Not long ago, Bob Dylan performed a version of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl classic, "Do Re Mi," as part of "The People Speak," the film inspired by the work the late Howard Zinn. Backed only by Ry Cooder on guitar and Van Dyke Parks on piano, Dylan gave a particularly affecting rendition, which can be seen here (no embed available):
The performance is soaked with a piercing sense of mortality — and not just the mortality of the individual, vividly embodied in the wreck of Dylan’s voice, his age-ravaged looks, and the ghost of the now long-dead Woody Guthrie that hovers over the scene. What is also conveyed most powerfully — and, I think, deliberately on Dylan’s part — is the mortality of an entire culture, a moral stance, an understanding of the world.
The moral universe that Guthrie’s songs evoked, the moral grammar which formed the spiritual infrastructure of the songs and the viewpoint they put across — all this is almost completely lost to us now. Not perhaps in their inmost core, which boils down to this ancient message: "Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are the sorrowful, blessed are the persecuted and oppressed, for truth and justice are on your side; but woe to the rich, the filled, the powerful — because one day your kind will get what’s coming to them." This is, in fact, the same message that Dylan delivered to Barack Obama in the White House a few weeks ago, singing — in the same elegaic tone he employed in the Guthrie song — of lines being drawn, curses being cast, and declaring to the Chief Executive of the land that "the first one now will later be last."
But the flesh and blood of the world from which these songs emerged — the cultural, social, historical zeitgeist that formed them, and informed them with the rich, ragged detail of a lived reality — all of this has passed from the scene now. The still-smoldering, radioactive half-life at the core of the message may linger on — and may one day (or even now) be clothed in new forms. Yet the specific physical, spiritual, historical circumstances that gave this particular moral grammar its tremendous power are gone.
This is what Dylan recognizes, and acknowledges both in the Guthrie song and in his own song — from the now-vanished moral universe of his now-vanished youth — that he sang at the White House. It is almost as if a revenant had appeared to sing the threnody at his own funeral.
But it is a revenant — and a song — and a moral universe — still glowing with that radiation of truth and meaning: a power to be passed on and renewed in other forms, and embodied, richly, raggedly, in a new reality.