Wiki­media Commons

Bob Dylan’s classic album “Bringing It All Back Home,” cel­e­brating its 56th birthday on March 22, should become an anthem for a gen­er­ation of con­ser­v­a­tives who find them­selves pre­serving things so rad­i­cally counter-cul­tural they seem alto­gether new. 

Mil­len­nials will know Dylan for “Make you Feel My Love,” a song beau­ti­fully covered by Adele. Country music fans will know his unfor­get­table duets with Johnny Cash, such as “Girl From the North Country.” Neither of these songs are on “Bringing It All Back Home,” but everyone knows a track that is: “Mr. Tam­bourine Man,” the folk classic covered by The Byrds. The album is pure Dylan excel­lence, with a dose of anti-estab­lishment protest which today’s con­ser­v­a­tives can find relatable. 

Take “On the Road Again,” the sixth song on “Bringing It All Back Home.” Young people — including those who would rather live their lives than demon­strate — are forced to take sides in an ever-esca­lating culture war. In “On the Road Again,” Dylan writes, “Well, there’s fist fights in the kitchen/They’re enough to make me cry/Then the mailman comes in, even he’s gotta take a side/Even the butler, he’s got some­thing to prove.” The song has a nihilistic chorus: “Then you ask why I don’t live here/Honey, do you have to ask?” In a culture dom­i­nated by pro­gres­sives injecting pol­itics into every sphere of private and public life, the song seems refresh­ingly prophetic.

In 2016, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­ature “for having created new poetic expres­sions within the great American song tra­dition.” Dylan skipped the Nobel Prize Banquet but in a recorded speech later, he mused: “When I received the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­ature, I got to won­dering how exactly my songs related to lit­er­ature.” While he credits his roots in folk music for much of his song­writing, the folk rock legend says there was some­thing else behind it all. “I had prin­ciples and sen­si­bil­ities and an informed view of the world, and I’d had that for a while.” 

Across his decades-long career, Dylan has earned his place as one of the greatest song­writers of all time.

In his auto­bi­og­raphy “Chron­icles,” Dylan said of “Bringing it All Back Home,” “What I did to break away, was to take simple folk changes and put new imagery and attitude to them, use catch­phrases and metaphor com­bined with a new set of ordi­nances that evolved into some­thing dif­ferent that had not been heard before.” Throughout the album, Dylan builds on his leg­endary folk music with a new electric twist. He builds on his roots, even as he’s out­grown them.

Young people entering an economy wrecked by endless gov­ernment-enforced lock­downs will find the rap-like, “Sub­ter­ranean Homesick Blues” relatable. “A man in the coonskin cap, in the pig pen/Wants eleven-dollar bills, you only got ten.” It is the cry of the young dis­il­lu­sioned with the lead­ership that decides their fate. Or take this line, rem­i­niscent of last summer’s riots: “The pump don’t work/‘Cause the vandals took the handles.” In other words, some­times your head­strong political activism means people don’t get their water from the well. 

Writers of protest music tend to issue many com­plaints but no solution. But this album is dif­ferent. Sprinkled in the protest music are examples of quiet responses to the establishment’s rea­sonless rules. In “Outlaw Blues” a man is in love with a “brown-skinned woman” in Jackson, Mis­sis­sippi, which at the time banned inter­racial mar­riages. Later, Dylan promises (almost threatens?) to speak the truth — the sim­plest, and most effective, protest. “Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’/I just might tell you the truth.” 

“Love Minus Zero,” one of Dylan’s most beau­tiful and touching love songs, is about a woman who is true, wise, and gentle — the antidote to political oppor­tunism and cor­ruption. More than a love song, “Love Minus Zero,” is a cry for authen­ticity — a cry which con­ser­v­a­tives can echo. 

“In the dime stores and bus stations,

People talk of situations,

Read books, repeat quotations,

Draw con­clu­sions on the wall.

Some speak of the future,

My love she speaks softly.”

Some­times the qui­etest voices are the best remedy to what you find objec­tionable in the world around you, not the cacoph­onous, often nar­cis­sistic, world of political activism.

“She Belongs to Me” the album’s second track, is, at first listen, a song written from the stand­point of an infat­uated lover. It is that, but on closer reading, Dylan is telling us some­thing about himself, and what drives his music. “She’s got every­thing she needs, she’s an artist/She don’t look back.” This line could be said about Dylan himself as much as the woman in the song. The song may even seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive as the second track in an album titled “Bringing it All Back Home,” but it helps us under­stand why Dylan’s musical rel­e­vance has lasted so long. Even as the demands of the present are such that we need not look back, home is always the destination.