Somehow I think this digression from my writing about South Africa back to my beloved America is justified. Why? Because this is the most hilarious Bob Dylan story to come out in recent memory.

His old Jewish summer camp friend kept his weird poem about a dead dog from when the two haverim were three years past their bar mitzvahs (16 years old for all you goyim out there). Turns out the poem was just copied from a Hank Snow song!

Yes, the same Hank Snow who wrote that great song “I’m Moving On.” Elvis may have stolen a bunch of songs from black songwriters, but he did his best to make sure that people forgot the lesser known country singer named Hank (as opposed to Señor Hank Williams). Somehow, I imagine that Hank Snow ended up with a few more royalty checks than some of the black songwriters Elvis stole from.

Anyway, gotta love how Dylan started the stealing gig started early. From robbing an acquiantance of 300 records (according to the Scorcese documentary “No Direction Home”) to lifting some of my favorite lines on “Love and Theft” from a Japanese gangster novel to some of my not-so-favorite lines on “Modern Times” from an obscure Confederate poet to some of the all-time best old-time country lines on “Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” (see: Bascom Lamar Lunsford, “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” to hear more about how “they drink up your blood like wine”).

But seriously though, you know I love you, Bob. Your latest record is awesome. I checked multiple South African record stores daily until it finally came out here two weeks after the States. Maybe I’ll catch you with Willie Nelson in some minor league baseball stadium in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania this summer.

A man can dream, can’t he?

Amid all the uproar over the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to drop charges against Jacob Zuma, it’s worth noting that state prosecutorial cronyism is not the unique domain of South Africa. The U.S. recently exhibited similar tendencies, and ended up with a similar result. Former Alaska senator Ted Stevens was convicted of corruption shortly before last November’s election. Recently, though, the charges were dropped due to claims that the federal prosecutor’s office mishandled the case. Stevens lost his re-election bid, though he very well may have lost had he not been convicted at the time. Like Zuma, the facts still seemed quite damning whether or not he was convicted in a court or not. Perhaps the main difference is that in the Stevens case, the U.S. government appears to have suppressed evidence, whereas the Zuma case was more a matter of interference in the general protocol and procedure of the prosecution. You can listen to my interview with political analyst Adam Habib about the NPA decision here.

Anyway, to those who think this is an example of South Africa “going to the dogs” or, as the more timely lament goes, “the way of Mugabe,” it’s helpful to remember that long-established democracies still encounter similar situations to that currently facing the South African legal structure. Then again, who am I to say the U.S. isn’t also going to the dogs.

Don’t tell that to my man Bob Dylan. He is characteristically — and wonderfully — out of his gourd in this new interview. He seems positively smitten with Barack Obama.

He’s got an interesting background. He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage – cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you’re into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.

Way to just come up with words that refer to almost every different region of Africa, Bob. Later he muses on Obama’s literary abilities in Dreams From My Father:

His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He’s looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people and he’s wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors.

Then Dylan puts on his Jewish mother hat and second-guesses Obama’s latest career choice:

In some sense you would think being in the business of politics would be the last thing that this man would want to do. I think he had a job as an investment banker on Wall Street for a second – selling German bonds. But he probably could’ve done anything. If you read his book, you’ll know that the political world came to him. It was there to be had.

You can also hear the Obama-ified “I Feel A Change Coming On” at the same link as the interview.

Will.I.Am may be the new Bob Dylan, but is Dylan now positioning himself to be the new Barack Obama? According to a Norwegian online record store, the title of the singer’s much-anticipated (at least in my mind) new album will be called “I Feel A Change Coming On,” which is slated as the title to one of the songs on the album. Dylan was rather eloquent in his praise of Obama’s victory on election night last November during a concert in Minnesota (though it sounds a little more insane aka Dylanesque if you can track down the audio):

I was born in 1941 — that’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well I been livin’ in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are gonna change now.

The album, according to the site, will be released on April 27 in Europe. Given that in the U.S., albums are released on Tuesdays, that would have the album scheduled to be released on the 28th. In which case, those crafty enough to find the music by more unscrupulous methods can probably do so no later than the 21st. According to a Rolling Stone report, the album features some members of Dylan’s touring band, as well as Los Lobos’ freakishly good multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo playing accordion on every track.

