In a landscape of cornfields, this really stood out.
We were in a rush to get to Memphis, but history demanded a detour.
What a road. We got to learn all over again what straight means. But when searching for Dylan, no kvetching is allowed about Highway 61.
Today, we departed Springfield, Illinois, for a seven-hour odyssey to Memphis Tenn., mainly following the course of Mississippi River on I-55, a road so relentlessly straight that even a slight curve provided something of an occasion.
We vowed to make this long drive non-stop, a vow we largely kept except for the five rest areas we visited and for the little matter of Mother Jones. Wha? Yes, we were driving along, making good time, when in a place called Mt. Olive, Illinois, we saw a highway sign for the Mother Jones Memorial. Should, we stop? Our schedule was tight! After a frantic 10 seconds of deliberation, we decided we had to pay our respects. Exiting the highway, we drove perhaps two miles on historic Rt. 66, when we discovered, amidst corn fields, the Mt. Olive Cemetery, whose entry way was framed by brick pillars, on one the word “Union” and on the other “Miners.” In the rear, rising high above the many gravestones, was the memorial and resting place of the indefatigable union organizer who never rested: Mother Jones. Though she hailed from the State of Washington, she asked to be buried “with my boys,” which included the 7 miners killed in the violent labor dispute known as the “Virden Massacre” of 1918. No sooner had Larry and Bill had placed two stones on the Mother Jones grave marker than another car pulled in. An elderly native of the town and his wife, now living in Colorado, had come back to visit, along with their adult daughter and son-in-law now residing in Australia. Larry got into a great conversation with this older gentleman, who is one of only two living members of a family with 10 children. He provided some personal details and recollections of the town, coal mining, and the annual commemorations of the massacre during his youth. How amazing that we arrived only minutes before them. It was like the perfectly planned rendezvous that wasn’t planned.
Back, back on the road. Now the Dylan–mobile assumed its other functions: Listening Room and Lyceum. Bill read aloud from a fine article about Dylan’s relationship to Judaism and then most of a very lengthy Rolling Stone interview with Dylan by historian David Brinkley. In terms of music, we moved on to Highway 61– how fitting since I-55 shares its roadbed with 61!–and Blond On Blond. And then we proceeded to talk before songs, between songs, and sometimes over songs for the better part of 6 hours. Yackety Yak.
Between the music and the articles, we discussed a wide array of issues that ranged from the prosaic (“How does he remember all the words to those epic songs’?) to the personal (“Why do we relate so intensely to songs whose allusions are often so impenetrable?”) to the perplexing (“How does he survive his unceasing road life?”). Some notable breakthroughs. For Bill: The realization that the frenetic, surreal Dylan can be calm, reflective, linear in his thinking, as he was in the Brinkley interview. There’s clearly a lot of the Midwestern temperament in him, and his equanimity contrasts sharply with his raucous music and wild stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Also noteworthy: the integrity with which Dylan continues to live the life of an artist (not merely “entertainer”), to remain true to voice and vision, no doubt enjoying attention and audiences but paying little attention to celebrity-hood and the media.
For Larry: Being struck most by the incredible range of music that Dylan created from 1962 to 1966 culminating with epic poems like the dream-like “Desolation Row”, the love ballad “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and the raucous ‘Like a Rolling Stone”. This incandescent period reflected an evolution of language and thought that moved from the outer world to the inner world. Dylan seemed to go as far as a human can go in this inner voyage shortly before he crashed his motorcycle in 1966. He had already crashed into the headwinds of (former) fans calling him “Judas” when he went electric, and his concerts had almost become battlegrounds. We felt a need for more peaceful songs after all this and going south seemed to signal that softer country rock music was coming with The Band, as John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New Morning, and Planet Waves were ahead. The Brinkley interview seemed to confirm the integrity of Bob’s music, and that among the many shifts of the 70’s and 80’s Bob remained true to his vision of individual freedom of expression as an artist.
We pulled into Memphis and found our way to yet another Hilton monstrosity, located about a half hour outside the city. Dylan’s “Stuck inside of Mobile with Memphis Blues Again” seemed particularly appropriate when hunger, fatigue and a stomach ache threw Bill into a funk, which Larry, using every trick in his neuroscience bag, worked hard to overcome by convincing Bill to travel back into the city for a dinner of ribs at the famed Blues City Café on Beale St., Memphis’s own mini-French Quarter. After a delicious dinner (“Put some south in your mouth”), Bill was sufficiently re-vivified to join Larry for a stroll up Beale with its crazy sunset quilt of gaudy flashing neon signs and the musical collage of blues/rock/rap pouring out onto the club-studded street.
For those who might not be aware, Beale St. and its king, W.C. Handy, are credited by Memphis folk with inventing blues music, a questionable claim, but hey. Bill is proud to note that his fellow alum of DeWitt Clinton H.S. in the Bronx, the great writer James Baldwin, posed the key hypothetical in his book of the same title: “If Beale St. Could Talk.” Actually Beale St. does talk in a way, both through its music and through its many historical landmark signs which pay tribute the city’s African-American champions, whether freedom fighters or cultural figures. One of those signs reminded us that Nat D. Williams became the first black disc jockey in Memphis. He began broadcasting on WDIA in 1948, when young Robert Zimmerman was only 7 years old. It well may be that only few years later, when little Bobby was secretly listening to the radio under his covers rather than going to sleep, he was pulling into his Hibbing night the signal of the Memphis blues show hosted by Mr. Williams. Another cool fact is that Williams didn’t have to depend only on DJ-ing to earn a living. He also served as a history teacher in the Memphis schools. Three cheers for Bill’s colleague!
And so ended a long day that brought us to and through the eleventh state on our transcontinental quest to “find” Bob Dylan. Time to get some rest and prepare for the Lorraine Motel and Graceland tomorrow. Then…the Deep South….the Mississippi Delta, where the blues were born. Mystical.
PS: You are probably wondering whether we sang the Davy Crockett song when we entered Tennessee. The answer is: Of course.
If you ever go to Springfield, visit the cemetery–& prepare to be moved.
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.
The posts are in reverse chronological order. Generally, the photos are preceded by the day’s narrative post. It’s buried somewhere under all those images.
Note that there is an “older posts” button.
Just outside of Iowa City, near our motel, we happened upon the 19th Century Amana Colony, one of the many utopian experiments that preceded our own utopian age, the 1960s. Many of the buildings are still occupied by descendants. Here’s one of their exquisite stone houses.
Larry and Bill debating a fine point that seemed urgent at that particular moment. Would you come into the same car with these Dylan fanatics? If you were hitching in the 93 degree heat, would you just wave us by even if you knew we had the AC blasting?