May 24, 2011

Bob & Bert

In honor of Dylan's 70th, and because I just reckoned with another Midwestern Jewish artist's relationship with Brecht, it's worth revisiting this juicy piece by Jason Zinoman after Chronicles came out. If Woody Guthrie gave us the folkie Bob, it may have been Brecht who gave us Bob in full, according to Esther Harcourt, a former graduate student at Victoria University in New Zealand:
“Dylan inherited Guthrie’s role as voice of the people,” Ms. Harcourt said in a recent interview, “but the European influence of Brecht allowed him to experiment and undercut that role and create a more complex voice that wasn’t always as morally black and white.”

Ms. Harcourt argues that the influence of Brecht is the missing piece of the answer to the much-debated question of why Mr. Dylan moved away from the folk and protest scenes in the early 60’s. His songs took on a more personal, surreal and often ambiguous style that, like the work of Brecht, often complicated the audience’s relationship with the hero of a song.
Below, a historic moment Harcourt hails for its "Brechtian irony," ostensibly because the opening protest song ("When the Ship Comes In," with its shades of "Pirate Jenny"), offered at a nonviolent civil rights demonstration, concludes with violent Biblical imagery. Fair enough, though I think the real drama starts after the 3:00 mark, with Dylan telling civil rights activists not to blame Medgar Evers' killer because he's "Only a Pawn in Their Game," urging them instead to make common cause with poor whites against the ruling class. I guess that's the other kind of Brechtian.

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