He takes himself to task, rejects self-indulgence and excuses. “I felt done for, a burned-out wreck” (p. 147). Such comments are not the evasions of a complacent drone, or a degenerate renegade resting on ill-gotten laurels. This is the voice of chagrined manhood, of the tough personal stance.

The singer goes on from here to chronicle his personal struggle toward a new performance style, eventuating in a whole change of approach. Dylan’s capacity to work through crises appears to stem from formative childhood situations later recapitulated in his musical influences. In the fifth chapter of Chronicles , “River of Ice,” Bob Dylan’s Chronicles 5 he reminisces about the period in his career just prior to his relocating in New York City. At this time he is living in Minneapolis, in the same state as his family, awash in Minnesotan resonances and recollections.

That he is so powerfully drawn to the music of Woody Guthrie is clearly attributable to the blue-collar surroundings of his early home life, the homely truths purveyed as standard growing-up fare by his parents. His father, he tells us, was “pragmatic and always had a word of cryptic advice. ” His mother concerns herself with his not being harmed by “a lot of monkey business out there in the world” (p. 226). Within two pages of these recollections, he makes explicit his antipathy for “the mondo teeno scene” and his preference for “the traditional stuff with a capital T” (p.

228). And the singer who embodies for him the conjunction of working class roots and “the traditional stuff” is, unquestionably, Guthrie. The whole uniqueness of Dylan’s musical art seems to take its early inspiration from this towering figure, whose work “tore everything in his path to pieces” and “had the infinite sweep of humanity” in it (p. 244). It is not too much to say that Guthrie is even a father figure to the young musician, who aspires to be his “greatest disciple” and feels, though he has never met the older man, that the two of them are “related” (p.

246). An exact connection between Dylan’s folk-music-and-blue-collar heritage on the one hand, and his rather middle-class approach to life in the wake of his economic success as a “star” on the other may not exist except in the singer’s own psyche. Notwithstanding, the aspiration to a “better life”—understood as an increased ability to purchase and consume—is as much an American “tradition with a capital T” as folk music, or union membership.

Dylan makes it clear that, once he has a family (and probably before), there is never any question of divided loyalties, or the assumption of a role seriously at odds with the political status quo. For him, the American scene of his youth “was wide open…not only was it not run by God, but it wasn’t run by the Bob Dylan’s Chronicles 6 devil either” (p. 293). And, on the evidence of his career and allegiances, this negative certainty has proven endorsement enough for him. Bob Dylan’s Chronicles 1

Running Head: BOB DYLAN’S CHRONICLES Identity of the Artist: Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Name School Professor Course Bob Dylan’s Chronicles 2 Abstract In his autobiographical memoir, Chronicles, Bob Dylan reveals a character that is conventional and politically unradical, despite popular misreadings and the attempts of his activist contemporaries to recruit him as spokesman for radical causes. His life and work show strong allegiances to traditional American family life and American folk music, especially that of Woody Guthrie.

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