AN OPEN LETTER TO BOB DYLAN
Sing Out! November, 1964
It seems as though lots of people are thinking and talking about you these days. I read about you in Life and Newsweek and Time and The Saturday Evening Post and Mademoiselle and Cavalier and all such, and I realize that, all of a sudden, you have become a pheenom, a VIP, a celebrity. A lot has happened to you in these past two years, Bob — a lot more than most of us thought possible.
I’m writing this letter now because some of what has happened is troubling me. And not me alone. Many other good friends of yours as well.
I don’t have to tell you how we at SING OUT! feel about you — about your work as a writer and an artist — or how we feel about you as a person. SING OUT! was among the first to respond to the new ideas, new images, and new sounds that you were creating. By last count, thirteen of your songs had appeared in these pages. Maybe more of Woody’s songs were printed here over the years, but, if so, he’s the only one. Not that we were doing you any favors, Bob. Far from it. We believed — and still believe — that these have been among some of the best new songs to appear in America in more than a decade. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “Hattie Carroll,” “Restless Farewell,” “Masters of War” — these have been inspired contributions which have already had a significant impact on American consciousness and style.
As with anyone who ventures down uncharted paths, you’ve aroused a growing number of petty critics. Some don’t like the way you wear your hair or your clothes. Some don’t like the way you sing. Some don’t like the fact that you’ve chosen your name and recast your past. But all of that, in the long run, is trivial. We both know that may of these criticisms are simply coverups for embarrassment at hearing songs that speak directly, personally, and urgently about where it’s all really at.
But — and this is the reason for this letter, Bob — I think that the times there are a-changing. You seem to be in a different kind of bag now, Bob — and I’m worried about it. I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people. It seemed to me that some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way. You travel with an entourage now — with good buddies who are going to laugh when you need laughing and drink wine with you and insure your privacy — and never challenge you to face everyone else’s reality again.
I thought (and so did you) of Jimmy Dean when I saw you last — and I cried a little inside me for that awful potential for self-destruction which lies hidden in all of us and which can emerge so easily and so uninvited.
I think it begins to show up in your songs, now, Bob. You said you weren’t a writer of “protest” songs — or any other category, for that matter — but you just wrote songs. Well, okay, call it anything you want. But any songwriter who tries to deal honestly with reality in this world is bound to write “protest” songs. How can he help himself?
Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, innerprobing, self- conscious — maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion. And it’s happening on stage, too. You seem to be relating to a handful of cronies behind the scenes now — rather than to the rest of us out front.
Now, that’s all okay — if that’s the way you want it, Bob. But then you’re a different Bob Dylan from the one we knew. The old one never wasted our precious time.
Perhaps this letter has been long overdue. I think, in a sense, that we are all responsible for what’s been happening to you — and to many other fine young artists. The American Success Machinery chews up geniuses at a rate of one a day and still hungers for more. Unable to produce real art on its own, the Establishment breeds creativity in protest against and nonconformity to the System. And then, through notoriety, fast money, and status, it makes it almost impossible for the artist to function and grow.
It is a process that must be constantly guarded against and fought.
Give it some thought, Bob. Believe me when I say that this letter is written out of love and deep concern. I wouldn’t be sticking my neck out like this otherwise.