Dave Marsh and the notes he didn't use
The Dylan symposium held late last month in Minneapolis could have been called "The Geography of Bob Dylan."
Organizer Colleen Sheehy told me that her original idea had been to stage a Minnesota-focused symposium on Dylan, to bring it all back home. But as things developed and grew, it was clear that the geography had to be extended south down Highway 61, and east to Greenwich Village, and across the globe. Nearly everything I saw in the four days of the symposium was focused on location, location, location.
Not long into the first day of the symposium, music writer Dave Marsh realized he needed to rethink the presentation he was scheduled to give the next day. He had planned to argue, as he'd been doing for much of the last 30 years, that Bob Dylan didn't just happen to come from the Midwest he HAD to come from here. The Midwest matters if you want to understand Dylan's art.
But now, after seeing the first couple hours of the symposium, it had sunk in that he no longer needed to make this argument. The geography of the symposium was already centered squarely on Minnesota. Knocked off the mark he'd long ago grown used to occupying, Marsh seemed forced to reach into fresher, less familiar material. Throughout his presentation, his emotions seemed raw and his voice wobbly.
Here's what my notes and memory can recover of one of the symposium's most moving moments.
Marsh went back to his initial response to Dylan's music, back when Marsh was a kid growing up in Michigan. He associates the very first line of With God on Our Side with the largely invisible experience of growing up in what is now known as "flyover country."
My name it is nothingThere's an emptiness to America's imagination with respect to the Midwest it's blank in a way The West isn't blank, in a way The South isn't blank. Marsh invested his hopes in Dylan, in the possibility that Dylan could help fill in that blank.
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
It wasn't just the place, it was the times. Growing up in the Midwest in the mid-sixties, there were huge slabs of the imagination that were forbidden zones, very many impermissible thoughts. Dylan, Marsh said, was a giant act of permission.
Bruce Springsteen famously said that Dylan freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body. Marsh says Dylan provided a way for a Midwesterner to imagine freedom. The syntax of freedom, he said, is especially hard to hear when you haven't ever been particularly oppressed. Dylan provided Marsh with a way to imagine his own liberation from confines that Marsh himself had had trouble identifying. Marsh wouldn't have known the route out of town if Dylan hadn't taken it first.
Finally (maybe in the Q&A session), Marsh talked about seeing in Dylan's demeanor his way of occupying his own mind and body a familiarity that might be unseen to somebody who didn't grow up in the here. I've long felt this too.
In the old footage of Dylan's 1960's press conferences, and in his later interviews, Marsh and I recognize the Midwestern sense that there are simply some things that are none of your f---ing business. When all the reporters snicker, Marsh and I often think he's not being ironic. It isn't funny. People said Dylan had given up singing protest songs, but we wonder what they were talking about. Bob Dylan's 115th Dream protests absolutely everything that ever happened on this continent in the last 500 years. Are they hearing a different song, or are they just coming from a different place?
I'm anxious to see how Marsh's extemporaneous talk will appear in the book based on this symposium. It was one of the high points ... certainly, Marsh has a very deep reservoir of history with Dylan's music, and decided to use his spot for a heart-to-heart, turning over fresh soil along the entire row.
Editor's Note: This is part of a series of entries about the Bob Dylan symposium held in Minneapolis from March 25 to 27, 2007. An authoritative book based on the conference is planned for early 2008, so I won't try to do justice to the conference or the papers delivered there. I'll just try to explain the most interesting stuff that wound up in my notepad.