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Bringing It All Back Home or Another Side of Bob Dylan: Midwestern Isolationist

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 January 2009

Tor Egil Førland
Lecturer in Histroy, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1056, Blindern, N-0316, Oslo, Norway.


The subject of this article is the foreign policy views of singer and songwriter Bob Dylan: a personality whose footprints during the 1960s were so impressive that a whole generation followed his lead. Today, after thirty years of recording, the number of devoted Dylan disciples is reduced but he is still very much present on the rock scene. His political influence having been considerable, his policy views deserve scrutiny. My thesis is that Dylan's foreign policy views are best characterized as “isolationist.’ More specifically: Dylan's foreign policy message is what so-called progressive isolationists from the Midwest would have advocated, had they been transferred into the United States of the 1960s or later. I shall argue that Bob Dylan is just that kind of personified anachronism, seeing the contemporary world through a set of cognitive lenses made in the Midwest before the Second World War – to a large extent even before the First (or, indeed, before the American Civil War).

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1992

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1 The outstanding example is Dylan's incoherent December 1963 speech to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, which had just awarded him its Tom Paine award. Only a few weeks past the murder of President Kennedy, the folk singer gave the unexpecting liberals another shock. First he invited them to retire from the civil rights movement because they were too old: “It is not an old people's world. It has nothing to do with old people. Old people when their hair grows out, they should go out.” Then he confessed that he “saw some of [him]self” in Lee Oswald, Kennedy's alleged murderer. Quotes from Shelton, Robert, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (London: New English Library, 1986), 200205Google Scholar; see also Scaduto, Anthony, Bob Dylan (London: Abacus, 1972 [first published in 1971]), 161–64.Google Scholar No wonder that Dylan would write, in an open letter to the Committee: “I am no speaker nor any politician.” Quoted from Heylin, Clinton, Dylan: Behind the Shades (New York: Viking, 1991), 86.Google Scholar

2 In May 1964 Dylan told protest singer Phil Ochs, “The stuff you're writing is bullshit, because politics is bullshit. It's all unreal. The only thing that's real is inside you. Your feelings. Just look at the world you're writing about and you'll see you're wasting your time. The world is, well … it's just absurd.” Scaduto, , 176Google Scholar, see also 177–86. Compare Dylan's “there are no politics” poem on the jacket of his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, printed in Dylan, Bob, Lyrics, 1962–1985 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1987), 154–55Google Scholar. (Unless otherwise stated, all quotes from Dylan songs are from this book.) After being “born again” in 1979, Dylan went one step further. In an interview with the Rolling Stone 21 06 1984 (p. 15)Google Scholar he condemned politics as “an instrument of the Devil. Just that clear. I think politics is what kills; it does not bring anything alive. Politics is corrupt; I mean, anybody knows that.” Cf. also “Political World” from the 1989 album Oh Mercy.

3 To say that the literature on Dylan's poetry is growing rapidly would be an understatement. Shelton, , 513–15Google Scholar, gives an update through 1986. My favorite is still Tang, Jesper, Bob Dylan smiler [The Smiling Bob Dylan] (Copenhagen: Borgen, 1972), though it is of course somewhat dated.Google Scholar

4 Those conversant with Dylan's later songs may have trouble finding room in this dichotomy for “Neighborhood Bully”: that Infidels (1983) song widely considered as a Zionist statement. In my opinion, there are two conclusions to be drawn from this song. First, Dylan is a Jew – born again or not. Second, he is no pacifist. Neither deduction is very surprising. My reason for not analyzing “Neighborhood Bully” further is simply that I do not consider that it provides much of a clue to Dylan's general foreign policy message.Google Scholar

5 “John Brown” appears on the bootleg album Gaslight Tapes featuring songs from Dylan's performances in Greenwich Village in 1961. Other early and little known antiwar songs are “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” which finally was included on Dylan's 1991 album of miscellaneous, the Bootleg Series, Vols. 1–3, and “Playboys and Playgirls.”

6 These lyrics are taken from a tape recording of one of Dylan's concerts. I am thankful to Johnny Borgan for making available to me this tape as well as the studio outtake of “Union Sundown” referred to in footnote 12.

