On Bob Dylan and Creating an American Voice

Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.” — Bob Dylan

Some artists are special.

They open their mouths to speak and you can feel the universe resonating within their bones. You can hear the longing of thousands riding on their voices. You listen to their words and you see a mirror image of your deepest self.

They are conduits, through which the pulse of the world rises up and is articulated.

These greatest of artists have a voice that is distinctively their own but also distinctively in tune with the greater ether of consciousness, reality, presence that is the place you come from. It resonates deeper than the average chatter that is the noise of the world. There is the chaos that is mediocre artists, people in love with their own voices, people just making chatter, and then there is truth.

A short man with curly brown hair and a distinctive nose and a husky, throaty voice; guitar slung over his shoulder and a harmonica around his neck: an image in many incarnations that will hang with us long after the face itself is gone. He moved from the ranks of the longing, driven physical human — the human with a dream — to the ranks of the transcended; the idols of culture, the heroes of our greater cultural story. Their voices help us hear our own. They identify and articulate what we are.

—What is a muse? Is it an actual creature, or is it a personification of some greater force that feeds the souls of artists? Is it something innate, or is it something you have to go out and find? Is it something you have to battle, or is it something you can coerce, game, win? Does it exist at all? “Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there/With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair/She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns/Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” (Shelter from the Storm)—

I’ve read Dylan’s autobiography twice. It reads like his songs do — vernacular, a little discombobulated sometimes, husky, touching a nerve of deep ideas.

The first section is my favorite. It’s a memoir of Dylan’s first years in New York City, when he was obsessed with becoming a songwriter. He was filled up with the music and wanted nothing more than to figure out how to express all of the things he wanted to say. He was constantly experimenting, constantly reading, constantly trying to absorb all the information he could, because he wanted to understand everything. He knew that what he was looking for existed; he just didn’t know what it was, and he was hungry to find it.

He studied his art with everything he had. It filled him up.

“If I was building any new kind of life to live, it really didn’t seem that way. It’s not as if I had turned in any old one to live it. If anything, I wanted to understand things and then be free of them. I needed to learn how to telescope things, ideas. Things were too big to see all at once, like all the books in the library – everything laying around on all the tables. You might be able to put it all into one paragraph or into one verse of a song if you could get it right.” — Bob Dylan, Chronicles

Compulsively creative, maybe.

—There are the lines that speak deep and personal, that hang low long after the song’s over, wrap themselves around you; that hold some deep significance, somehow, and that you carry with you as you move through life, still moving to the melody: “Purple clover, Queen Anne’s Lace, crimson hair across your face/You’re gonna make me cry if you don’t know . . .” (You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go)—

He loved the folk songs that were the American pantheon. He loved everything they encompassed — the strong sense of place, the cultural voice, the haunting sounds, the stories. He absorbed them until they were inseparable from what he was.

Then he took what he had become — an identity wrapped up in the culture and the music, mixed with the essence of his own self — and wrote his own songs.

Is this perhaps how the best artists create?

All he was really doing was building off of the pantheon, refining it maybe, adding his — albeit distinctive and visionary — voice to the mix.

“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” — Bob Dylan

From Dylan I get an odd mix of ego and humility to the point of disgust, fluctuating back and forth — he loves the spotlight, and then suddenly it becomes too much for him to stomach and he loathes it.

The hunger that comes through so distinctively in the first section of his book remained, though, I think. You could feel it always. It’s a distinctive part of who Dylan is, at the essence of his character. He’s hungry to experience, to feel, to explore and to give voice to all of these things that move him.

He does it brilliantly.

“And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking.” — Bob Dylan

Trust the Process

There is a force that exists, and it’s called genius.

Genius. It’s what moves artists, inspires thinkers, drives inventors, feeds the ones that shift the world. There are people who are good at what they do — skilled, adept, well-studied, even talented — and then there is genius.

Genius is the speaker who can enthrall the minds and hearts and ears of thousands. Genius is the artist who creates sculptures and novels and tall buildings out of his hands. Genius is the man who invents something the world had never conceived of before.

Genius is a person made of magnetism, of gravity — someone that has an essence that draws others towards it, like the moon pulls the tides. It’s something inexplicable, innate, undeniable.

Some people have it. Can you go out in search of it, find it, adopt it for your own? Draw it into your blood so you breathe it out onto the stone, on the sheet, into the air in the words you speak and the ideas you create? Or is it something innate — you’re either born with it, or you won’t ever have it?

Genius — being in touch with the universe, in tune with it. You’re resonating to its vibrations.

You go somewhere deep. You get lost in it, sometimes. It moves you until you can’t breathe right, until you’re panting with the need to express it, express it. You hit a vein in the great flows of the universe and whatever force it is that moves the tides and the currents of culture and history and the wind in a storm and the patterns of the growth of the universe, it wells up inside of you, and you desperately, desperately, desperately need to get it out. You need to create.

The universe is expanding and the sun rises every day and humans are moved by passion — have been moved since before they invented time — and there’s this force we call genius, and some people have it, and sometimes we don’t know it when we see it. We say, it’s either crazy or it’s genius.

