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Opinion

Op-Ed: As it was in the ‘60s, Bob Dylan’s truth-telling is needed today

Bob Dylan onstage in L.A. in 2012
Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles on Jan. 12, 2012. Dylan was named the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday, marking the first time the prestigious award has been bestowed upon someone seen primarily as a musician.
(Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for literature is something even he could not have prophesied with his pen when we were young musicians together in Greenwich Village. I was astonished at the news, overjoyed. A sense of validation swept over me. It seems we built a long-lasting platform of sorts, a fortress of folk music, that can still carry the strength of our convictions.

Not everyone agrees with my delight about Dylan’s prize, and he has barely acknowledged it. But I am buoyed that his messages might inspire us again to act on those convictions.

We wouldn’t have believed he would still be singing, playing and touring a half-century later.

The night Dylan introduced himself to me at Gerdes Folk City, I was struck by how pale and thin he was, looking as if he just stepped out of the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. He was very nearly transparent. (He was soon to meet his first muse, Suze Rotolo, and thank God she would make sure he got meals.) We couldn’t have known that he would inspire thousands of young men to burn their draft cards, though we were never sure that was Dylan’s actual intention. We didn’t guess he would infuriate one set of fans and add another just by picking up an electric guitar in a few short years. And we wouldn’t have believed he would still be singing, playing and touring a half-century later.

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As for literature, it was on our minds only because the Village, the ground on which we stood, had been home and headquarters for the literati since early in the century. Plaques were placed here and there. In my neighborhood there was one commemorating ee cummings. I guess new plaques are on order: “Bob Dylan Slept Here.”

Dylan and I first bonded over a mutual adoration of Buddy Holly. When Dylan won his album-of-the-year Grammy in 1998 for “Time Out of Mind,” he said: “The spirit of Buddy Holly was with me while I was making this album.” Holly had been a friend and a label mate of mine; I often opened my sets with a Holly song. But in the folk music world, we were known as acolytes of Woody Guthrie (Dylan) and Pete Seeger (me). Along with Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers (Peter, Paul & Mary), Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Roger McGuinn and so many others, we were the “children of Woody and Pete.” Do you count yourself among us?

Shortly after he and I met, Dylan hitchhiked to Boston and talked Paula Kelly, the booker of Club 47, into letting him open a show for me. That weekend he made it clear he was looking for more gigs. My “next show” was a recording session for my third album, this one for John Hammond at Columbia Records. I already had a guitar player, Bruce Langhorne, but, I told Dylan, “How about you playing harmonica for me on a few tunes?” Bob said: “Here’s my phone number. I’ll be there.” I had one heck of a band on that album: Dylan, Langhorne and Bill Lee (Spike’s father) on bass.

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That’s how I came to introduce Dylan to Hammond and Columbia. (He tells the story in his autobiography, “Chronicles.”) Some 30 years down the line, on Oct. 16, 1992, Columbia threw a giant shindig at Madison Square Garden: “The Bob Dylan Tribute,” celebrating their partnership. I got to harmonize with my friend Nanci Griffith on “Boots of Spanish Leather,” a song I heard Dylan debut in 1963 at Town Hall in New York. All night long there were standing ovations. “Bob Fest,” Neil Young called it.

“Carolyn, you sure can pick ’em” — that’s something I’ve heard a lot about the way one thing led to another with Dylan. You can’t imagine how hopeful I think it is that Dylan — my generation’s Walt Whitman, our Homer – was also picked by the Nobel committee. May the prize once again shine a light on his inspiring songs of indignation. They are powerful pleas for human dignity, decency, equality and justice: “Come senators and congressmen, please heed the call.” That is precisely the kick-ass truth-telling we need at this moment, just as we needed it in the 1960s.

Pete Seeger taught us that “marching goes better with singing.” There is much more marching left to do. If Dylan shows up in Stockholm to receive his prize, we can hope he will consider singing us, and the world, back on our way.

Singer-songwriter Carolyn Hester is at work on a memoir. She has lived in Los Angeles since 1972.

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