Bob and Neil in 2020

Two of the leading lights of folk-rock in the 1960’s and 70’s — and still, arguably, its lead singers — were Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

Each in his own way has stepped forward to sing to this calamitous moment in American history.

Dylan released a month ago a record of blues, dirges, and — arguably — a sort of spoken word history/rap of the 60’s, in Murder Most Foul. It’s about the assassination of JFK, and the point is the murder, so it bathes the reader unapologetically in the blood of a president. Yet it’s as much a litany as a song, a cornucopia of nostalgic references, many of them musical. Perhaps Dylan is unpacking that moment in his life in the culture?

Air Force One coming in through the gate
Johnson sworn in at two thirty-eight
Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel
It is what it is and it’s murder most foul

I think Dylan, America’s leading poet, hears the anodyne phrase “it is what it is” and recognizes it as an evasion, a way to pass off an unpleasant reality, the lie in other words, that it is. So when Trump declares in interviews, re: the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans, that “it is what it is,” well, Dylan heard that one coming from years away. “It is what it is/and it’s murder most foul.” Yes.

And for his part, Neil Young last week released a single on the Internet, Lookin’ for a Leader, that speaks directly to this moment, and eloquently. It’s worth recalling that Young wrote “Ohio” in May of 1970 after seeing a magazine story reporting on the shooting of four students at Kent State: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released it as a single within weeks, and it became an instant hit. This will not have that one’s impact, but I dare hope it finds an audience — that possibility is alive for me.

You can see Neil play the song solo, the central offering of an excellent set of his political classics, released for July 4th, on his vast Neil Young Archives site, which contains the body of his music and work, and at this time is free. See him play it here (for a time at least).

performance from Neil Young’s website: Lookin’ for a Leader

The lyrics don’t have Dylan’s depth or range — whose do? — but I think they depict this political moment inspiringly well.

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