by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note.
It is exactly 463 miles from Maywood, Illinois where I was born on February 16, 1947, to Duluth, Minnesota, where Bob Dylan was born May 24, 1941. In these few facts, there is a multiplicity of meaning… for I, a deep-rooted Midwestern boy myself, take my hat off to you Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham, aka Robert Allen Zimmerman, and then, at various times and various places, Elston Gunnn, Blind Boy Grunt, Bob Landy, Robert Milkwood Thomas, Tedham Porterhouse, Lucky Wilbury, Boo Wilbury, Jack Frost, and Sergei Petrov.
Our lives have crossed often, as I will show you here. But an understanding between Bob Dylan and Jeffrey Lant is the work of a lifetime, and your true importance is that through sentiments which often seem to drive us apart, came your rendition of the great truths which have kept and must keep us together.
“Get that Jew out of my kitchen”.
It is hard to see amidst so many travels the small tight-knit Jewish community he was born into. Neither Minnesota nor Illinois, its very near neighbor, were particulary welcoming to Jews, especially ones which in Dylan’s family came from the Eastern European countries of Ukraine and Lithuania, places they particulary despised, avoided, and condemned.
I had a vision… I had a shocking vision into what the “real” Midwestern Americans thought about Jews. When I brought home from school the brightest boy (next to me of course) in my class, he was a New Yorker, he looked “ethnic”, and was sharp as a tack.
I remember as if it were yesterday, what my grandmother said when I brought him home to the house through the kitchen entrance, used only by family and friends. I introduced him… not a word was said about Judaism until completely without warning, she shrieked “Get him out of my kitchen! Get him out now!”
I’ve never told this story before, but now is the time to do so, since it demonstrates how even amongst the “best families” anti-antisemitism was rife, if not voiced. I know, and I was appalled.
I, as the son of a leading family, was promptly forgiven for my picadillo. As for my grandmother, she never mentioned it again, in any way, shape, or form. Bob Dylan faced his situation in a vastly different way than I did with mine. For him, there were no swimming parties, no lazy afternoons at the club house, no finding golf balls hit by errant duffers. All this came to me as if by right, for so we regarded it, by right.
For Dylan, things were different. And where I watched the Lennon Sisters, where Lawrence Welk directed his lily white Champagne Music Makers, and had two-toned shoes just like Pat Boone, and a cap like Davey Crockett wore, Bob Dylan fled his boyhood home in Hibbing to the bigger world of the University of Minnesota, where he enrolled in 1959, and where I taught as a lecturer many years later.
I stayed in school, never left, attended 12 universities, and got four degrees, including a Ph.D. from Harvard. I chose the comfortable route. Dylan, by contrast, had heebie jeebies, ants in his pants. There was always something new with him… that never changed.
Rock’n’roll was here to stay, but not for Dylan.
Studying was never his objective… American folk music was. But only for a short time, providing yet another escape hatch from dead end rock’n’roll.
“The thing about rock’n’roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough… There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms… but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
With strongly held sentiments like these, and just a few bucks in his pocket, Bob Dylan did what every aspiring, counter cultural artist did: fled to New York… the Big Apple even then; de rigeur if your politics were Left, you had a world of drugs to sample, and your sexuality was promiscuous, but ardent.
Here, young Bob Dylan and I diverged again. I went to Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa (Harvard only came later). My agenda included “God Bless America” and staying straight and squeaky clean in a place where one may safely send one’s children, and where the “real world” scarcely made an appearance at any time. As for sex… that wasn’t even invented until 1968, remember?
It was about this time, I can date it almost to the minute, when Bob Dylan’s America and mine broke apart. The chasm between us was so deep, it still exists today, and worse than it ever was. He was on his track, I was on mine.
He, from February 1961, played at clubs around Greenwich Village. He was a magpie, picking up a song there, a lyric here, a soused composer somewhere else, and a singer whose golden voice failed to obscure the fact she was a heroin addict, at $25 a day. She would sit on his lap, and look in deeply at what she could only see. Bob Dylan saw this, as he saw everything. For without even knowing the word, he was a humanitarian… and therfore a friend to all, whatever they thought of him. And what they thought was often unnecessarily hostile, mean spirited, and dismissive.
In my case, because I came from West Los Angeles, I was appointed by the administration as the master of interracial relations, and the cataclysms which, like East Los Angeles (called Watts), frightened the bejesus out of America, as it watched black marauders destroy the basis of their lives, and what they could do to yours if they weren’t stopped.
By this time, Robert Dylan (he had legally changed his name again in 1962), was becoming savvy about the record business, but not savvy enough. In 1968, the BBC took a film recording of “Madhouse on Castle Street”, starring Dylan, and gratuitously destroyed it. There is no copy extant today, because those bozos thought he was a has been.
My path and Dylan’s didn’t cross much anymore after he changed his musical direction as easily as he shed and gained a new name. He was looking for something, but what was it? Perhaps he didn’t even know.
Then one day I got myself trapped in a booth at a local restaurant here in Cambridge. I had just recently been diagnosed with having Parkinson’s Disease, and I acted like no one in the world ever had a disease before and certainly pointed fingers and laughed at mine. It was pathetic, self-pitying, a dead end. Then, I remembered a song I had used as background music for a poetry reading once upon a time. It was Bob Dylan’s version of “Forever Young”, published in 1974.
I had spent my whole life doing what was expected, doing it when expected, doing it with as little ruckus as possible, and above all, doing it oneself, becoming a burden to no one. How I could get out of my coat, wedging me as it did in the booth, so that I could go neither forward or back, I did not know. But then, these lines, rose as if by magic from my roiling brain:
“May you always do for others
And let others do for you”
There was Bob Dylan, masquerading as the voice of God, and doing a damn good job of it, too. I was ready to change my modus operandi of a lifetime. I was ready to let people help me for a change, and it was Bob Dylan right there before me who made me willing to have it happen. He was the one who pointed to the insidious refrain…\
“May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you”
And so far, I’ve been doing pretty well listening to his advice.
On December 10, 2016, on a splendid evening soon to come in another memorable event in the Swedish dynasty, they will have front row seats as the Swedish Academy bestows its highest honor, the Nobel Laureate for Literature.
Bob, if I may advise you in a small sartorial matter, do not appear in white tie with tails. It is not you. Come instead as the man who has shown the world not just about various kinds and types of music, but about how music can beautify and cleanse a world so deeply disunited.
And, remember when King Carl XVI Gustaf (b. 1946) hands you your glittering prizes, you will have no greater admirer than I, for you deserve the thanks of the world for having a full heart, and knowing what to do with it.
As for His Majesty and his beautiful commoner Queen, Silvia Sommerlath (b. 1943), you can be sure they had a helpful hand in this election, after all, they are the same age we all are, and love your music in all its varieties.
Sing them, “The Times They Are a-Changin'” (1964), for they certainly are. Skol!
Here’s the musical link:
About the author:
Now 70, a bonafide septuagenarian, Harvard educated Dr. Lant looks upon his much favored life with happiness and joyful acclimation. Author of nearly 60 books and well over 1,000 articles, this is a man who knows how to tell a story and tell it well. To see his complete oeuvre, go to www.drjeffreylant.com
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