A friend once mentioned the philosophy of Bob Dylan had a certain resonance in his life, and I nodded along, not actually knowing what he was talking about. It’s easy to act like you know a lot until people start asking questions, at which point it is significantly harder to act like you know a lot. I did an admirable job of nodding.

Eventually, I bought a collection of interviews and a two-disk collection of Dylan—a CD titled, The All Encompassing Dylan With All The Songs You Liked And All The Ones You Didn’t or something to that effect. I read the interviews in tandem with the songs, jumping from one to the other as I tried to grasp what Dylan’s philosophy is.

As for values and beliefs, well, I’ve decided he either does or does not have a philosophy. It’s difficult to say because he is notoriously difficult to pin down. Is he opinionated? Yes… or rather sometimes. Other times he’s opinionated about not being opinionated. Often he refuses to answer the question. Often he takes up a question and spits it back at the reporter with acerbic wit.

With a repertoire of songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” produced in the ‘60s, Dylan was often held up to a spotlight and generalized as an anti-war figurehead. However, especially when he was younger, Dylan refused to take any stand on the war, either because he didn’t want to be the anti-war champion or because he was frustratingly unobservant to larger movements he had a part in forming. It could have been a little of both. Whatever it was, his unprincipled, independent stand was maddening to those who interviewed him.  

“It’s not that events won’t reach me, it’s more of a case of what, I myself would reach for,” he says to a reporter (who was probably scratching her head). “The decisions I would have to make are my own decisions, just like anyone else has to make his own. It doesn’t necessarily mean that any position must be taken. (132)

As the interviews track closer to the present, the reader can sense a certain maturity emerging from Dylan. He is less incisive, a bit more open, although he still has a wry humor. He still doesn’t feel comfortable with the title of “hero” or “leader,” but it doesn’t taste as bitter as it once did.

Yet, even at the end of the interview collection, the reader feels estranged from Dylan, something most of his fans have felt at some point in his career. At the end, you may still be asking yourself, what did this guy actually believe? It’s partly the limitations of text, where the interviewee remains essentially unknown; partly because Dylan is enigmatic and close; partly because Dylan grew up.    

As far as philosophy goes—if we think of philosophy in terms of what you think about life and how you live your own—Dylan’s views varied significantly. When “Blowin’ In The Wind” was released, he was twenty-two; when his latest album Fallen Angels was released (his thirty-seventh), he was seventy-four. Throughout those years, he was a recluse, a painter, a writer, a popular performer, a fundamentalist Christian, a father, a singer, a songwriter, and more besides.

Whatever he has been, Dylan always returns to his humanity, and the fact that he’s simply an artist doing his thing.

To me I don’t really have a ‘career.’ … This isn’t my career, this is my life, and it’s still vital to me. I feel like I don’t really want to prove any points. I just want to do whatever it is I do. … It never occurred to me that I had to do it for any kind of motive except that I just felt like I wanted to do it (336).

In the end, Dylan is a person, not a superhuman rock star. He has true things to say and is wise in his own way. As far as his music goes, it doesn’t really matter whether or not we hold to his philosophy or even if we know who Dylan is. If the song connects, helps you along the road of life a little bit, and expresses something of what you’ve experienced, then that’s what matters. Dylan, I think, in one of his moments of incisive clarity says it best.

Reporter: Are your songs ever about real people?
Dylan: Sure they are, they’re all about real people.
Reporter: Particular ones?
Dylan: Particular people? Sure, I’m sure you’ve seen all the people in my songs—at one time or another (66).

Source: Cott, Jonathan, editor. Dylan On Dylan. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2007.

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