Adapted from a 2011 post.
Today is Bob Dylan’s birthday — a fitting time to celebrate his biggest triumph as a live showman, his 1975-76 medicine show inspired tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue. The Native American imagery in the title and in Dylan’s costume has its roots in the Kickapoo Indian Sagwa shows. (I can’t think of any Minnesotan who has done more than Dylan to embrace the western nature of his homestate, which is the original home of the Sioux, is next door to the Dakotas, and was the site of Jesse James’ Great Northfield Raid, among other things. Think of it: Minnesota has spawned all those great Minnesota politicians: Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Paul Wellstone. Do/did any of them wear the west around with them like Dylan does, even a little bit?) Anyay, in the medicine show tradition, Dylan (not always a flamboyant character precisely) actually wore clown make-up for his Rolling Thunder performances (or is it war paint?). Further, he made a variety bill out of it, sharing the stage with Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronee Blakely, Scarlet Rivera and others, many of them hearkening back to his folk days. Sam Shepard came along for the ride, helping fashion a screenplay for the movie they made along the way Renaldo and Clara, as well as the Rolling Thunder Logbook.
Anyway, at the time of this tour I was a ten year old, into scratchy old Elvis singles, and the feats of Evil Knievel and the Six Million Dollar Man. (In my head they are all three manifestations of the same person). Dylan didn’t crawl into my head-space until a couple of years later, under the heady influence of my best friend’s mom, an intellectual free spirit who was fairly obsessed with him. Like everybody else, I am still struggling to keep up with this oceanic enigma, and don’t expect to catch up with him til I join him in the boneyard — and probably not even then.
In 2019, Martin Scorsese made his second Bob Dylan movie, assembled from old Rolling Thunder/Renaldo and Clara footage, abetted with new and archived interviews with Dylan and others, and pushing to the fore some now dead folks like Allen Ginsberg, Hurricane Carter and Pete La Farge, and living ones like Patti Smith. Mixed with fact are copious amounts of fiction, eye-winking and leg-pulling,often so subtle that Dylan newbies will miss it. It’s in the tradition of folklore and folktales and Dylan’s genius manipulation of the press dating back to his earliest years. This, mixed with the documentary value elevate Rolling Thunder Revue to the highest cinematic explorations of this quicksilver quester, D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967), Dylan’s own Eat the Document (1972), Scorcese’s No Direction Home (2005), Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007), and the Coen Brothers Inside Llewyn Davis (2014). Check it out here.
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.