The Biblical tradition of prophecy is not exactly about predicting the future, except in this sense, “If you don't get your act together, God is going to kick your front teeth out.” It's a gentle reminder of the laws of spiritual physics.
A prophet speaks the words of our ancestors, delivers the collective wisdom of millennia, reminds us of the clear and present consequences of immediate choices.
Prophets channel things, crystallize vague signs that portend changes in the weather. Strictly speaking, they don't prescribe, or preach, or even condemn — at least not from a personal perspective. They're just strings that vibrate in the wind.
Being a prophet can't be fun — it requires suspending the prerogatives of the self, wandering around homeless, listening to voices no one else can hear. You have to be a little crazy. When Bob Dylan sings “There's not even room enough to be anywhere” he might well be describing the plight of the prophet.
It's interesting to think of Dylan's voice as prophetic, in the antique sense. In 1964, the Beatles told us how much fun the 60s were going to be. Not long afterwards, in “Like A Rolling Stone”, Dylan told us what the 60s were going to cost us. Not many people listened. The song only made sense in retrospect.
Astonishingly, Dylan, who'd helped a generation grow up, stuck around to help that same generation grow old. Along the way, he kept delivering shocks. He became a born-again Christian and turned himself into a joke for many. In this phase he composed a series of modern Gospel songs that we can now recognize as a brilliant contribution to that particular tradition of American music. In retrospect, again, it seems like a dazzling, moving achievement.
He's never left the road, the hard grind of touring. There were times when he was so wasted on stage that no one could tell precisely what song he was singing. Then he'd rebound, rework his old songs so they seemed brand new again. His last two albums can stand with the best of the work that made his name forty years ago.
At almost every concert over the years he's sung “Blowin' In the Wind” — the song that made it hip for young white kids to support the Civil Rights Movement. He sings it for people who might only be seeing him that one time, who want to say they've heard the iconic song live.
He may have other reasons, too. He may believe that people still need to hear the song — to remember all the questions still blowing in the American wind. Some of them will be answered on 4 November, for good or ill.
In any case, it's a good time to remember where the song came from — an old spiritual called “No More Auction Block”, where Dylan found the general shape of the tune and the inspiration for a new variation on the eternal lament over American slavery and its echoes down through time.
On The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (actually an official Dylan release) you can listen to “No More Auction Block” sung by Dylan at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village in 1962. He was twenty-one years-old. “Many thousands gone,” the song says, speaking of those who died in chains on American soil, and by extension those who died in the chains of an unjust society, those who died fighting the injustice, or perpetrating it. Dylan doesn't claim to speak for any of them — he's just transmitting their sorrow, their hope, their repentance, just reminding us that their voices are blowing in the wind, and asking us to listen. You can hear Dylan himself listening as he sings the song. It's what prophets do.