Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Which side are you on, boys?

The stats are in: 66 songs, 110 writers, four songs performed by women and seven written by them. The woman pictured between Little Richard and Eddie Cochran is Alis Lesley, an obscure pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll. Nicknamed “The Female Elvis Presley,” she recorded one single and left the business before ever getting started. Lesley is a footnote in rock history and a link in the chain of so many women before, and thousands more after, who helped shape modern song as we know it today.

But this is not a further critique of the exclusion of women in Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song: you may read my review and plenty more elsewhere (though they don’t get much better than this one). In fact, in the best case scenario, the book’s omission of women is an invitation to further exploration – an opportunity to learn more about say, Sharon Sheeley, Cochran’s occasional co-writer and girlfriend and the youngest woman to reach the top of the charts with “Poor Little Fool,” the song she wrote for Ricky Nelson. But I’m not so sure it’s that simple. Or complicated…

“It seems reasonable to hope that an artist of Dylan’s magnitude would publish words in solidarity with half of humankind in this critical hour of rights rescinded, rather, he chooses demeaning stereotypes,” I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “There are also several admonishments on “political correctness” that, given the current moment of extreme polarization, are disappointing, especially coming from an artist who is known for his care with language.”

There is hardly anything that bothers me more than a missed opportunity: A book publishing in yet another long, wintry season in America could’ve served as a chance to lift up women when we really need some light – allies, friends and champions. What we want are equal rights and justice. What we need is for men to stand with us. What this woman can’t use are more vulgar characterizations, slights and crude names leveled at us – whether in the name of art or satire. The world is cruel enough. Yes, for the historical record, there have been many demeaning names for women, and Dylan chose to use as many as could be called to mind. He did not choose to do the same with racist epithets throughout the book.

“As a people, we tend to feel very proud of ourselves because of democracy,” writes Dylan in his essay on the song, “War,” one of the book’s central pieces. “We walk into that booth and cast our votes and wear that that adhesive “I Voted” sticker as if it is a badge of honor. But the truth is more complex. We have as much responsibility coming out of the booth as going in.”

Dylan is writing here about voters electing officials who will wage peace instead of war. Much of the content of the passage regarding personal responsibility for war echoes the old song “Universal Soldier,” written by Buffy Sainte-Marie. There is no mistaking Dylan’s point of view: He’s taking a clear stance on a divisive issue as old as time. My sadness, on this election day in the US, is that he didn’t make a similarly clear, simple and strong statement toward a collective responsibility to women and our never ending war with an unjust system.

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Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Books, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Civil Rights, Editorial, Women's issues, Women's rights, , ,

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