The Magazine

Village Vanguard

Bob Dylan and the origins of folk-rock.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By RONALD RADOSH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The leftwing audience, steeled in the dogma of the Old Left's Marxism, expected Dylan to continue the political song tradition of Guthrie. "Bob listened, absorbed, honored them, and then walked away," explains Rotolo. An artist "can't be made to serve a
theory," she writes. Hence Dylan refused to accept the torch they sought to hand him. Sadly, she found that the emerging New Left was not much different and "felt equally betrayed by Dylan." She cannot comprehend how this supposedly different New Left, that she thought had rejected "the orthodoxy that had kept the left cemented to Stalinism," acted just the same as the Old Left.

The end of A Freewheelin' Time finds Rotolo turning back to the leftwing world she had come from. Always intrigued by Cuba, she hoped that its Latin culture would "give artists more leeway under Communism play up the 'party' in Communist Party," and that the Cuban revolution "would add color and soul and a democratic structure to the worthy ideas of Karl Marx." She hoped that "the ice-cold rule of Stalinism could not survive the warmth of the Cuban people."

Rotolo was not ready to give up on the possibility of finding a Marxist utopia. The result was her one last fling with the political left: Her trip to Cuba in 1964. She joined up with a generation of younger Communists who had broken with the party and formed the Maoist group Progressive Labor, and helped them organize the first group to publicly break the U.S. travel ban to Cuba. There she personally met both Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara, and basked in their limelight.

Yet what motivated her was her "preoccupation with the censorship of writers and artists in the Soviet-bloc countries" and her desire to see for herself whether Cuba was following a similar path. She did not like the belief that art had to be a weapon, and writes that she had "secret and serious doubts" about both the slogan and the advocacy of socialist realism.

Unfortunately, while she regales us with the drama of going on an illegal trip to Cuba via London, France, and Prague--flying first-class--she tells us next to nothing about the answers she found to her questions about the lives of Cuban writers and artists. Did she meet the poet and journalist Carlos Franqui, then Cuba's major cultural figure, who soon went into exile and told the truth about the prison Castro had created? Is she familiar with the testimony he gave in his books and articles a few years later? Franqui's interests were the same as hers--art and literature and the graphic arts--and she would have had much in common with him. Does she know that Castro branded him a gusano--a "worm" and traitor--and claimed he was a CIA agent?

Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author, most recently, of Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance with the Left, with Allis Radosh.