So I’m on Alaska Flight 3 out of D.C. National, somewhere Pittsburgh-ish on my way back home after a week in our nation’s capital. Coast to coast, in the darkness, about six hours in the air. I’m taking my first listen to Bob Dylan’s freshly released Shadows in the Night, an album of classic American tunes all of which were once recorded by Sinatra but in this collection definitely done Bob’s way. I’d added the music to my iTunes playlists just before takeoff as an early birthday present to myself. It’s oozing its lugubrious way into my ears right now, grim melodies impeccably transmitted up close and personal through my Bose headphones.
The songs are mostly unfamiliar to me and take me on a monochromatic journey of betrayed love, heartache, despair, disappointment and disillusionment, hope lost: “I’m a Fool To Want You,” “The Night We Called It a Day,” “Stay with Me,” “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” and “Where Are You?”
I admit, I find its liturgy of abandonment strangely affecting. Bob’s voice is melancholy, authentically earnest, respectful—so much more melodic, true, resonant than we’ve heard from him for years. But so him, totally, truly. Old Blue Eyes is back there, all right. Somewhere. But this is clear-eyed Dylan crooning.
Seems like the perfect soundtrack to follow a few days in our nation’s capital.
I had spent half of this day listening to members of Congress and staffers and undersecretaries and think-tankers and high-profile TV news commentators and college presidents singing a different tune. About the sad state of higher-education public policy; the myths and facts around the student debt “crisis”; the scandal of the Department of Education’s misguided college rating system; the achievements and new challenges entailed in Title IX; the short-lived declarations of bi-partisanship in the new Congress; the dysfunction of our democracy; the curse of federal overreach; and the big challenges of a changing demography. Made Dylan sound downright upbeat.
One speaker, cutting sharply through the dull clutter of the others, asked us all why there can never be another “great” president of the United States, why greatness is so real and important to us but so elusive, why we have an ambivalence about personal greatness in our American exceptionalism, and why we no longer seem to be able, as a nation, to commit ourselves to a great collective cause in which our own self-interests are sacrificed to something, well, great. Greater than ourselves. Did you know that the first person singular pronoun “I” appears only once in the U.S. Constitution? Do you know where? In the president’s oath of office: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully …”
Suddenly I recognize a familiar tune coming through the ’phones, but it’s been twisted a little and made strange. It’s Dylan doing “Autumn Leaves.” But the well-known lines are given a completely new and entirely ancient (if rather painful) cast. “Since you’ve been away, the days grow long … my darling, when autumn leaves start to fall.” Almost unbearably slow tempo, like the leaves can’t quite make it all the way down. And soon after, to lift the spirit, another chestnut, “Some Enchanted Evening,” spins its odd enchantment in the air. “You may see a stranger,” oh yes, “across a crowded room.” There’s hope here, once you have found her. And once you have, my friend, never let her goooooo. I am left in some kind of incanted, decanted enchantment. Maybe it’s the Bose.
I spent the other half of this same day walking the halls of Congress, talking with Washington representatives and senators in their offices about the value of investment in higher education for the next generation, for the economy, for access and equity and social justice, and for the good of the soul of the country. We spoke of the urgent need for bipartisanship, for encouraging American innovation, for focusing on the important things, for thinking about the future, for supporting education that lasts a lifetime—and more. They offered hope, but caution, too, and a warning about expectations.
Blending seamlessly with those conversations were my encounters with other, younger people who were walking those same halls that day. Not long ago I had seen them in more familiar halls back home, some 3,000 miles away—in Wyatt and Collins and Wheelock and Jones. They were carrying backpacks on their shoulders then, sipping coffee from paper cups, spinning Frisbees across the quad, sitting in trustee meetings, or in my office across from me, dreaming about the future. Now they are legislative aides, deputy communications directors, chiefs of staff, and researchers on public policy, shaping the course of things to come. All dressed up, bustling with clipboards and pens in their hands, fire in their eyes. Some working for global NGOs; some doing graduate work in diplomacy; some consulting with organizations to build capacity, enhance effectiveness. I knew them all so well, I thought, one enchanted evening, before the autumn leaves fell. But they now look taller than I remember, smarter—and as optimistic and determined and committed as ever to make a difference. They still believe in greatness and have great expectations.
A recurrent slide guitar slides and slithers through a pace of excruciating slowness from melody to melody, pushed by a plucked bass line that is sometimes joined, just perfectly, by the haunting moan of a bow stretching across the same strings of that acoustic bass. Then, precisely when you need a lift to ease you up and over the long incline, a lonely horn sounds hesitantly but with just enough encouragement and resolve to move us on to the next song, and the next, and is joined by another.
But Dylan’s vocal phrasing is the thing—always just dead on—and that’s the magic that makes this whole thing work. Every single line, without fail, is delivered with maximum truth. What I thought might be a weird novelty (Dylan sings Sinatra) turns out more like a great American novel, one that takes the material of life and transforms it into a tale worth telling—and hearing—over and over.
Echoes of those conversations with former students melt into the melodies—phrases about how it all works on the Hill, how it doesn’t, how things get done. They can follow the tune, know how to change it, sound the trumpet when the bass declines too deeply and runs off the tracks. They remember what they learned in those other halls on campus and how it sustains them now in these capitol hills. And they sing the praises of others who went before them there, and now here, and who help them find a way through to the next thing, the next note, the next tune. They hum with a commitment to that something greater than themselves, to a collective good. Never let her go.
It all ends with Dylan’s take on “That Lucky Old Sun” (that “has nothing to do but roll ’round heaven all day”). The song has the weary singer (who has “slept till I’m old and gray”) offering a fervent plea to heaven to let him become that sun: “Send down that cloud with the silver lining, lift me to paradise. … Show me that river, take me across, and wash all my troubles away.” It’s Sinatra’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” done Dylan’s way. “Mama, take this badge off of me. I can’t use it anymore.” It’s at once a vision of paradise and a surrender to time.
So, I’m sold on the record as a great thing. It’s gonna get me clear over the Rockies for sure tonight, and maybe all the way to the Emerald City and the silver sea beyond. But the songs’ strange power is not in their collective resignation but in the counterpoint they form with a different tune I keep hearing, the silver lining of no surrender sung by those younger voices I once heard humming in our more familiar halls, now all singing in harmony in D.C. and across the country and around the world. About how the sun has not set, has not even risen yet, but is coming. They are crowing, announcing the dawn of the next big thing. They are knockin’ on a different door. Putting on the badge, not laying it down. Solemnly swearing to faithfully …
Dylan is great, still. But these others are about to be.