Today we crossed the prairie-like Heartland, already far from our North Country trail, en route to the Southland, whence came some of Dylan’s most important musical influences.
We left our eminently forgettable motel near Iowa City this morning to drive to Springfield, Ill., drawn not by Dylanesque vibrations but by cold logistical considerations. Still, this city proved an interesting destination, a place where one expects to run into Lincoln around every corner. (Or if not Lincoln, a statue of him). After all, here Lincoln worked as a lawyer and once served as a legislator. From here he unsuccessfully ran against Stephen Douglass for Senate, and from here he left in 1861 to take the oath as president just at the moment the Union was collapsing into Civil War. In a moving speech, he bid his neighbors and “affectionate farewell,” not knowing when or whether he would ever return. Sadly, he would return. In April 1865, a funeral train carried him back to Springfield for burial following his assassination. About 150 years later, a great admirer, Barack Obama, would announce his candidacy at the old capitol building where Lincoln had lain in state. History is omnipresent in Springfield, and we encountered it at the Lincoln Museum and at his burial site.
Notwithstanding this deeply historical ambiance, we were both initially inclined to accept the fact that there was no connection between Lincoln and person we were pursuing, Bob Dylan. Larry, the psychologist, reminded Bill that it was important to accept reality and not engage in magical thinking. Bill accepted this professional advice, but with difficulty. Indeed the acceptance proved momentary. Without warning, Bill, a former history teacher, got it into his head that there might be some connections after all. Larry seemed more concerned than interested.
So, yes, while, it is true that the two Intrepid Travelers chose Springfield as their destination purely for non-Dylan related reasons–it was the right distance away for a long day’s drive and a good place for the Dylan-mobile to pivot toward the south–here are the connections that began to dance before Bill’s tired eyes. Truth or hallucinations? You decide.
• Both men had families with a father named Abraham and a son named Robert. OK, not impressed? Let’s keep going.
• Both men were (or became) Mid-Westerners, and lived in for many years in rural areas where not a lot was happening, places of few distractions, leaving plenty of time to read, think, and imagine, if so inclined and both were.
• Both were seen as bright boys by those who observed them growing up. They were considered precocious in some respects though not geniuses. Nor is there any evidence they saw themselves as geniuses in their youth. At most talented. With both men, historians have tried to locate, to pinpoint the precise moment when that talent mysteriously metamorphosized into pure genius.
• Both men saw their parents as good people but limited, and neither went home very much after they came of age and left to make their way in the world.
• Both possessed a strong sense of destiny. Dylan affirms this directly, and his biographers relate how he told his grandmother he would be famous one day. In his youth, Lincoln told his beloved step-mother that he would be president one day. To this sense of destiny, both men were hard workers, ambitious, focused, and determined. Both of them were driven.
• Both possessed integrity and principle (though Lincoln was forced to zig and zag for tactical political reasons).
• Both men had eccentric and somewhat indecipherable religious views. Lincoln’s friends thought he was an atheist, albeit one who found much good in his well-read Bible. This issue went largely unaddressed for political reasons. Dylan is he…a Jew? A Christian? A Jew again? Who knows.
• Each man became the Voice of Their Generation. In their respective genres of expression, both were masters. Lincoln’s speeches, written by a person with perhaps a year of formal education, are seen by many as among the purest expressions of the English language. Indeed, Cambridge University has chiseled his words into the side of one its building for this very reason. Dylan’s unforgettable lyrics have gripped the minds of millions of Americans for a half-century now. He has taken his rightful place alongside our greatest national poet, Walt Whitman. Both Lincoln and Dylan, each in their own way, found the words to stir our “mystic chords of memory.” One used a pen, the other a guitar. Both used Biblical and prophetic language. Both “spoke” with a strong moral voice. Music can of course be found in Dylan’s songs but also Lincoln’s speeches.
• There is at least one other connection of sorts that is elucidated in historian Sean Wilenz in his recent book, Bob Dylan in America. Apparently, Dylan has been inspired or influenced by the great classical composer Aaron Copeland, who, as Dylan did later, incorporated and absorbed many varieties of the American musical idiom in his work. Dylan has actually played Copeland’s Hoedown movement before some his concerts, and one of Copeland’s heroes is celebrated in his famous Lincoln Portrait.
Larry listened patiently. He then looked directly at Bill and calmly advised bed rest (in the surpassingly ugly Springfield Hilton Hotel where they would pass the night).
On a more serious note, the Lincoln Museum & Library museum did good job relating Lincoln’s life and the extraordinary things he accomplished during a time when the country was even more fractured than it is now. One can easily see where the current divisions between north & south, Blue & Red, began. Afterwards, our trip to the stately Lincoln memorial tomb in a beautiful cemetery nearby was experienced by both of us as a solemn, moving experience. We ourselves were taken aback by our emotional response
Alright, enough politics, back to music. Here is something to ponder: Why do the words of Dylan, and a few other poets, rock n’roll singers, political philosophers, writers that we first encounter in our teen years, burn so deeply, and stay with us for our whole lives? Why are we still transfixed by the power of Dylan’s lyrics and music after all these years? We hope to answer these age-old questions over the next few days.
Tomorrow: The South…Memphis…the Civil Rights Movement….Graceland.