And, without the slightest bit of warning, Bob Dylan had returned to the forum of protest songs. Cut just over two months after the death of the Soledad Brother in a prison shootout (and released a mere week after the song's recording, a rather amazing turnaround if you stop to think about it), one of the few songs from Dylan's first period in the wilderness was a throwback to his acoustic days, as though the stern young man of the Times cover had inhabited his body for a couple of weeks until he could get the song cranked out before heading back to from whence he came. There happens to be two versions of the song - a mellow full-band version with the guys he'd recorded his Greatest Hits Vol. II songs with, and a solo acoustic version, just Bob and his harmonica, like the good ol' days. It is the solo acoustic version that I'm linking to, simply because it makes the most sense; until "Hurricane", after all, that was just Bob's metier.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
I feel such a weird sense of unreality when I hear "George Jackson" - not because it's a bad song or because it's too weird or anything like that, but more because it doesn't really feel like it should exist, if that makes sense. I'm not saying that the life of a family man would automatically erase the part of Bob's mind that cared about humanity (any more than I would say that his crazy years as a rock star would do so); it's just that...I mean, of all the times, after all that had happened, that the killing of a Black Panther in prison would be the tipping point for Bob to finally pick back up his "outrage" pen seems a bit odd. And I'm not downplaying the historical significance of George Jackson at all (my brother was rather deeply moved by Soledad Brother, and it's a fair guess that he was not the only one), just feeling a bit bemused about the whole thing. After all, when MLK and Robert Kennedy were gunned down, Bob was baking bread and teaching his children the ABCs or what have you. It's just funny how these things work, I guess.
As for the actual song itself...I mean, there's not really much I can say about it, to be honest. It's not the best protest song Bob ever wrote (in the loosest sense of the word, I'd say "Hard Rain" qualifies; if you're talking more straightforward, probably "Blowin' in the Wind", forgive the cliched answer), nor is it the worst (I'll leave that answer as an exercise for you, the reader). What makes it a step down from some of his truly great songs isn't the fact that he knocked the song out in such a short span of time - Lord knows he's written his fair share of songs in a short period of time. The reason, then, is more just the fact that the song doesn't really reach the same poetic heights of something like "Hard Rain", opting instead to be more straightforward in its disgust at Jackson's treatment and sudden death (to the point where we get Bob's first ever recorded profanity!). And that's not necessarily a bad thing - after all, it seems a lot to ask for Bob to try and reach those heights - so much as it's just a limiting thing you have to get used to. The Bob that wrote those amazing protest songs had been long gone, even by then. The new Bob, the one trying to piece together a brand new writing style, was never going to write "Hard Rain" again.
And, I think, that's entirely what Bob had in mind. "George Jackson" was never really meant to be anything other than exactly what it was - Bob speaking his mind about a major issue of the moment, committing something to tape that could be immediately processed, not giving a hoot about posterity or what future generations would think about the song from a creative standpoint. After all, songs like these aren't really meant to be creative masterpieces, but rallying points, ways for outrage to be properly channeled and given an actual voice. In that sense, "George Jackson" does very well succeed.