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This article by Kevin L. Carter was prepared for the January 25, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Philosopher Sings Bob Dylan
`To me, Bob Dylan is a consummate existentialist. It’s hard to say what that means, but it seems as if he has always seemed to be in touch with some basic essential truths of our time," says David Brahinsky, a vocalist and string musician, and professor of comparative religion and philosophy at Bucks County Community College. Brahinsky, who says Dylan is an inspiration to him both musically and spiritually, uses Dylan’s music to "wake up" his students. Often, especially toward the end of a semester, Brahinsky will dispense with the lectures and readings and simply show what he means by taking out one of his guitars and playing and singing from Dylan’s extensive repertoire.
"I teach a lot of existentialism in my courses," says Brahinsky in a phone interview from his home in Roosevelt. "I have always used a lot of Bob Dylan’s songs. His music makes us become more aware of who we are and what is happening in the world. Dylan put me in touch with the civil rights movement. He is the one who introduced me to esoteric poetry, and he made me interested in studying literature. His writing is so literary. I had never read T.S. Eliot, and once I heard `Desolation Row’ and got into Eliot, it opened up whole new worlds for me."
Brahinsky will perform "The Spiritual Side of Bob Dylan," a set of Dylan’s music, Saturday, January 28, at the Princeton Center for Yoga and Health in Skillman. Performing with him will be an eclectic array of musicians: Denny Kronemeyer on guitars and mandolins, Joe Pepitone on bass, Mark McCusker on harmonica, Gail Frantz on fiddle, and vocalist Sarah Houtz.
The program includes more than 20 Dylan songs. Some of the more well-known songs the group will perform include "Highway 61 Revisited," "Tombstone Blues," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," and "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance." "There are songs about social justice, songs that are esoteric and have deep, obscure meanings, simple love songs, and bluesy, cutesy songs," he says. "This is the type of show where we expect a lot of singing along."
One of the songs he is not planning to play is "Gates of Eden," which Brahinsky says is one of the singer-songwriter’s most obfuscatory songs. "It is very hard to understand just straight out," says Brahinsky. "I guess, when you think about what he is saying, it is about the search for inner freedom. But it is really one of those songs that you can’t really try to say what it means. It’s like an abstract painting. You just have to feel it, to experience it."
Dylan was Brahinsky’s first introduction to folk music as a student at Brooklyn College in 1964. He graduated with a bachelor’s in philosophy in 1965 and a masters in philosophy, also from Brooklyn, in 1967.
It was Dylan, three years older than Brahinsky, who influenced his spiritual outlook as a graduate student at SUNY, where he received his doctorate in philosophy with a specialty in metaphysics in 1975. "I always got some feeling that there was some type of higher level of awareness in Dylan’s music," Brahinsky says.
One reason Brahinsky feels inspired to begin exploring the Dylan canon so extensively is that Dylan himself seems to be coming out of his shell – at least by Dylan’s own standards. "For years, much of the meaning of his work has been somewhat obscured, because he himself has largely kept himself, his life, out of the public eye. He has always been somewhat of a private, closed figure."
But in recent years, says Brahinsky, Dylan has opened himself up to his fans and the general public just a little bit more. In works such as his coffee-table book, "Inspirations," and the memoir, "Chronicles, Vol. 1," Dylan has given insights into his viewpoints on spirituality as well as other topics such as songcraft and fame.
Last year, PBS aired "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan," a documentary that focused on the music Dylan produced between 1961 and 1966, one of his most influential and creative periods.
Brahinsky, 61, lives what some may call an unconventional life. Vocally, he and Dylan are about as far apart as two human beings can be. Dylan’s voice is, well, Dylan’s voice, and Brahinsky speaks, and sings, in a rich, mellifluous bass. He lives in what was formerly a Jewish-oriented commune in Roosevelt, where he is active in many social causes in central New Jersey. For the past 20 years, he has co-led the Roosevelt String Band, a five-member group that is well-known locally but performs just once a year – every spring at the Roosevelt Borough Hall.
Brahinsky also performs for the Shoestring Players and Storytelling Arts of Princeton. He is the author of "Sexuality and Evolution of Consciousness," and teaches music and singing in his Roosevelt studio. He also teaches the Fourth Way, based on the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, and maintains a practice in bioenergetics.
His recent CD, "Radiance Revealed," includes music set to the work of great thinkers as diverse as Walt Whitman, Rumi, and Lao Tzu. "I am most interested in self-evolution," says Brahinsky. "I try to practice working on myself as part of the teaching I do. Lots of what Plato and Nietzsche did was about personal growth and evolution, and that is the essence of spirituality."
Brahinsky was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1944. His father was an Army sergeant at the time, serving stateside during World War II. After the war, Brahinsky’s family moved to New York, where his father, who had grown up in New York, began working in the Lower Manhattan garment industry. It is there during the 1950s and ’60s that Brahinsky’s musical personality was formed. "My mother was a music teacher, a pianist, and she is the one who introduced me to many of the sounds that influenced me early on," says Brahinsky. "I learned to play classical music, and we also heard lots of Broadway music, Tin Pan Alley, popular tunes. When I was a teenager in the 1950s, I was heavily into doo-wop. `Earth Angel’ was the first song I learned."
It’s a long way from New York City to Roosevelt, which, says Brahinsky, was created in 1936 by the federal government as a quasi-Socialist experiment. By the time Brahinsky moved to Roosevelt in 1976, the town’s agricultural collectives and industrial enterprises (such as a button factory) had long since been scrapped. In the history-filled borough just east of East Windsor and Hightstown, Brahinsky and his wife, Naomi, take care of their environment and themselves via organic gardening. Their grown son, Joshua, and daughter, Rachel, both live in California. "We grow early and late crops, using the French Intensive method," he says. "Lettuce, arugula, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, peas, and beans."
And although Brahinsky has released CDs and performs around New Jersey and in New York, he does so relatively sporadically. He doesn’t seem to need lots of gigs to fan his musical passions. However, he does intend to continue the Dylan concerts every year – with different material. "I am teaching what I want to teach, and I am playing what I want to play. I am not interested in becoming a big-time folk singer, and I am not interested in becoming a famous philosopher. I am satisfied with my position in life."
The Spiritual Side of Bob Dylan, Saturday, January 28, 7:30 p.m., Princeton Center for Yoga & Health, 50 Vreeland Drive, Suite 506, Skillman. Folk singer David Brahinsky and friends present songs of Bob Dylan from the early 1960s to his more recent work. Requests from the audience are welcome. $15. 609-924-7294.
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