Did Dylan defeat China’s censors? 

Bob Dylan traveled to Taiwan and China earlier this month and some reporters accused of succumbing to Chinsese censors. The Washington Post‘s Keith Richburg reported:

In Taiwan on Sunday, opening this spring Asian tour, Dylan played “Desolation Row” as the eighth song in his set and ended with an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” whose lyrics became synonymous with the antiwar and civil rights protest movements.

But in China, where the censors from the government’s Culture Ministry carefully vet every line of a song before determining whether a foreign act can play here, those two songs disappeared from the repertoire. In Beijing, Dylan sang “Love Sick” in the place of “Desolation Row,” and he ended his nearly two-hour set with the innocent-sounding “Forever Young.”

There was no “Times They Are a-Changin’ ” in China. And definitely no “Chimes of Freedom.”

But as The Heritage Foundation’s Ken McIntyre’s notes, a closer look at the lyrics of the songs Dylan did choose tells a different story:

Consider the songs he did play. One can make the case that at least 10 of the 17 tunes explicitly champion individual freedom and dignity, decry repressive authority and militarism or acknowledge a God who saves. They include “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “A Simple Twist of Fate,” “Spirit on the Water,” “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Honest with Me,” “Ballad of a Thin Man” and the encore numbers “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “Forever Young.”

Richburg dismisses “Forever Young,” from 1974, as “innocent-sounding.” Maybe that was Bob’s idea, since it contains these lyrics:

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

Two nights later, in Shanghai, Dylan’s changes to the set list included adding “Desolation Row,” a song Richburg had reported was forbidden by Culture Ministry censors. Among other choice Dylan lyrics heard in China are these from 1962’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”:

Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it

Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.

Too bad some of Dylan’s media critics didn’t bother to know his songs before they started carping. Maybe, to borrow a line from “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the message was this: Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Hu?

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Conn Carroll

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