Another interpretation of this album title might be that the whole thing is just a continuation of that abomination of a Pepsi ad that aired during the Super Bowl.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the subtitle of the album is something closer to Pepsi’s new “Refresh Yourself” slogan, rather than the Obama-ified, “Yes We Can.”

Obama likes to say that he is a blank slate where others project themselves onto him. Well it seems like Frank Rich’s column is having a similar effect. Some go global, but I try to keep it all in the good ol’ U. S. of A family. Stephen Walt paired this week’s Rich column with articles in the Sunday New York Times about the failure of Hamid Karzai and the opportunism of Richard Holbrooke. When I read Rich I thought of another Sunday Times piece about the inside politics of the textile and hotel workers union, UNITE-HERE. This fight has all the intrigue of the best gangster movie you’ve never seen.

The break-up of the union being proposed by a group of leaders led by Ed Wilhelm is, according to them, about democracy and the will of a union that doesn’t want to go along with Bruce Raynor’s plan to break up the once separate UNITE and HERE. This is really just the beginning of a whole series of fights between national-level unions, locals, and merged segments of previously separate unions. Just one part of the whole deal is speculation about what kind of moves the SEIU might make to get members from warring factions of UNITE-HERE. It’s basically a factionalist war with no obvious kingmaker, though Andy Stern at SEIU at least has some pretensions of taking on such a role. Usually you would think that such important institutions would have good governance structures to prevent this kind of massive infighting; democracy would ultimately crown the king. But you would be wrong. Democracy is clearly just the Wilhelm camp’s prop in their fight, at least the way the public battle is going. As opposed to emphasizing the primacy of institutional democracy as an arbiter in this fight, the Times piece seems to portray Raynor as a bit of a wounded hero struggling against the statist Wilhelm-led forces:

The fight is led by two hyperarticulate heavyweights, both Ivy League graduates, each using his decades of experience in battling corporations to clobber the other.

We’ll see where this all ends up, and if the Times‘ equivalency on the issue is borne out.

The bottom line is that not only is this union fight coming in the midst of an economic crisis, but, as Rich argues, it’s a crisis with a bit of a unique populist dimension. Obama, Rich says, is not only trying to right an economic system gone awry, but also a corrupt political system that propped up such financial malfeasance:

Americans have had enough of such arrogance, whether in the public or private sectors, whether Democrat or Republican.

We have to remember that the ugly McCain-Palin campaign unleashed its own sort of populist anger, one with a distinct racial tinge. So now we have anger at Wall Street bosses, anger at Capitol Hill cronies, and a bunch of union statists  — no matter which you look at it, at some level every side in this UNITE-HERE debate just seems out to save their positions and those of their friends — who are supposed to represent the working man.

One the one hand, this fight could be good for the unions. Long-simmering tension gets fought out and resolved into a more competitive union organizing atmosphere rather than careerists getting comfy while losing valuable members. Still, the possibility of the current dysfunction ravaging any power the major unions have left in advance of crucial fights on the Employee Free Choice Act and to change the nature of the National Labor Relations Board appears distinct. Most importantly, these fights drain energy from difficult organizing battles — the actual work of unions.

So with the buying power of the proletariat going down (shout out to Bob Dylan aka Will.I.Am) and unions potentially out for the count, where is this populist anger going to go? Wall Street? Politicians? Immigrants? Other racial minorities? I don’t mean to cry wolf here, but the bottom line is that these fights make for great political intrigue, but also a depressing leadership deficit on things that actually matter. I hope to have more on this as the public battles heat up, but I think it’s important to start by getting at what is at stake here.

Things may look different from the inside. If you’ve got anything to say, comment or message me. It seems like some are already going the anonymous comment route, which is FINE with me when it comes to this issue.

George Packer weighs in on the Obama inaugural team’s selection of Elizabeth Alexander as the poet for the big day:

Judging from the work posted on her Web site, Alexander writes with a fine, angry irony, in vividly concrete images, but her poems have the qualities of most contemporary American poetry—a specificity that’s personal and unsuggestive, with moves toward the general that are self-consciously academic. They are not poems that would read well before an audience of millions.

Obama’s Inauguration needs no heightening. It’ll be its own history, its own poetry.

So is Packer’s argument that a certain style (Alexander’s or, for that matter, anything “contemporary” or “academic”) is bad for an inauguration or is the idea of poem itself generally bad for such an event? Either way, I’m still holding out hope for a last minute addition of Bob Dylan.