Bob Dylan in the early 1960s. (Sony Music )
Bob Dylan has been lauded so often as "the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll" that even the man himself, who for decades protested the notion that he was speaking for anything but his own musical muse, eventually caved and now incorporates the phrase into the voice-over introduction at his own concerts.
This week, a massive new four-CD tribute album, "Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International," amplifies that sentiment with recordings by 80 artists of 75 of his songs that demonstrate his influence not just on his own generation but on several succeeding ones.
The new album, which arrives Tuesday and from which proceeds will benefit Amnesty International's ongoing efforts to free political prisoners around the world, brings together numerous unlikely musical bedfellows: It finds room for 92-year-old folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger and 19-year-old pop princess Miley Cyrus; brash punk-rock band Bad Religion and elegant jazz standard-bearer Diana Krall; indie-rock group Silversun Pickups and chamber music's boundary-bending Kronos Quartet.
And it raises a question, arriving as it does in conjunction with this year's 100th anniversary activities marking the birth of Dylan's preeminent musical influence, rabble-rousing troubadour Woody Guthrie, who also is being saluted by a raft of musicians affected by his deft explorations of social and political issues: Could 2012 become the year that pop music rediscovers its political conscience?
The music of Dylan and Guthrie has been used prominently in "Occupy" protests across this country and at game-changing political uprisings in other countries. And these projects surrounding their work come just in time for what looks to be an exceptionally volatile presidential election year, one that comes on the heels of last year's Arab Spring protests that toppled long-entrenched repressive governments in several countries and helped foment myriad "Occupy" demonstrations in the U.S. and abroad.
Plus, both the Guthrie and Dylan projects tap a broad swath of artists from the pop music world, efforts that will likely draw attention across disparate genres, social and economic strata, gender, race and geographical boundaries.
The pairing of artist and beneficiary for the "Chimes of Freedom" project is a natural: Dylan released his first album in 1962, a short time after Amnesty began lobbying on behalf of prisoners of conscience. Both were informed by the conflicts between forces of totalitarianism and freedom during World War II and the consequent politics of the Cold War. Both found inspiration and validation in the politically minded music of Guthrie as well as that of Seeger, the Weavers and other folk revivalists who came to the fore in the '50s.
Dylan himself started out a Guthrie clone, but quickly evolved into a widely lauded singer-songwriter whose initial exposure came through recordings of his songs by Joan Baez; Peter, Paul & Mary; the Turtles; Sonny & Cher; the Byrds; and other rock and pop acts. "Some of the themes [in Dylan's songs] feel like they were ripped from the headlines," said Karen Scott, Amnesty International's manager of music relations and an executive producer of the "Chimes of Freedom" album. "We are reminded again and again that the quest for freedom, for dignity and for transparency are issues that are longstanding."
A similarly conceived 2007 album, "Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur," for which a variety of veteran and younger artists recorded songs of John Lennon, has generated more than $4 million for the human-rights organization. "It is creating awareness, getting people to open their eyes and perhaps take a deeper look at what this album is," Scott said. "They're going to keep seeing it, and they'll see their favorite artists posting about it. The hope is that once they hear the music, they'll want to take action."
That's how it is playing out for many of the younger-generation artists represented on "Chimes of Freedom." "When so many people hear your voice, you just feel like it's time to start saying something that should be heard," said Josh Homme, 38, of heavy-metal group Queens of the Stone Age, which recorded a raw, sizzling version of "Outlaw Blues." "I've done so much press over the years. It's great to talk about a new record and it's a beautiful thing to make one, but it's something else to be part of something that helps human rights…. At some point it starts to turn around and you feel like you finally have enough power to do something. If you don't do something to help somebody else, then you're using that power for the wrong reason."
Members of Chicago punk band Rise Against were attracted to "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" — a song that tells the story of a farmer who essentially loses everything. They decided to cover the song because it felt so timely.