By David Werther.
Bob Dylan, The Other Side of the Mirror; Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963–1965 (Columbia Legacy, DVD, 2007)
Murray Lerner's film of Bob Dylan's (then "Bobby" Dylan) performances at the 1963, '64, and '65 Newport Folk Festivals consists only of live footage (no talking heads' commentary) and depends for much of its effectiveness on juxtapositions. The film begins with a preview of the '65 festival in which the audience is told to "take him [Dylan], he's yours." When Dylan takes the main stage that year he sings "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm [read 'folk music industry'] no more."
At the end of his '64 performance the audience is bereft and emcee Peter Yarrow explains that there just isn't any more time for another Dylan performance. Dylan, however, comes back on stage, bows to the audience, and tells his fans, "I love ya." Cut to '65. After a blistering "Maggie's Farm," followed by what was then the longest "single" ever played on the radio, "Like a Rolling Stone," Dylan unplugs his Stratocaster and walks off the stage. Peter Yarrow is emcee again, but in a role reversal. This time around he tells the audience that "Bobby" could come back and play another song if that's what the audience would like, and offers the encouraging words that Bobby is getting an acoustic guitar. Dylan ends his acoustic encore with "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," a not so subtle signal that he is no longer in love with the audience and folk music business as usual is over.
Lerner admirably underscores Dylan's dramatic changes from '63–'65. However, what is more remarkable, and sadly so, is how changeless the film is. Dylan's 1963 cultural critique is, if anything, more relevant now. Consider three songs from his '63 set: "With God on Our Side," "Who Killed Davey Moore?" and "Only a Pawn in Their Game." Each song focuses on moral accountability.
In "With God on Our Side" Dylan chronicles the U.S.'s winning track record in war (e.g. "The cavalries charged and the Indians fell; the cavalries charged and the Indians died; Oh the country was young with God on its side"). This God-blessed view of the United States' history presupposes that killing and conquering carry a divine seal of approval. And then Dylan turns the tables. If the killing-conquering-blessing view of history is correct, then maybe we need to rethink another killing ("In many a dark hour; I've been thinkin about this; That Jesus Christ; Was betrayed by a kiss; But I think for you; You'll have to decide; Whether Judas Iscariot; Had God on his side").
"Who Killed Davey Moore?" is all about the denial of responsibility. A boxer, Davey Moore, is killed in the ring. Dylan calls out "Who killed Davey Moore, Why an' what's the reason for?" And, then there is a role call, as the referee, crowd, manager, gambler, sport writers, and "the man whose fists laid him low in a cloud of mist" all plead their innocence. These days Davey Moore can stand in for victims of a war crime or a child forced into sexual slavery.
"Only A Pawn In Their Game" is about the killing of Medgar Evers. This time the twist is that the man who fires the fatal shot can't claim "credit" for the killing. He's just a "pawn," an individual whose thinking is done for him by those who value his life infinitely less than the death of one they perceive as threat. Hearing the song this week, I could only think of the assassination of Benazier Bhutto.
At the 1963 Newport Folk Festival "wisdom was crying out in the streets." Her voice echoes down to us nearly fifty years later.