Chimes Of Freedom (1999)
Only a handful of works can contest for the title, “Song of the ’60s.” “Chimes Of Freedom” is a frontrunner. It remains powerfully resonant because it has been fortunate enough to have led many lives, and may look forward to many more.
Dylan’s original “Chimes Of Freedom” (1964)
The Byrds’ cover of “Chimes Of Freedom” (1965)
Aside from the formative Folk track that can be heard on 1964’s Another Side Of Bob Dylan, in 1965, The Byrds nailed the number to the wall in their unmistakably Psychedelic Folk-Rock style.
Bruce Springsteen opened up the song to the wondrous possibilities of power Rock in live cover versions, most notably in East Berlin in 1988 during one of the most emotional performances of his (or any other) career, a full year before liberalization and the first steps toward German re-unification.
Watching a hundred thousand or more people singing the words brings tears to the eyes of anyone familiar with the sour fruit of the Cold War years and the eventual liberation of all Eastern Europe. After 28 years of being walled away from the world, the side of Germany that had lived in chains indeed “gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.”
Along came the producers of The ’60s, a 1999 television mini-series that is more soundtrack than movie, and asked Dylan if they could use “Chimes Of Freedom.” Instead, he rehabbed his old Folk version, corralling elements from The Byrds’ rendition and certainly a few attitudinal cues from Bruce.
He brought Blues-woman Joan Osborne on board for a duet. Al Kooper contributed a cheerful-but-sinister, hot-fingered organ accompaniment reminiscent of his and Dylan’s work on 1965’s “Positively 4th Street,” “Like A Rolling Stone” and other cuts off Highway 61 Revisited.
Although the Dylan-Osborne recording is now a ripe peach of nostalgia itself, the blend of old Dylan plus the cover artists’ influences fused to new Dylan help to deftly update the song, which can never truly grow old.
Dylan and Osborne hit the “Chimes” in ’99
Its general topics, its appeal to human virtue, its sense of right and wrong – the utter organic wholeness of the quest for human rights on every level – render the song immortal.
As is often the case in Dylan’s writing, the universal grows out of a specific, personal point of view. In this instance, two people – lovers, friends, casual acquaintances – who knows? – are stuck watching a thunderstorm. Quickly we realize that the singer means that all of us are in the same predicament watching the stormy drama of history unfold:
Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
This ode to the beaten, the aspiring, the wretched of the Earth, the sympathizers, the resisters and the ones who seek a better world has not enjoyed the name-brand recognition of “This Land Is Your Land,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,” or “If I Had A Hammer.”
It also lacks the specificity of works by Dylan and his compatriots like “Masters Of War,” “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” by Phil Ochs.”
It is also not quite in line with the sneering bitterness of “A Hard Rains Gonna Fall” or the hostile resignation of Kenny Rogers And The First Edition’s “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town.”
More direct successors are “Salt Of The Earth” by The Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” and “Cost Of Freedom” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Their general indictment of broad conditions groups them with “Chimes.”
“Mercy, Mercy Me” by Marvin Gaye
CSN&Y’s “Cost Of Freedom”
The poetry of “Chimes Of Freedom” eclipses the lyrics of the others, though. Even if we pluck individual lines, the grandeur of vision and the precision of image cut through as if wielded by a jackknife word gypsy:
In the city’s melted furnace
unexpectedly we watched
The sky cracked its poems
in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells
blew far into the breeze
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An’ the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time
and finally, this sample:
Tolling for the aching ones
whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused
misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
The Dylan-Osborne collaboration features his earnest protest-movement strumming. Her bluesy Rock guitar is pointed and trenchant, slightly languid, colored with Country funkiness. Their voices mesh well, the effect redolent of other times, places and passions.
We can’t help but recall the duets that Dylan and Joan Baez (left) sang at the March on Washington in 1963 or on stage at the Newport Jazz Festival and Philharmonic Hall in New York in ’64. “Visions of Johanna” times two: Baez and Osborne.
Once again back to “Chimes Of Freedom”:
Tolling for the searching ones
on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers
with too personal a tale
An’ for each unharmful
gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
An’ we gazed upon
the chimes of freedom flashing
May our children know and love this song. May they not have to sing it in the streets, at monuments, in their basements or dorm rooms. May they actually gaze upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
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- A healthy section of “Chimes Of Freedom” was written on hotel stationery from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Toronto.
- Senegalese singer and band leader Youssou N’Dour, the biggest African musical star of his generation – some say of the century – performs a tri-lingual cover of “Chimes” in French and a Senegalese regional language with the chorus in English.
Also by Bob Dylan on SongMango.com:
- Visions Of JohannaThe song's abstract impressionism remains a landmark moment when Rock emerged from the egg of Rock-N-Roll.
- Ballad Of A Thin ManA wild, morose piece – good background music against which you might throw yourself off the nearest bridge.
- My Back Pages (Live)The classic is transformed from Folk-song period piece into a grand work of art forged live in the furnace of New York.
- Like A Rolling StoneA worshipped icon, held aloft and offered as proof – of what, you can never tell.