Bob Dylan’s Goal-line Stand for Detroit

By Ross Altman

Dylan - We will build your carOnce again my purist friends are out there screaming that the definitive protest singer from the sixties has sold out by doing not one but two Super Bowl commercials—one for Chobani Yogurt by licensing his original recording of I Want You to rev up your taste buds for their tangy, creamy product, and two by appearing in person on behalf of Fiat’s newly purchased car company from Detroit—the one that Dylan’s old confrere Tom Paxton brilliantly satirized back in 1980 with I’m Changing My Name to Chrysler.

As the soundtrack to Dylan’s voice over narration indicates (with his Oscar-winning song from 2000 film, The Wonder Boys) Things Have Changed.

Boy, have they. Used to be a folk singer went after what SDS President Carl Oglesby called the Corporate Liberals—like former President of Ford Motor Company Robert McNamara who gave us the War in Vietnam—one of Dylan’s primary Masters of War—now they become their spokesman. Wow! It’s enough to give you whiplash.

Dylan - Things Have Changed

But that was before Japan’s cheap imports put the American automobile industry on life-support. That was before the heart was torn out of the industrial heartland by exporting American jobs to China and places like Youngstown, Ohio—pride of U.S. Steel—had to stand in line and beg for government handouts, right behind Lee Iacoca of Chrysler. That was before Detroit’s Big Three went bankrupt in 2008 and had to be bailed out to keep from sinking. And that was before Detroit faced bankruptcy in 2013 and confronted the prospect of selling off its world-class museum’s entire art collection to pay its bills.

Bob Dylan has never been afraid to alienate his audience when a new situation required him to speak a different truth. Unlike the folk music myrmidons lower down in the social order who can get predictable and cheap laughs by poking fun at car companies like Chrysler—while their friends drive Priuses in the land that invented—that’s right, invented—the electric car—Dylan keeps his eyes open and reads the writing on the wall—just like he did in Subterranean Homesick Blues“Man in the trench coat and badge got laid off”…”Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters.”

And when Detroit needs America’s troubadour to put in a good word for American cars, he is not above using that gravelly voice to make their case.

It was music to my ears. To see the compelling images of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean—the iconography of the heyday of the American automobile—evoke the defining features of the American mental landscape—Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road alluded to in the commercial’s evocative drive down a barren stretch of sunlit highway—like Highway 61 Revisited—was picture perfect. And to see Bob Dylan at the end walk into a poolroom like Fast Eddie Felson in Paul Newman’s The Hustler, then turn and face the camera with the commercial’s closing argument: “Let Germany brew your beer; let Switzerland make your watch; let Asia assemble your phone; we will build your car”—well that was pure poetry.

Dylan - Chrysler commercial

Call it protectionist, call it jingoist, call it selling out; Hail Mary pass or goal-line stand, who knew that the voice formerly known as “a cat being dragged over a barbed-wire fence” would in his 73rd year become the Voice of America?

I call it good for folk music. Hang in there, Bob; after all, aren’t you the brave songwriter who wrote,

Sundown on the Union

Made in the USA

Seemed like a good idea

Till greed got in the way.

You’ve always been there for the American worker—and still are!

On Saturday, February 22 at 2:30pm at the Silver Lake Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library Ross Altman and Len Chandler will present Sing Out the News: The Social History of Broadside Ballads; 2411 Glendale Blvd, L.A., CA 90039; 323-913-7451 ; free and open to the public.

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.