7 See, however, Wilshin, Clive, “Charity is Supposed to Cover Up a Multitude of Sins,” in Gray, Michael and Bauldie, John, eds., All Across the Telegraph (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987), 216–28.Google Scholar

8 Scaduto, , 286. See also Dylan's lecturing of Phil Ochs, quoted in footnote 2.Google Scholar

9 One caveat: Several of the concerts during his 1979 so-called gospel tour featured the recently born-again Dylan giving his audience an international-relations sermon. Recapitulating what he had recently been taught by fundamentalist preacher Hal Lindsey, Dylan explained that Russia [identified as Magog in the Book of Revelation] and Iran [Gog] would soon spark off Armageddon in the Middle East. At a show in San Francisco he also threw in China for good measure, reminding fans – hecklers, rather – that it had an army of two million people. With this exception, however, Dylan has stuck with his “feeling thing.” Heylin, , 333–35 and 353–54.Google Scholar

10 Quotes from “It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding).”

11 Scaduto, , 81.Google Scholar

12 The point about eating the food raw is probably not a major one. A studio outtake of an earlier version of the song goes like this: “Now they want to grow it on the moon./They gonna take you home garden away from you./I can see it coming pretty soon.” The same version has Dylan adding “… under corporate command” after naming the system “capitalism.”

13 On the isolationists' losing struggle against interventionism and Roosevelt, see Cole, Wayne S., Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932–45 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).Google Scholar

14 See Smuckler, Ralph H., “The Region of Isolationism,” American Political Science Review 47 (06 1953), 386401. Cole, 8, includes also Italian-Americans and “perhaps” Scandinavian-Americans among the ethnic bases of isolationism.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 Cole, , 129, see also 37–38.Google Scholar

16 Ibid., 255. For a comparison of progressive isolationist Gerald P. Nye with pacifist socialist Norman Thomas, see ibid., 229.

17 Quote from Cole, Wayne S., Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Relations (Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 1962), 61.Google Scholar On Nye's Munitions Investigating Committee, see Cole, , Roosevelt, 141–62.Google Scholar

18 Stuhler, Barbara, Ten Men of Minnesota and American Foreign Policy, 1898–1968 (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1973), 56 and 67.Google Scholar

19 Ibid., 61–62.

20 “Progressivism” was of course mote than just agrarian progressivism. Chrislock, Carl H., in The Progressive Era in Minnesota 1899–1918 (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1971), points at (pp. 12)Google Scholar “a fundamental difference of outlook” between “old progressives” who “wanted, as far as possible, to restore the individualistic, small-town and rural society of the pre-urban period,” and another wing that “accepted the permanence of large-scale industrial and financial enterprises, proclaimed that the nation's future lay in the cities, [and] affirmed that old-fashioned individualism was dead.” See also Nye, Russel B., Midwestern Progressive Politics (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1959), 15, 31, and 184–90Google Scholar; and Hofstadter, Richard, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), 45.Google Scholar

21 Stuhler, , 78.Google Scholar

22 Hofstadter, . 2359, 174–84 and 254–69Google Scholar; Nye, , 2427Google Scholar; Stuhler, , 69.Google Scholar Wayne Cole discusses the line from Jefferson through William Jennings Bryan to Nye in Nye, 1013Google Scholar, and “Gerald P. Nye and Agrarian Bases for the Rise and Fall of American Isolationism,” in Schacht, John N., ed., Three Faces of Midwestern Isolationism (Iowa City, IA: The Center for the Study of the Recent History of the United States, 1981), 25.Google Scholar

23 Dylan was born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, where the Zimmerman family lived until 1947, when they moved to nearby Hibbing, the hometown of Dylan's mother.

24 I had no easy time finding the Zimmerman house when making a pilgrimage to Hibbing in 1988: it occupied a weak third place among the town's tourist attractions, trailing the open-pit mine and Hibbing High School – famous not for Dylan's attendance but for its award-winning architecture.

25 Shelton, , No Direction Home, 2529, provides a historical geography of Hibbing as well as a Zimmerman family history from the time when Dylan's ancestors left the Russian Empire in the 19th century until Bobby arrived on 24 May 1941.Google Scholar

26 Nye, , 6.Google Scholar

27 Stuhler, , 6.Google Scholar

28 Nye, , 292.Google Scholar

29 Smuckler, , “Region of Isolationism,” 393–95.Google Scholar

30 Stuhler, , 90.Google Scholar

31 For a profile on Shipstead, see ibid., 76–98.

32 Ibid., 129–30; Nye, , 358–59.Google Scholar

33 Cole, , Roosevelt, 555–56.Google Scholar

34 Heylin, , Behind the Shades, 297–98.Google Scholar

35 Quoted from Wilshin, “Charity,” in Gray, and Bauldie, , Telegraph, 228.Google Scholar The importunate/unfortunate remark led, by the way, to “Farm Aid,” featuring a Dylan in top shape and spirits. Heylin, , 401–03.Google Scholar

