By Daniel Tarade
Bob Dylan, as they are thought of today, is a poet and a struggler. In Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Bob Dylan is described as having been “a phenomenon unto [themself]…[who wrote] powerful songs of protest…” Howard Zinn lists a number of politically-themed songs that solidified Bob Dylan as a struggler; Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, With God on Our Side, Only a Pawn in Their Game, The Times They Are A-Changin’. These songs in their time were protest anthems. As I have discussed before, even Bob Dylan’s first original composition, Song to Woody, is an ode to the activist and dissenter, Woody Guthrie. Yet, I have also claimed that Bob Dylan came to explicitly reject struggle. Instead, Bob Dylan began to tout individualism, alluded to by Howard Zinn who described Dylan as a writer of both protest songs and “personal songs of freedom and self-expression.” Yet, what might not be fully appreciated is that Bob Dylan transitioned from a full-time struggler (at least when one analyzes their song lyrics) on their third studio album (The Times They Are a-Changin') to rejecting membership with any movement, including the socialists and the hippies, on their fourth studio album (Another Side of Bob Dylan). It wasn’t that Bob Dylan’s songs about self-expression and personal freedom were an adjuvant to songs about social struggle; rather they were an alternative. This transition from struggle to acceptance is on full display in his 86th original composition, To Ramona, written in 1964. Much like Song to Woody, the song title suggests that Dylan respects Ramona and holds them in equal standing; the song is what Dylan offers to Ramona, not for them. So, who is Ramona? It is speculated that Ramona is Joan Baez, who was a part of the counter-culture movement in the 1960s. Indeed, Howard Zinn lumps Joan Baez and Bob Dylan together as emblems of a “new abandon, the new culture.” Yet, even more than Bob Dylan, Joan Baez was a struggler who was arrested multiple times for resisting the Vietnam war draft, among other acts of resistance. Instead of commiserating with the struggle, Dylan berates ‘Ramona,’ who serves as a shorthand for the hippy/socialist/communist movement, and their way of viewing the world. Dylan instead offers for Ramona to acquiesce, to accept an absurd world, as a remedy for their sorrows.
Ramona, come closer
Shut softly your watery eyes
The pangs of your sadness
Will pass as your senses will rise
For the flowers of the city
Though breathlike, get deathlike sometimes
And there's no use in tryin'
To deal with the dyin'
Though I cannot explain that in lines
In the first line, Dylan names the subject of the song (Ramona) and asks for them to come closer. It is clear that this will be an emotional song, perhaps a plea, with both Ramona and the listener. Ramona is obviously distressed but Dylan argues that “the pangs of your sadness will pass as your senses will rise.” From Dylan’s point-of-view, Ramona is thinking too emotionally. The tension between Ramona and Dylan, particularly the ways they view the world, is the focus of the song. We get a glimpse of this in the first stanza. “The flowers of the city,” a reference to the “breathlike” hippy movement of the sixties are not impervious to “get[ting] deathlike sometimes.” By “deathlike”, Dylan is evoking the dread that any movement of struggle conjures up in its participants as they are forced to fully face the horrors of an unjust society. Even though the hippy movement might be about love, it exists because the world is full of greed and hate and death. Since Ramona is made upset by their new way of viewing the world, Dylan provides an alternative, that “there’s no use in tryin’, to deal with the dyin’.” This is Bob Dylan’s central thesis, explored in this song and others penned during this period. Yet, despite a firm conviction that one aught to accept the absurdity of life and not struggle against a sick and hungry world, Dylan recognizes that this idea cannot be simply argued (“though I cannot explain that in words”); one rather needs to accept acceptance themselves.
Your cracked country lips
I still wish to kiss
As to be under the strength of your skin
Your magnetic movements
Still capture the minutes I'm in
But it grieves my heart, love
To see you tryin' to be a part of
A world that just don't exist
It's all just a dream, babe
A vacuum, a scheme, babe
That sucks you into feelin' like this
Regardless of the obviously divergent ideologies held by Dylan and Ramona, the former stills feels an attraction for the latter, who they “still wish to kiss.” It is not the passion or “magnetic movements” of Ramona that puts Dylan off, but rather where that passion is directed. For Dylan, “it grieves [their] heart…to see [Ramona] tryin’ to be a part of a world that just doesn’t exist.” The world that doesn’t exist is the ‘collective delusion’ of the flower people. For Dylan, Ramona’s vision for the world is “just a dream…a vacuum, a scheme.” Dylan levies the charge that there is no substance to the socialist ideal, that those who call for struggle are con artists. From Dylan’s perspective, the socialist sophistry is to blame for Ramona “feelin’ like this.”
