There's a legend in my family that we are kin to Uncle Dave Macon. We are for certain distant cousins to the Macons of Wilson County – and Uncle Dave lived in the next county over. My parents met him once, driving to his farm one afternoon when they were teenagers, not yet married. This was not too long before his death.
They found him sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. He greeted the young strangers like the kinfolk one of them might well have been, invited them into the house, showed them his memorabilia, and gave my mother – one of "them pretty girls from Tennessee" he sang about so often – a small, delicate glass deer as a memento of the visit. Back out on the porch, he picked up his banjo and did a couple of comic numbers from the rocking chair, feet keeping time on the wooden boards. There looked to be some whisky in his friendly manner, they said; perhaps a noonday dram before they had arrived.
It was all over soon enough, but a photograph survives to record the event, a black-and-white print taken with my mother's camera. Uncle Dave is in the rocking chair, legs crossed, battered hat perched on his head, banjo in his lap. His face is puffy, pitted, cadaverous; the fire that had stoked him since his hot young days – in the still-churning wake of the Civil War – is finally going out. A dying man, from a dying world.
But he played for the young folks anyway, out of courtesy, for the hell of it, conjuring up another reality out of rhythm, strings and joyful noise, then letting it dissolve into the air. "Won't get drunk no more, won't get drunk no more, won't get drunk no more, way down the old plank road…"
Despite the reputed kinship and this ancestral encounter, the first Uncle Dave Macon song I ever actually heard was one recorded by Bob Dylan: "Sarah Jane." This was on the "revenge" album of out-takes and studio warm-ups that Columbia Records put out after Dylan temporarily left the fold in the early Seventies. When I first heard the song, I thought Dylan had written it himself; certainly the line, "I got a wife and five little children," sung with such full-throated exuberance, seemed like straight autobiography. I didn't realize then the kind of alchemy Dylan could work on other people's songs, how he could make them his own, right down to the marrow.
Like most people who get into Dylan, at first I was dazzled by the originality of his vision, his words, the brilliant fragments of his own kaleidoscopic personality as they were lit up in turn by each new style, each different take or tonal mood. His work seemed a perfect embodiment of the Romantic ideal: art as the vibrant expression of the self – defiant, heroic, fiercely personal. But while that stance is as valid as most of the other illusions that sustain us, it only takes you so far. What I've come to realize over the years is that Dylan's music is not primarily about expressing yourself – it's about losing yourself, escaping the self and all its confusions, corruptions, pettiness and decay. It's about getting to some place far beyond the self, "where nature neither honors nor forgives." Dylan gives himself up to the song, and to the deeper reality it creates in the few charged moments of its existence. We can step through the door he opens to that far place and see what happens.
Dylan's words – original, striking, piercing, apt – are marvelous, of course. Like Shakespeare's, they knit themselves into your consciousness, become part of the way you see and speak the world. But the true alchemy lies in the performance. The phrasing is more important than the phrases, no matter who happened to write them. The grain in his voice – the jagged edge that catches and tears at the weave of life as it flies past – is what moves us through that open door. Along with the music, obviously: the mathematical and emotional interplay among the musicians, shaped by Dylan's guiding will. When it all works, and it usually does, it's artistry of the highest order. As they say back home, you can't beat it with a stick.
You can follow Dylan through many doors, into many realms: the disordered sensuality of Symbolist poetry, the high bohemia and low comedy of the Beats and Brecht, the guilt-ridden, God-yearning psalms of King David, the Gospel road of Jesus Christ, the shiv-sharp romance of Bogart and Bacall. There's Emerson in there, too, Keats, Whitman, even Rilke if you look hard enough: fodder for a thousand footnotes, signposts to a hundred sources of further enlightenment.
But if you go far enough with Dylan, he'll always lead you back to the old music. This is the foundation, the deepest roots of his art, of his power. For me, as for so many people, he was the spirit guide to this other world, this vanished heritage. He has somehow – well, not just "somehow," but through hard work and endless absorption – managed to keep the tradition alive. Not as a museum piece, not like a zoo animal, but as a free, thriving, unpredictable beast, still on the prowl, still extending its range.
Early on, Dylan realized that the essence of the old music was not to be found in the particular styles of picking and singing rigorously classified by the ethnographers and carefully preserved by purists. Traditional music was idiosyncratic, created by thousands of unique individuals working their personal artistry on whatever musical materials came to hand, in cotton fields, coal mines, granges, churches, factories, ports, city streets and country roads. Who else in the world ever sounded like Roscoe Holcomb or Charley Patton? Their art was as distinctive as that of Beethoven and Chopin, who also drew on traditional elements to make their music.
No, what the old music held in common, what made it penetrating and great, was not some mythological collective origin or expression of sociocultural mores; it was a shared DNA of fundamental themes, fundamental truths – the double helix of joy and mortality, threaded like twine, tangled like snakes, inextricable, irresolvable. It was this genetic code that Dylan used to grow his own art, in its own unique forms.
Joy and mortality: the psychic pain of being alive, your mind and senses flooded with exquisite wonders, miraculous comprehensions – and the simultaneous knowledge of death, the relentless push of time, the fleeting nature of every single experience, every situation, every moment, dying even as it rises. There's pain waiting somewhere – from within or without – in every joy, a canker in every rose we pluck from the ground of being.
This awareness shadows the old music – deepens it, gives it the bite of eternal truth. It's there even in the joyful noise of Uncle Dave Macon, so happy that he whoops out "Kill yourself!" in manic glee as he gallops down the old plank road. Yet in the songs that deal directly with this shadow, such as the blues, full of hard knowledge, hard pain, the very act of singing that pain gives rise to a subtle joy, and a kind of solace. The old songs, and the ones Dylan has built upon them, create another reality, an impossible reconciliation, where time stands still, life and death embrace, decay is banished, and all our pettiness, our evil urges, our confusions are arrested and transcended. Until, of course, the song itself, being mortal, fades away as the music ends.
Dylan's music can provide a doorway out of yourself – "a pathway that leads up to the stars" – but it can also help bring you back to yourself, to what you should be doing with your life: attending to these eternal truths, trying to take that code and carry it forward, pass it along, using whatever materials – musical or otherwise – that your life and history and inclinations have given you. In this case, Dylan brought me back to my own heritage; it was decades after hearing his "Sarah Jane" that I first mentioned Uncle Dave Macon to my father and heard the story of that long-ago visit, and was given the photograph to keep, and pass on.
Perhaps the kind of transcendence I've talked about here only works if you're a certain kind of person, with your nerves aligned in a certain way, attuned to a certain signal. Perhaps it's all a happenstance of biochemistry. I don't know. In a world where every understanding, no matter how profound, is provisional, temporary, clouded and corrupted, I wouldn't make universal claims for any particular path. I do think that the experience of the heightened reality offered by Dylan's music – and by all the places he leads us to – holds out the promise of a rough-hewn wisdom, something that can make us feel more alive while we're living, while our brief moment is passing.
Anyway, it works for me.
This is an extended version of a column originally published in The Moscow Times, Dec. 24, 2004. It is excerpted from the upcoming book, Encounters With Bob Dylan, Vol. II, edited by Tracy Johnson. .