36 Rolling Stone, 21 06 1984, 18.Google Scholar

37 Stuhler, , 65.Google Scholar

38 Dylan biographers have suggested that Dylan was strongly influenced by Suze Rotelo, the girl he was living with in the early Greenwich Village days. Suze, apparently a “red-diaper baby,” was working for the Congress of Racial Equality. See Scaduto, , Dylan, 111–13Google Scholar; and Heylin, , 51.Google Scholar

39 Scaduto, , 8283.Google Scholar

40 Hofstadter, , Age of Reform, 1617, 35 (last quote), 64–6; (first quotes), and 70–93.Google Scholar

41 Ibid., 226–36.

42 See Cole, , Roosevelt, esp. chapters 10 and 14.Google Scholar

43 Cole, , Nye, 222Google Scholar; Doenecke, Justus D., “The Isolationism of General Robert E. Wood,” in Schacht, Three Faces, 18.Google Scholar

44 Quote from “It's Unbelievable,” from the 1990 album Under the Red Sky (emphasis added). The songs referred to earlier in the paragraph are “North Country Blues,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Maggie's Farm,” “Union Sundown,” “License to Kill,” and “Clean-Cut Kid,” all in Dylan, Lyrics.

45 Gitlin, Todd, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, paperback ed. 1989Google Scholar [hardcover ed. 1987]), 197–98, see also 199–203; and Matusow, Allen J., The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 294–95.Google Scholar

46 DeBenedetti, Charles, with Chatfield, Charles, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 103 and 112.Google Scholar

47 Current Biography, 10 1991, 2630, quotes from p. 28.Google Scholar

48 Stuhler, , Ten Men of Minnesota, 45 and 218–20.Google Scholar See also Cole, Wayne S., “A Tale of Two Isolationists – Told Three Wars Later,” The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Newsletter 5, No. I (03 1974), 216, esp. 12–14.Google Scholar

49 Gitlin, , 21.Google Scholar

50 Cole, , “Tale of Two,” 13.Google Scholar Another isolationist critical of the US war in Vietnam was old Hjalmar Petersen of Minnesota's Farmer-Labor Party. See Keillor, Steven J.: Hjalmar Petersen of Minnesota: The Politics of Provincial Independence (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987), 256.Google Scholar

51 DeBenedetti, , 13.Google Scholar

52 DeBenedetti, , 41, 64, 95Google Scholar; Gitlin, , 86–87Google Scholar; Matusow, , 310.Google Scholar

53 Sale, Kirkpatrick, SDS (New York: Random House, 1973), 89. Sale adds, however, that there was “a sizeable majority from the Midwest.”Google Scholar

54 Ibid., 204–09, 278–82; Gitlin, , 186.Google Scholar

55 Midwesterners among the SDS elite also included Clark Kissinger, national secretary from 1964, and “prairie power” president Carl Oglesby, elected in the summer of 1965. On the background of the SDS leaders mentioned here, see Sale, , 24, 35, 108, 126, and 187. It may also be worth noticing that William Appleman Williams, dean of the Wisconsin School of New Left revisionist historians, was from southwestern Iowa.Google Scholar

56 Gitlin notes that when he was elected SDS president in 1963, he was “the first top officer whose main work had been for peace, not civil rights.” Gitlin, , 131.Google Scholar

57 Ibid., 188–89; see also DeBenedetti, , 97102.Google Scholar

58 Hofstadter, , Era of Reform, 254–69.Google Scholar

59 Quote from Teodori, Massimo, ed., The New Left: A Documentary History (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), 40Google Scholar, and Sale, , 69.Google ScholarMatusow, , 313Google Scholar, deems the Port Huron Statement “one of the most successful radical documents in American history.” For an analysis, see Sale, , 4959.Google Scholar

60 Quoted from Sale, , 5152.Google Scholar

61 Quoted from ibid., 43.

62 DeBenedetti, , 6768 and III, quote from 68.Google Scholar

63 Gitlin, , 114.Google Scholar With reference to the Port Huron Statement and the debate between the SDS and the leaders of its parent organization the League for Industrial Democracy, who castigated the students for not condemning Communism, stresses, Gitlin (p. 107) that “the movement's élan and language were utterly American. It did not speak in Marxist dialects.… The SDS Old Guard were steeped in a most traditional American individualism.”Google Scholar