Some people don’t know they have it, but they do. You can see it pulsing in the way they move.

You can’t explain it with science. To explain it with science is to render it dead, to kill the gift that it is. It is the place that science comes from — it’s beyond science. It belongs in the same category of things as the idea of God and miracles, except that it offers tangible proof of its own existence. It likes to be known.

You have genius and you become a pinnacle from which a work that transcends the world it comes from is born.

We all crave genius. We gravitate towards it. We idolize it, and sometimes we tear it down — in an act of ugly, blind jealousy, the kind that consumes you, because we want it and we can’t have it, we smother the thing that does, beat it to a pulp until it’s bloody and smashed, just meat — the same thing we’re all made of. In our petty, blind, helpless rage, we think we’ve won; don’t realize that this is something we don’t have to win, the crushing of genius.

Genius — an expression of whatever you believe in. The universe, or inspiration, or God. It’s an expression of something deep.

We live in a world created by humans, and it shifts when humans move it. It’s the geniuses that inspire these shifts.

Genius — we’re hungry for it. Our thirst for it makes us raw, and we bleed.

Analysis of the Sound of Jamestown Revival

Jamestown Revival’s new album “The Education of a Wandering Man” just came out, and I’ve spent the day playing it as my soundtrack. The cover art itself makes it worth having in your life — two men in cowboy hats on the wings of a biplane, with an awesome blue/green/western color scheme. Aesthetics don’t get much better than that.

Their sound is just as distinctive. They walk a line between funky rock and rootsy Americana folk, and they walk it well — through two albums and three years of development, they’ve developed a pretty solid voice.

Self-described as being “indie rock with a southern slant,” Jamestown Revival is fronted by Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance, both hailing from Magnolia, Texas, a town in the southeastern part of the state. Chance sings lead vocals; Clay’s high harmonies add dynamic and bring the songs to life.

Their first album, Utah, was a little bit sparser; this second album has more of a funk groove going on. They still maintain their Americana sound, with songs built on acoustic guitar rhythms, and dobro and steel guitar and harmonica adding the awesome, haunting country overtones to their music.

Their ethos is distinctly western, but with tones of a hippie influence; cowboy boots and felt hats and jeans, and videos shot out in the desert, mixed in with a little bit of the hippie build-your-own-ethos mentality. They’re a cross between cowboy and bohemian. Their aesthetic style walks this line, and the sensibilities of the lyrics do too — halfway working rural American and halfway boho vagabond.

Check out some video to get a good feel for the group. Their strong sense of ethos (and their skill in developing it) is worth at least observing. Recommendations:

Also go listen to their two albums — both Utah and Education of a Wandering Man, and get some western rock/country jamming on.

Best songs:

  • Fur Coat Blues
  • Revival
  • Journeyman
  • Time is Gone
  • California (Cast Iron Soul)
  • American Dream

The School vs. The Soul: Notes on an Essay by John Taylor Gatto

I read a powerful essay today by John Taylor Gatto  (linked here). I’d highly recommend reading it — it’s a short and deep summary of the history of our public school system, the detriments of the system, and an argument that we don’t need the system at all.

I wrote the following notes in response.

School Wasn’t Designed to Benefit Us. It Was Designed to Benefit Society.

Our school system was based off of a Prussian model that was designed to create adults to man industrial factories and people a totalitarian state. It wasn’t intended to help people thrive. It was intended to create a product of uniform intellect and capability, to fill a society of square holes and limited life tracks. It was never intended to foster dynamic and individually strong people.

A strong and vibrant society is a society comprised of self-actualized, fulfilled human beings. These humans need curiosity, dreams, a solid foundation. They’re people who chase after their goals, who pursue the knowledge that will help them succeed, whose minds and souls are nurtured and well fed.

This all starts with the education.

The School vs. The Soul

Disregard in this discussion the religious connotations of the word “soul,” and let’s establish a meaning. When I say “soul” I’m referring to the . The mind, the personality, the

Everyone has a soul. It’s the thing that drives you. It’s your soul that’s passionate about learning, that

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the depth and the spirituality of existence, and of human development.

The school doesn’t acknowledge this spirituality. It doesn’t acknowledge the soul. It doesn’t feed people knowledge to nourish their souls.

Even if a standardized education system did acknowledge the soul, how could it ever form itself into an entity that was able to nurture these souls? The concept of soul defies standardization. What’s right for the child who’s passionate about art is different than what’s right for the child who loves music, and both are wildly different than the needs and desires of the child who wants to build a rocket ship.

The child who wants to build a rocket ship doesn’t need classroom experience. He doesn’t need to sit and listen to a teacher until all interest and soul has been hammered out of him, dried up and blown away on the winds of sheer boredom. What he needs is to build things. He needs to read about rockets and get hands-on experience. He should be allowed to spend his day creating, learning through the act of doing until he finally learns how to build a rocket ship. He can find mentors. He can find people to guide him. He can build things and fail and try them again. There’s no way to standardize this process. The child already knows how learn. We all know how to learn. The best way to allow the child interested in rocket ships to become the adult who builds rocket ships is to let him evolve. He’s already on the trajectory. The best thing that can be done is to leave him alone and let the process happen.

