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Dylan and Sheva A-Z

2016-03-09

Sounding Board is ever so proud to be part of the team that recently announced the launch of the Sheva Center for Innovation in Early Childhood Jewish Education. This is an exciting moment for us. We are blessed with the opportunity to impact thousands of JCC early childhood professionals in 141 JCC early childhood programs, including the 360 directors and administrators who lead them, and more than 4,000 educators who work in them. These are the gatekeepers of Jewish experience for upwards of 27,000 children and their families.

You already know that Sounding Board loves music. Sheva’s vision to engage our greatest natural resource—our children—makes us want to sing. So what better way to celebrate our future than with our most favorite musical voice of all: Bob Dylan.

Sheva offers a unique, values-driven approach to learning colored by each child’s curiosity and experience. It’s not classic reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic. But Dylan is old school (even though we know he would love Sheva) so we will stick with this old-school primer for Dylan studies, A-Z—which first appeared in different form here—in honor of the learning we do in our JCCs everyday.

Angelina

Because this one song’s landscape spans from Jerusalem to Argentina and back again.

At the JCCs of North America Biennial, we’ll learn with JCC Global and tackle such topics as Israel in the Courageous JCC, and Jewish Peoplehood: from Paradigm to Practice.

Brownsville Girl

Dylan is the master of the rock ‘n’ roll epic. Few roll with the color, humor, and cinematic scope of “Brownsville Girl.” No one knows who is who, but someone got off track. In fact, “the only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter.”

California

It’s one of the states in one of the countries that Dylan calls home. He dedicated not one but two Theme Time Radio shows to it. But what more compelling reason for California in our primer than it inspiring this line from the song “California” recorded early in Dylan’s career and released much later:

Well, I got my dark sunglasses
I got for good luck my black tooth
I got my dark sunglasses
And for good luck I got my black tooth
Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’
I just might tell you the truth

Desolation Row

Fittingly, the word “desolation” comes from the Latin word desolaredesolatum, meaning “to forsake.” Dylan literally sees his generation as forsaken, frozen and dead,. So he stares back at the world and everyone in it and rearranges their faces and gives them all another name. Now that’s rock ‘n’ roll.

Sounds a little like Eicha, our text for Tish B’Av, which falls in the summer. Camps find this challenging to handle in the midst of so much fun, but at Capital Camps & Retreat Center they focus on the rabbinic idea that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam[senseless hatred] and on Rav Kook’s complementary idea that the Temple would only be rebuilt because of ahavat chinam [senseless love]. Read more here.

Elijah

As we wrote in a review of Todd Haynes’ sort of Dylan biopic I’m Not There some time ago, Elijah might be the best prophet for thinking about rock ‘n’ roll prophecy in general and Dylan’s prophecy particularly. Stories of Elijah’s countless masks, rages, and demands animate the Hebrew Bible. In Jewish commentaries and folklore, Elijah can be found everywhere, in disguise, at the gates of a city in the morning and in the houses of royalty by night; he blesses the poor, unsettles the rich, and continually shuffles the deck of fate with his many faces, always in disguise, keeping people on their spiritual toes because of the possibility that he might actually be near. Yet Elijah is most famous for the moment he does not arrive at all. Remind you of anyone?

France

A few years ago Dylan was awarded France’s highest honor, the Legion of Honour. The Guardian reported that the award was temporarily put on hold after the grand chancellor of the Legion, Jean-Louis Georgelin, declared the singer was unworthy of it, citing Dylan’s anti-war politics and use of cannabis as key reasons to block his nomination.

Going, Going, Gone

Talking about this The Basement Tapes gem which provided the name for Todd Haynes’ film, Robbie Robertson of the Band suggested that “Going, Going, Gone” is the studio release song closest to plunging the depths reached by “I’m Not There.” And it quotes Dylan’s grandma, which is how Jimi Hendrix introduced himself to the world at the Monterrey Pop Festival: “I’m Bob Dylan’s grandma.”

How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down Before You Call Him a Man?

So begins “Blowin’ in the Wind.” An additional question might be: Can you imagine the world without this song?

I and I

Because “I and I” includes the line “I made shoes for everyone, even you/but still I walk barefoot” we add it to the primer. There are many other reasons as well, of course, but that reason (and all of those shoes) are more than enough.

Jewish

Yes, he is. There are so many stories of how Dylan’s Jewish identity–with which he has wrestled since the beginning–is core to his toolkit as a creative master. You can look it up.

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

Everyone sings this song–even Guns ‘N’ Roses–but it’s hard to imagine a version more potent than Warren Zevon’s, sung from something like a death bed recording session on his last album. It may have taken Dylan four minutes to write it, but it just keeps being rewritten.

Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie

Even if his high school yearbook lists his life ambition as being to “follow Little Richard,” the master teacher of at least the first portion of Dylan’s career is Woody Guthrie. “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” written and performed in 1963, is as loving an ode of a young man to his teacher as any I know. It ends like this.

You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

Mother 

The linchpin line of “Lonesome Day Blues” says: “I wish my mother was still alive.” Once, at a Dylan talk in Minneapolis, a woman of advanced age explained to me not only that she used to babysit for young Bobby Zimmerman, but that he loved his mother so much and called her everyday. Without here, he never would have tried this music thing at all.

North Country 

Wise women and men have made the convincing case that without contextualizing Dylan’s vision in the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota, you just cannot understand him.

Oh Sister

For the haunting electric violin played by Scarlet Rivera, for a lyric easily inserted into the Song of Songs or the Zohar, for a narrator confusing sister, father, lover, and wife, and for appearing on Desire, “Oh Sister” gets the nod.

Pretty Polly

It’s hard to appreciate Dylan’s resurgence in the 1990’s without considering Greil Marcus’ book The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Marcus writes so beautifully and thoughtfully about some of the possible secrets of Dylan’s magic, it is tempting to think he somehow opened new seams for Dylan to connect and reconnect with audiences.  His take on the old if not ancient iterations of “Pretty Polly” from the British Isles to Kurt Cobain captures the essence of his approach, with Dylan both a witness and a driver in the story he tells.

Queen Jane Approximately

On an album that includes “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Desolation Row,” it is hard for even a classic song of longing like “Queen Jane Approximately” to stand out–but it does. Juxtaposing the words “approximately” and “queen” in a song title is already such a clever and compelling reach for the pop of his time, the fact that the song is just the invitation for the heart breaker to consider coming back makes the whole jangling journey so powerful and clean.

Rolling Thunder Revue

Dylan was hanging in his old neighborhood in the mid-1970’s, even popping into gigs of old friends to lend a guitar, vocal, or harp. The Rolling Thunder Revue was an unwieldy attempt to capture some of the spirit of the Greenwich Village scene of the ‘60s on the giant stages that Dylan’s star now demanded (including the Astrodome.) Allen Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Phil Ochs, and Roger McGuinn were just a few of his guests. Monster versions of chestnuts like “One Too Many Mornings” and “Lay Lady Lay” and a wild visit to Jack Kerouac’s grave–Dylan in a white mask of death every step of the way–were just a few of the results.

Stage Fright

There have been more than a few arguments about the central figure of one of the Band’s last beautiful original tunes. Robbie Robertson, a man that few claim to trust as a historian but many rely upon as a teller of myth, suggests he wrote it about Dylan edging back to the stage after years away. Rick Danko sings it and it is indeed a gorgeous, sympathetic take on what it takes to “sing just like a bird.”

Theme Time Radio Hour

No album, no Chronicles, no interviews, and no concerts say as much about what makes Bob Dylan tick musically than the 100 radio shows he recorded of “dreams, themes, and schemes” on Sirius XM. Humor, pathos, recipes, crooners, gangsters, TV and film clips, and music, music, music. Welcome to Bob Dylan’s brain. Doctorates will be written about this show someday.

Up to Me

Like “Blind Willie McTell,” a true classic which never received a proper studio release, “Up to Me” appeared as an outtake. For “Up to Me” this was 1985’s Biograph, which also kicked off the trend of rockers curating box set retrospectives. “Up to Me” is studded with lyrical gems like this:

The only useful thing I did when I worked as a postal clerk
Was to pull your picture down off the wall near the cage where I used to work…

Dylan’s waste bin songs often surpass the best numbers of the first team.

Velvet Underground

Professor Thomas Crow once gave a terrific talk at the Guggenheim Museum in New York about the period in 1965 when Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol essentially held the world of art and culture in their hands. It was a competition—for influence, people, hipness, money—and until his motorcycle crash, Dylan was winning as he symbolically took one of Warhol’s Elvis cut-outs from the Factory in the back of a convertible and drove away. The Velvet Underground were one of Warhol’s biggest gifts to the era, especially Lou Reed, a rocker even crankier and meaner than Dylan and, according to some, just as important to rock ‘n’ roll.

Woodstock

Dylan arrived in town at Albert Grossman’s suggestion. Woodstock was a long time artists’ and freaks’ town, and this is where Dylan holed up (along with the Band) after his motorcycle crash. Some say the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival was located and named as it was in order to pull Dylan out of seclusion and onto the stage. It did not work.

XSara

It’s always been their business, of course, and that’s why it was so stunning when the song “Sara” appeared on DesireBlood on the Tracks–known as Dylan’s divorce album and which he claims he doesn’t understand how people can stand–carries so much pain, presenting all kinds of suggestions of the dissolution of a marriage. But “Sara” named it in a way almost too hard to hear.

You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

One of hundreds of almost throwaway Dylan lines that sound like Scripture he pinched, this one capped “Subterranean Homesick Blues”–proto-rap, proto-punk, proto-MTV video, and also featuring Allen Ginsburg davening in the background as Dylan literally flicks signs into the air. The Weather Underground used this phrase to name themselves, emerging from the shards of sixties activism and revolutionary communities as home grown terrorists. That’s what was blowing in the wind.

Zevon

Bruce Springsteen once called him a “moralist in wolf’s clothing” and Dylan dug him. When Warren Zevon was dying of cancer, Dylan sang his songs on stage often. One of his favorite’s was “Mutineer:”

I was born to rock the boat
Some may sink but we will float
Grab your coat–let’s get out of here
You’re my witness
I’m your mutineer

We once owned an LP of a radio interview with Bob Dylan from the mid-’80s. He was asked if there was another trade he would ply if he had not wound up a singer. He was mumbling in the answer, but his sounds ended in a final clear phrase: “Or maybe I should just be on a boat.” Aren’t you glad he spends so much time on land too?

Here’s to wonderful JCC early childhood centers, friends. Here’s to Bob Dylan, A-Z. And here’s to Sheva!

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