When Dylan Was A-Changin’
A Wicked Messenger? No, Kevin Mattson is a fine political reporter. His 2009 book, “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” is an observant and thorough account of the strange days of July ’79. America was reeling from inflation, oil shortages, and a sense, as Mattson phrased it, that the American century was dead. President Jimmy Carter was trying to maintain his political viability, all the while imploring Americans to renew the country’s spirit.
He may have misunderstood Bob Dylan, however.
In his book, Mattson reviews the cultural landscape of the staggered nation. Having an impact 15 years after “The Times They Are A-Changin'” was Bob Dylan. Word had gotten around the country, particularly its rock scene, of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. A new album, Slow Train Coming, fueled by and filled with the message of his new faith, was ready. Its release date was August 20.
Mattson reports on the type of Christianity taught at The Vineyard Fellowship, the Evangelical church in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles where Dylan’s faith was nurtured. There was an emphasis on The Book of Revelation, and the interpretations Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth) gleaned from the cryptic last pages of The Bible.
Dylan had a new album that, according to Mattson, nailed the coffin shut on the ’60’s. Over-simplifying, he writes that “Rock star lust gave way to born-again devotion.” He continued by reporting “Jimmy Carter’s favorite rock musician now refused to sing the songs the president most enjoyed (they were written before Dylan found Jesus) and sang only about Hal Lindsey’s end-times.” Obviously, the new Dylan songs focused on having to choose either the Lord or Satan, and there being no neutral ground; but what he created on Slow Train Coming wasn’t limited to Lindsey’s fiery warnings. Dylan also highlighted gentler aspects of the faith, as in the song, “I Believe In You,” which can easily be presented as a secular song.
Mattson describes Dylan as a “hippie rock star” who “had pushed rock and roll from celebrating love and drugs to providing apocalyptic Christian warnings about decadence.”
True, Dylan was focused on things spiritual and the judgment he believed ahead. But “hippie rock star?” Not really. In his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan recalls the late ’60’s: the hippies’ golden era. Amidst the chaos and changes of that time, his main concern was his family’s safety. Dylan also tells of he and his wife attending a Frank Sinatra, Jr. performance at Rockefeller Center. After the show, young Frank stops by the Dylans’ table to chat. As reported by Dylan, it was a fascinating conversation, not the usual “”hippie rock star” patter.
Mixed Up Confusion. Through no fault of Mattson’s, things got more confused. Stories circulated in summer 2009, relating upon the newly published, “What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” that Jimmy Carter, the Sunday School teaching President, did not care for Dylan’s “born-again” material. Mattson didn’t write that. He reported Dylan had converted to Christianity and was recording songs about Jesus. He also wrote of what Dylan fans discovered at his concerts: he only sang his new Christian songs. No “Mr. Tambourine Man.” No “Like A Rolling Stone.” No “Maggie’s Farm” or any of the classic Dylan songs Carter and millions of others had long favored.
The New York Post, citing Mattson’s book, reported on July 16, 2009 that Dylan’s conversion had “jolted” Carter. The story’s headline on its Page Six feature declared “Why Prez Gave Up On Dylan.”
The next day, in its Idol Chatter column, beliefnet.com wrote that the former president “has revealed.. . that he became disenchanted with Bob Dylan after the singer was converted to Christianity.” The columnist opines that Carter’s “distaste for Christian Dylan speaks more to his social justice views than his religious allegiances,” indicating Carter would have found more Christian relevance in Dylan’s anti-war and civil rights songs than in his reinterpretations of Bible passages. The column was headlined, “Bob Dylan: Too Christian for Jimmy Carter?”
Kevin Mattson’s book did not include a Carter critique on Dylan’s Christian songs, nor a Carter take on Dylan’s views of the scriptures. Mattson simply reported on Dylan’s conversion and the changes it brought (for a time) to his career. While he did disappoint with the “hippie rock star” label and only offered a short-hand description of Dylan’s new work, his book did not provide a word on what President Carter thought about the changes Bob Dylan had experienced.
Lo and Behold! On July 24, 2009, writing for bullypulpit.com, Scott Marshall revealed Carter was impressed with Slow Train Coming and wanted Dylan to perform at The White House (that finally happened but it took more than 30 years, 5 presidents later). Marshall refers to a book written by former White House reporter Wesley G. Pippert entitled An Ethic of News: A Reporter’s Search for the Truth. In the book Pippert recalls a lunch with Carter at The White House on November 4, 1979. After lunch “Carter suggested we go into the den across the grand hallway and he played Bob Dylan’s new album, ‘Slow Train Coming.’ Carter remarked during the meal that Dylan had become a Christian.” Pippert describes Carter nuzzling his grandchildren, Jason and James Earl IV, as he softly sang along with “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” a lighter track from the album.
The same day, Iranian militants seized the US embassy in Tehran, holding Americans hostage for 444 days. Exactly one year from that day, Carter lost his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan. By that time, Bob Dylan’s second Christian album, Saved, had been out for nearly five months. The third of the Christian albums, Shot of Love, would hit the stores the next summer. Since then Dylan has released 11 new studio albums, most of them with songs that keep listeners pondering the current state of his faith.
Again, Americans are feeling less faith in their country. The last couple of years have been brutal. Yet there are always young people who wish to jump in the political fray. Jason Carter, sung to by his grandfather the president, is now running for a seat in the Georgia State Senate. He’s seeking the votes in a district not far from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library or Emory University, where Bob Dylan performed in 1964, shortly after the release of his The Times They Are A-Changin’ album. All in all, one could say the times have changed, as have the neighborhoods surrounding Emory. But too much in Georgia has remained the same. Or it’s gotten worse. For Jason Carter, this Senate race should be a slam dunk. Future campaigns for larger constituencies, will be tough for the young Mr. Carter, just as his grandfather learned when he was elected Georgia’s Governor in 1970. Effecting change is never easy.