The only reason any child needs standardized information is to conform to the standardized expectations for entry into a given field. Those expectations are being torn apart. They could be eliminated altogether.

What if we changed our paradigm at the root of the problem, at the beginning of the whole process? With education?

What if learning was a soulful experience? What if it wasn’t worried about numbers and cold standards and was rather interested in the individual’s interests and intuitive desires? What kind of a relationship could we have with our educations, if we did away with systems altogether and started looking at learning, not as a means to a successful test score and a piece of paper documenting completion of a program, but as a pursuit with the goal of personal fulfillment? What if we started to focus not on the objective, but the process? What if we looked at education as something organic?

What if we acknowledged that information and education are needs that vary from person to person? We are individuals. Standards don’t really apply.

You Don’t Learn Because of School. You Learn in Spite of School.

The human capacity to learn is innate. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks that makes us what we are. We’re born knowing how to do it. Nobody taught us how to walk. Yet somehow we all managed to take our first steps. Look at us now — every day, doing one of the most basic and important things we’ll ever learn. We didn’t need school to do that.

If you can learn how to walk without formal education, you can learn anything.

School isn’t a place that fosters learning. It’s an impediment to the process. In school you learn that knowledge is a tool to help you pass tests, that facts are to be memorized but not understood, that it’s a means to an end and not an end in and of itself. How does that make you a more well-rounded individual? How does that benefit you over the course of your life? What value does that bring to your life, when you’re using it as a paradigm?

School doesn’t teach you how to learn well. It doesn’t teach you much of anything. It doesn’t make you a greater and more fulfilled person. It stifles you.

The Education of a Self-Actualized Human Being

The education of a self-actualized human being is an education that

It nurtures the mind and it feeds the soul. It deepens your understanding of the world, and it brings value to you and to your pursuits.

This education does exist. It manifests itself in various forms, from classroom settings in Waldorf and Montessori schools, and outside of the classroom, in the learning settings chosen by homeschoolers and unschoolers. It works. People educated in this manner go on to succeed in the world. Usually they blow way beyond anyone’s expectations. They’re dynamic, they’re vibrant, and they’re wildly successful in whatever endeavor they’ve chosen to pursue. They’re exceptional.

It isn’t just a shift in practice. It’s a shift in paradigm — the way these people are interacting with their lives and their educations.

It creates incredible human beings.

The Right to an Unstandardized Education (OR) The Crime of School

Humans are born with an innate capacity to learn. School kills it.

Children have interests, passions, curiosities. School redirects them to standardized facts and preparation for tests.

Kids want to learn like they play — with complete obsession and reckless abandon, following any track that interests them, naturally. It’s the deepest essence of what they are, and they aren’t allowed to express it.

Over the course of twelve years inside the system, the passion dies.

Think of all of the kids stuck in traditional classrooms, bored out of their minds, quietly having the life stifled out of them by teachers that don’t care and work that doesn’t matter and the numbness that comes from knowing you have seven more hours of this tedium to endure.

It’s a tragedy. You could call it a crime.

Everybody deserves a philosophy of education that allows them the freedom to pursue knowledge and to learn, and to love learning. Everybody deserves an opportunity to become the most dynamic and actualized and fulfilled human being they can possibly be.

The school system that gets touted as being the savior of all our nation’s children doesn’t offer that. It takes it away.

If it Made Sense Once, it Doesn’t Make Sense Now
“The difference between the few dozen standardized life scripts enabled by the industrial age, with its sparse menu of consensual realities, and the millions or even billions of unique ones enabled by the digital age, is not a difference of degree. It’s a difference of kind. In a world where your imagination, rather than our context, is the limiting factor, how fulfilling your life is depends not on external circumstances, but on your inner, mental game.” — Venkatesh Rao

Let’s go back to Prussia for a moment. Let’s go back to the first implementation of the standardized school system in the U.S. The industrial

If it made even a little bit of sense at once point, it certainly doesn’t make any now. The world has changed, and we’re still stuck with an educational system that was designed for an industrialized world, where life paths were standardized, people were stratified, and options were limited. We’ve evolved past the industrial era. As a society, we don’t need it anymore. We’ve moved beyond it, to a place where possibilities are infinite and success — in any area you choose — is within reaching distance.

We need education that nurtures this imagination, and this hunger for knowledge, and this pursuit of becoming a fulfilled human being.

I would argue that we don’t need a system or standards at all.

Who Needs Standardized Education?

My radical argument: no one. It’s outdated, it’s ineffective, and it’s detrimental.

A closing quote, from Gatto’s essay: “After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.”

Quote:: 9.2.16

From repeated experience I can confidently state that I doubt if anyone can devise a subject of even the slightest significance but that someone previously had written a substantial book upon it. The accumulation of usable knowledge in this world is staggering, and with the new computerized indexes, even the most fugitive document can be tracked down. — James Michener (from the afterword of his book Journey)