Beats, Bob Dylan changed America’s thinking 50 years ago in 1961

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EUGENE, Ore. – A student art display in downtown Eugene celebrates the “Beat Generation's" 50th anniversary and Bob Dylan’s first singing of the legendary protest song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” that would serve as an anthem for the Beats wanting America to think about life differently at a time when their message was to protest injustice and do the right thing.

In addition to this expansive student exhibit in downtown Eugene this past weekend, there will be "Beat Generation” events kicking off around the country this spring and summer concert season. Concert and Beat event promoters note that Bob Dylan will take the lead while singing the song’s that he first made famous in 1961, while appearing at the New York City’s Greenwich Village “Beat hangout,” the Gaslight on MacDougal Street. It was at the Gaslight, that Dylan recalls in his memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One,” that he and other Beats first “crystallized into a movement.”

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

The Beats and Bob Dylan deplored the orthodox, logical and unimaginative thinking of mainstream American culture, and by 1961 they offered a changing world “a new language of imaginative and free-wheeling thought,” writes Sea Wilentz in his newly released book “Bob Dylan In America.”

Wilentz’s book includes many interesting references to Dylan’s friendship with Beats such as Allen Ginsberg, Julius Orlovsky, Michael McClure and the famed musician Robbie Robertson. While it’s fun to read about Dylan and the Beats riding around Greenwich Village broke, sharing cups of coffee and cigarettes and ragging on Ginsberg’s Volkswagen van, the book and various histories of the times reflect a new mode of thinking that set the state for the Sixties Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and Free Speech movements.

Today, both Dylan and the remaining Beats are in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, but they still espouse fresh ideas -- which may well be simple, sound and effective, but – as was the case in 1961 – most of American society still doesn’t by it.

Beat thinking is creative thinking

Allen Ginsberg, one of the top Beat leaders and a mentor for Bob Dylan in the early 1960’s, said most of American at that time was caught up in a “vertical thinking that’s always been the only respectable type of thinking. In its ultimate form as logic it is the recommended ideal towards which all minds are urged to strive, no matter how far short they fall.”

For instance, today’s “modern Beats” – such as the Eugene art students who created this local celebration of the Beat Generation’s 50th anniversary – pointed to today’s computers as perhaps the best example of what Ginsberg was trying to explain with his view on America’s addiction to “vertical thinking.”

“In computer science and thinking,” says Eugene artist Stokes Muller, who’s a self-proclaimed Beat, “the problem is defined by the programmer, who also indicates the path along which the problem is to be explored. The computer then proceeds with its incomparable logic and efficiency to work out the problem. The smooth progression of vertical thinking, from one solid step to another solid step is very different than, say Ginsberg’s more creative structure of thinking.”

Muller goes on to explain that what he’s distilled from studying the Beats and listening to Dylan “almost endlessly” is “about seeing things in a way which no one else does, but should.”

“The sounds of the Beat poetry, or Dylan’s lyrics from his first two albums, are not about efficiency but about the heart and feelings, man. It’s not about trying to be clever in answering questions because the right answer is not always the most sensible answer or the high-probability answer, it’s all about the imaginative answer that rings true in your heart and mind. And that’s the Beats message to me,” he adds.

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