Bob Dylan played at the Newport Folk Festival last Saturday. It took 37 years for the legendary lyricist to return to this national nursery of 1960s social- protest music. But more remarkable than his historic homecoming in Rhode Island was what he didn'tdo.
The raspy-voiced balladeer, who ably fused folk and rock, didn't perform a single song about Sept. 11.
Once seen as the counterculture's answer to war, the multitransformed singer-songwriter has been virtually silent about the war on terrorism.
And that's all the better, not just for him but for Americans saturated with performers and media trying to cash in on a nation's sorrow and worry, especially in the ramp-up to the first anniversary of the attacks.
One likely reason for Dylan's silence on 9/11 lies in an interview last November in Rolling Stone magazine. He quoted the "The Art of War" by ancient Chinese scholar Sun-Tzu "If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle" and then he added: "Things will have to change. And one of these things that will have to change: People will have to change their internal world."
Dylan's call for introspection in a time of crisis, coming from an apocalyptic philosopher of his generation, might do well for other performers trying to ride the public's desire to find meaning in this war.
Most songs since 9/11 have been patriotism boosters. Neal Young's "Let's Roll" was on the heroic acts of passenger Todd Beamer in battling terrorists on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Many singers simply offer variations on "God Bless America." Country singer Steve Earle, however, has a song coming out about John Walker Lindh that seems to justify the young man joining the Taliban.
Bruce Springsteen, who has tried to be the balladeer of the '70s generation, and is more media-savvy than Dylan, has a new album ("The Rising") that's solely about Sept. 11, but filtered through the Springsteen self-image of a working stiff with a metal lunchbox. It's based on his own interviews with victims' families.
As he told Time magazine: "This was one of those times when people want to see you." So The Boss's lyrics focus on both the onus of loss and the optimism of love among those affected by the destruction of the Twin Towers.
Big events like 9/11 push performers to use their celebrity soapbox for anthems or political art, either to reach the heart or rally to action. But the best artists do more than just play back what people are experiencing or pay tribute to testimony. For many artists, 9/11 at least meant dropping typical America-bashing themes.
The notion of making sense of 9/11 through pop culture is a sad remnant of the '60s, when the young hooked their identity to the bleak lyrics of rock stars. Dylan's silence serves best for now, allowing Americans to look inward to sort out their own feelings.
Ironically, the rock-poet's most recent album, "Love and Theft," hit the stores last year on Sept. 11. And it contains this perspicacious message about the need to just hang together:
Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast;
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past;
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free;
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me.