I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
With worthless foam from the mouth
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin' and returnin'
Back to the South
You've been fooled into thinking
That the finishin' end is at hand
Yet there's no one to beat you
No one t' defeat you
'Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad
Dylan is unrelenting in continuing to describe the ‘propaganda’ fed to Ramona. The hippy message is derided as “worthless foam from the mouth.” For Dylan, the conversation is driven by the precipice at which Ramona finds herself - “between stayin’ and returnin’.” If Dylan is to save Ramona from heartbreak, they will need to act quickly. The rhetoric employed by Dylan attacks from multiple angles. First, they argue that Ramona has “been fooled into thinking that the finishin' end is at hand.” Rather, Dylan implies that the hippies are no closer to achieving their ideals than when they began, that no progress has been made. However, another argument Dylan employs is to push acceptance as a remedy for feeling upset. They advise that “there’s no one to beat you, no one t’ defeat you ‘cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad.” For Dylan, misery is not brought about by an unjust society that ought to be rectified via struggle but instead that it is one’s personal burden to accept fully in order alleviate sadness. It is all in your head, Dylan argues. You can feel better if you want too.
I've heard you say many times
That you're better than no one
And no one is better than you
If you really believe that
You know you have
Nothing to win and nothing to lose
From fixtures and forces and friends
Your sorrow does stem
That hype you and type you
Making you feel
That you gotta be exactly like them
What makes me so certain that Dylan is criticizing socialism, hippies, and, perhaps even, communism? In the penultimate stanza, Dylan employs a line of deductive reasoning. Dylan reminds Ramona that they have “heard [them] say many times that [they are] better than no one and no is better than [them]” This is a tenet compatible with the most extreme of leftist ideology and used to justify the equitable distribution of goods. Dylan argues that if truly everyone is equal than “[Ramona] has nothing to win and nothing to lose.” Put simply, if everyone is the same, than why worry about the others? Just focus on yourself. Following the ‘got ya’ moment, Dylan again attacks the people with whom Ramona associates. They remind that “from…friends your sorrow does stem, that hype…you, making you feel that you gotta be exactly like them” This is a common argument brought to bear against socialists/communists, that they have all fallen prey to groupthink. Rather than sounding like a radical protester, the rhetoric that Dylan employs is more reminiscent of the ‘enlightened centrist.’
I'd forever talk to you
But soon my words
Would turn into a meaningless ring
For deep in my heart
I know there is no help I can bring
Just do what you think you should do
And someday maybe
Who knows, baby
I'll come and be cryin' to you
To begin the final stanza, Dylan again realizes that despite how strongly they feel, Ramona will not be convinced by “a meaningless ring.” So rather than convince Ramona to abandon the socialist dream, Dylan instead leaves Ramona with the advice to “just do what you think you should do.” The individualist’s mantra. The real kicker? Bob Dylan ends the song with a self-reflection that one day they might come “cryin’ to [Ramona].” I believe this final line captures the essence of the decision to be made between struggle and acceptance. For the entirety of the song Dylan is steadfast in their conviction that Ramona and their ideals are wrong. Not only is Ramona wrong but also only has themself to blame for their suffering. Yet, Dylan is willing to concede that maybe they are wrong after all. Oscillation between two ideals.
What other evidence do I have that this song is something more than a personal ditty about romance? To Ramona is found on Bob Dylan’s fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, which is replete with songs about individualism, about focusing on internal struggle rather than societal struggle. The song I Shall Be Free No 10 opens with the stanza;
I'm just average, common too
I'm just like him, the same as you
I'm everybody's brother and son
I ain't different from anyone
It ain't no use a-talking to me
It's just the same as talking to you
Much like the opening to the fourth stanza found in To Ramona, Dylan lampoons the premise that all people are equal. Much like Ramona should focus on their own happiness (rather than other people), Dylan sarcastically remarks that if everyone is equal, why are you upset that I have abandoned your socialist movement. Find someone else to take my place.
Another song that condemns the hippy ideology is My Back Pages, with the lines;
A self-ordained professor's tongue too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty is just equality in school
"Equality, " I spoke the word as if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now
Bob Dylan describes a time when they lauded the concept of equality. Perhaps this was a time, when Dylan felt “so much older,” that struggle was the priority of their life. Yet, Dylan disparages their past self as a “self-ordained professor” who was “too serious to fool.” Upon self-reflection, Dylan feels that they haven’t figured out the world and that they are, indeed, “younger than that now.” The final song of the album is It Ain’t Me Babe. Not as explicit in its condemnation of the hippy/socialist/communist movements, the song evokes the feeling of the album in its entirety; Do not come to me for advice or for support - I am not a part of your movement. Rather, Bob Dylan, still held up as a voice of protest, instead embraces, endorses, and advocates for acceptance.