Saturday, August 17, 2013

Bob Dylan has Got Charles Darwin Trapped Out there on Highway 5

In Bob Dylan’s High Water (For Charley Patton) which was released on "Love And Theft" on Oct 19, 2001 there is a remarkable lyric that few have really taken notice of.   Let me quote here in context, to get it out in front of us:

Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
 "You can't open your mind, boys

 To every conceivable point of view."

 They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
 Judge says to the High Sheriff,

 "I want him dead or alive
 Either one, I don't care."

 High Water everywhere

George Lewis and Charles Darwin are some old bluesmen from the south right?  Friends of Blind Lemon Jefferson or something like that right?   No, I don’t think that is the reference.   He can’t be talking about Charles Darwin the English Naturalist, can he?  I mean this seems to be sort of a negative reference.   There was a time when Bob could warn about “Karl Marx having you by the throat and Henry Kissinger having you tied up into knots.”  But those days are long past for Bob, right?   Having Charles Darwin trapped out there on the highway and "wanted dead or alive?”   That is how we might talk about Billy the Kid or his outlaw sidekick Alias, but certainly not the distinguished English naturalist.
Dylan is not challenging the established orthodoxy of the university and the scientific culture of the Western World is he?  I mean if there is one thing that can’t be challenged in polite society in the twenty first century it has to be Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.  Hopefully Dylan isn’t still so “born again” that he is questioning this, the unquestionable verity?  I mean Neo-Darwinian evolution is accepted at every level, from the grade school, to the high school, in the university, graduates schools, to institutions of research, to the Smithsonian.  Come on Doug, you are not about to suggest that Dylan would be willing to question this overwhelming consensus are you?  To question this is tantamount to questioning the cultures’ overriding understanding of reality, he couldn’t, he wouldn’t go there, would he?  That would make him a rebel, and Bob Dylan is such a nice man, only occasionally “Preachin’ the Word of God, Putting out your eyes.”

Dylan understands the larger implications of this scientific theory, the larger worldview implications that arise from it.  Every worldview must answer the question, What is the thing or the process from which everything else comes?  A materialist or naturalistic worldview answers that question with reference to matter and energy and strictly material processes.   So Darwin’s theory provides a critical plank in this larger materialistic narrative or theory of being.   Is Dylan, with just a couple of words in a song, trying to undermine the very foundation of this very comprehensive and strictly materialistic view of reality?  In a word  …. Yes.   He claims this theory has a limited future:
Oh it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down
Upon the sacred cow

Dylan has been critical before of those who would come to a place in their lives where “all they believe is their eyes, and their eyes just tell them lies.”  There is so much more going on in the world than simply what can be seen with our eyes.   We can’t even see the wind, only its effects, but we "don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows."

The artist has been concerned with this issue for a long time.  Forty three years ago on the New Morning Album from 1970 there was the interesting song called Three Angels.  The artist is sitting on a park bench observing things near 10th Avenue,  presumably Manhattan, and he is noticing everybody failing to ask basic questions….
One U-Haul trailer, a truck with no wheels
The Tenth Avenue bus going west
The dogs and pigeons fly up and they flutter around
A man with a badge skips by
Three fellas crawlin’ on their way back to work
Nobody stops to ask why…

And as a result, they are missing out on something real going on in the unseen world, the world beyond

The angels play on their horns all day
The whole earth in progression seems to pass by
But does anyone hear the music they play
Does anyone even try?
These are great questions by a sensitive seeker of truth, “In this concrete world full of souls” who can hear the music played by the three angels that is being drowned out by the whole earth passing by in progression, totally oblivious to what is really going on.

There is a bio-ethicist at Princeton, Peter Singer who is an advocate of the radical animal rights agenda and the denial of any qualitative difference between animals and man.  He says that we are just catching up with Darwin and anyone who puts any kind of distinction between “us and them” is not following the theory consistently.  It follows from that to assert anything like human dignity simply has no ground on which to stand.  To stand up for human dignity is just a form of “specism” Peter Singer says.   And this naturalistic way of thinking has a way of bleeding into our understanding of the other disciplines, sociology, political science, jurisprudence.
But Dylan reminds us that this way of thinking is headed in a bad direction in the conclusion to his song Ring them Bells,

Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong

There is only a little distance between right and wrong when there is no distinction between man and the animals.  Tattooed my babies with a poison pen” i.e. murdering them, can be made to seem justified if the world is over populated and the gravest danger facing mankind is made out to be something as banal and commonplace as “climate change.”
 But Bob councils his friends,

"You can't open your mind, boys…….To every conceivable point of view."
You have to find some place to stand.   Maybe it should be on the “Solid Rock, made…. before… the creation of the World.”  Which is something to which "he won't let go, and he can't let go."


For a good live performance of this song, with some great harmonica work from July 27, 2011 visit: