Ghosts of the South, Blowin’ in the Wind

by Fred Ray on April 7, 2009 · 2 comments

Bob Dylan, who by this time should probably be classed as a cultural institution, weighs in on Barack Obama, Elvis, US Grant and the Civil War ghosts of the South in the venerable Times of London. Turns out he read Grant’s autobiography. Who knew?

He begins by talking about Obama’s Kansas roots:

You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace.

The interviewer then reminds Dylan that most of the battles in the Civil War were fought in the South, to which the maestro replies “Yeah. That’s what probably makes the Southern part of the country so different.” Defeated, occupied, subdued. Yep, that’ll do it. He expands:

It must be the Southern air. It’s filled with rambling ghosts and disturbed spirits. They’re all screaming and forlorning. It’s like they are caught in some weird web—some purgatory between heaven and hell and they can’t rest. They can’t live, and they can’t die. It’s like they were cut off in their prime, wanting to tell somebody something. It’s all over the place. There are war fields everywhere—a lot of times even in people’s backyards.

Dylan then talks about going to Elvis Presley’s home town of Tupelo, Mississippi, to “feel what Elvis would have felt back when he was growing up.” But instead of music, he feels something else:

I felt the ghosts from the bloody battle that Sherman fought against Forrest and drove him out. There’s an eeriness to the town. A sadness that lingers. Elvis must have felt it too.

Dylan, a midwesterner (he was born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, MN), began as a “folkie” and made it in the big city scene in the Sixties. Many of his songs from that period—”The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “Blowin’ In The Wind”—became anthems of the civil rights and anti-war movements, and some, like “Oxford Town” were frankly anti-Southern. Yet as he matured his heart moved south, and both he and a group he was closely associated with—The Band—began to reflect the love-hate relationship artists felt about the South; to despise it for its backwardness and bigotry even as they feasted on its rich cultural heritage. His John Wesley Harding album was about a reconstruction-era Texan and he penned other songs like “Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again;” and by the Seventies he was putting out albums in Nashville with Johnny Cash. You can see that today—no one sings about the Midwest, the Adirondacks, or the Rockies (okay, John Denver, but that proves my point). Instead there are songs set in New Orleans, Memphis, and of course that mythical little cabin in the hills of Tennessee or Carolina.

So read it—in this age of vapid celebrity interviews it’s surprisingly good.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

The Abraham Lincoln Observer April 8, 2009 at 12:00 am

“Oxford Town” was written a few months after a white mob rioted when James Meredith tried to enter the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss.

“He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town.”

The song was intended to be anti-racist. It was anti-Southern only to the extent that racism was part of Southern culture — which, granted, was a lot in 1963. But Southern culture was at fault there, not Dylan.

Dylan has matured, yes. But I think the South has matured farther.

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badgervan April 8, 2009 at 2:29 am

Mellencamp. Steve Miller. And about a hundred or so others I can think of.

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