Another Side of Dylan, China, and the nature of “Protest.”

A little Shanghai Scrap pop quiz for the weekend.

The following two verses were sung in Beijing on April 6, 2011:

Jesus said, “Be ready
For you know not the hour in which I come”
Jesus said, “Be ready
For you know not the hour in which I come”
He said, “He who is not for Me is against Me”
Just so you know where He’s coming from

There’s a kingdom called Heaven
A place where there is no pain of birth
There’s a kingdom called Heaven
A place where there is no pain of birth
Well the Lord created it, mister
About the same time He made the earth

Q. Where, in Beijing, were these verses sung?

A. an underground church in downtown; B. a Mormon house church in an expatriate compound in the suburbs; C. a Bob Dylan concert at Worker’s Stadium.

The correct answer, as the title of this post surely suggests, is the last one. That is to say, those verses are the last two of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” the song with which Dylan opened his concerts in Beijing, and Shanghai. They are preceded by verses that include an apocalyptic vision of hell, and this rather key passage: “So much oppression/Can’t keep track of it no more.” Bluntly: this is an undeniably Christian protest against earthly materialism and oppression, from 1979’s Slow Train Coming album (the last first of Dylan’s oft-dismissed Christian period).

And yet, if you were to take even a passing glance at the criticism and opprobrium that Dylan has received for not playing “protest” songs in Beijing and Shanghai, much less speaking out in favor of artistic freedom (something that he’s never done in the past), you might – like the ever-lame Maureen Dowd of the New York Times – conclude that:

… the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding.

Curiously, those few Chinese who attended, much less cared about, Dylan’s concert, have not – best as I can tell – joined the chorus of mostly affluent foreigners claiming that a failure to sing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in Beijing is tantamount to performing for Qadaffi’s family. Continue reading