Bob Dylan in 1968: as his country pulls itself apart, Dylan takes a year out.

By Tony Attwood

In 1968 we have just one Bob Dylan composition Lay Lady Lay and one concert – at Carnegie Hall on 20 January.

The full Dylan set list for this one concert, which commemorated the work of Woodie Guthrie consisted of four Woodie Guthrie songs and Big Bill Broonzy’s famous “This train ain’t bound for glory.”

And yet, if we take the notion of Bob Dylan the great protest singer, leader of the protest movement, as being the definition of Dylan, this makes little sense, not least  since 1968 was the year that the United States turned itself inside out and Bob stayed in his house in rural New York state with Sara and their three young children.

One of very few interviews he did during the year included some homely pictures of Bob playing the guitar sitting on a huge tractor tyre leaning against an outdoor bench.  It couldn’t get more homely and rural and the image of the piece was of a home loving man with his family.  It offered no connection with the way the country was pulling itself apart but every connection with Dylan, the family man.

One of the quotes from this year from Dylan was “I used to think that myself and my songs were the same thing. But I don’t believe that any more. There’s myself and there’s my song.”

This suggests a finding of himself, and he certainly was in a position to do this, already being phenomenally wealthy, and with a seeming ability to switch the songwriting on and off as he pleased, in any style of music he pleased.  He’d done the blues, protest, the retelling of the past, the surreal, commentaries on the state of the nation, love songs, the songs of disdain, and the tours.  Surely after all that and the composition of over 120 songs that were so good that now over 50 years later we are still discussing them, he was fully entitled to a break.

But also, 1968 was also the year Bob’s father Abe Zimmerman died of a heart attack in Hibbing* aged just 56, and many commentators have since suggested that Dylan felt this event and the expectations there were pressed upon him was all getting too much.   He knew that every note of every song on the next album would be taken apart by critics ever eager to put him down.  He was expected to be brilliant at every turn, and my guess is that he had enough of all that.

After all Dylan didn’t have to do anything.  His albums had sold in vast quantities and people would always pour in to see him perform live.   He had also in the previous year written a whole series of songs that other people were playing and recording – all earning Dylan a fortune.  Indeed from a financial point of view not only did Dylan have no need to work again, nor would any of his children.

Is it therefore unreasonable that in such a situation, after six years of constant creative activity, unbelievable success, and huge (if self imposed) pressure, at a time of having the family and his father dying, Dylan should stop and take stock?

The answer for everyone save for the conspiracy theorists, must be no – that is perfectly ok. Thus Dylan did the obvious: he took a year out.

What is interesting to me is that looking back, far less has been written about this year out, than the events of the motorbike accident year – during which Dylan was far more creative.  But that is how it goes I guess.

And yet even in this year off, he wrote one masterpiece – “Lay Lady Lay” which was originally written for Midnight Cowboy, but wasn’t submitted in time in 1968 to be included in the finished film.  So although it is largely seen as a 1969 song (it was released as a single in July of that year) in terms of composition, it certainly was written in 1968.

In writing this it occurred to me that I ought to go back and remember what else happened in the year Dylan took out.   Here are a few highlights and indeed mostly lowlights…  I don’t mean this as a political commentary as such, rather to reflect the issues that were going on in the world as Bob chose to step back from it all.

Footnote

*In writing about the passing of Bob’s father in Hibbing I was suddenly struck by the lines

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still

I wonder if I’m now reading too much into Not Dark Yet.

The Year

Anyway here are events from the year that seem to me to symbolise what was going on edited from Wikipedia.

  • January 5 – Prague Spring: Alexander Dubček is chosen as the leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia.
  • January 30 – Vietnam War: The Tet Offensive begins, as Viet Cong forces launch a series of surprise attacks across South Vietnam.
  • January 31 – Việt Cộng soldiers attack the US Embassy, Saigon.
  • February 8 – American civil rights movement: A civil rights protest staged at a white-only bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina is broken up by highway patrolmen; 3 college students are killed.
  • February 27 – Ex-Teenagers singer Frankie Lymon is found dead from a heroin overdose in Harlem.
  • March 8 – The first student protests spark the 1968 Polish political crisis.
  • March 17 – A demonstration in London’s Grosvenor Square against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War leads to violence; 91 people are injured, 200 demonstrators arrested.
  • March 26 – Joan Baez marries activist David Harris in New York.
  • March 31 – U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson announces he will not seek re-election.
  • April 4- Martin Luther King, Jr. is shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupt in major American cities, lasting for several days afterwards.
  • April 11 – U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
  • April 20 – English politician Enoch Powell makes his controversial Rivers of Blood speech suggesting that without limitations on immigration there will be cataclysmic results for British society.
  • April 23–April 30 – Vietnam War: Student protesters at Columbia University in New York City take over administration buildings and shut down the university.
  • April 29 – The musical Hair officially opens on Broadway.
  • May 13 – Paris student riots: One million march through the streets of Paris.
  • June 3 – Radical feminist Valerie Solanas shoots Andy Warhol as he enters his studio, wounding him.
  • June 5 – U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy is shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy dies from his injuries the next day.
  • June 8 – James Earl Ray is arrested for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr..
  • July 1 – The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty opens for signature.
  • July 25 – Pope Paul VI publishes the encyclical entitled Humanae vitae, condemning birth control.
  • July 26 – South Vietnamese opposition leader Trương Đình Dzu is sentenced to 5 years hard labour, for advocating the formation of a coalition government as a way to move toward an end to the war.
  • August 20–August 21 – The Prague Spring of political liberalization ends, as 750,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 6,500 tanks with 800 planes invade Czechoslovakia.
  • October 5 – Police baton civil rights demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland, marking the beginning of The Troubles.
  • October 14 – The United States Department of Defense announces that the United States Army and United States Marines will send about 24,000 troops back to Vietnam for involuntary second tours.
  • November 5 – U.S. presidential election, 1968: Republican challenger Richard Nixon defeats the Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and American Independent Party candidate George C. Wallace.
  • November 22 – The Beatles release the White Album.
  • December 6 – The Rolling Stones release Beggars Banquet, which contains “Sympathy for the Devil.”
  • December 24 – Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William A. Anders become the first humans to see the far side of the Moon.  The crew read from Genesis.
  • December 28 – Israeli forces launch an attack on Beirut airport.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/  It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

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