June 6, 2008 -- Bob Dylan, the maverick architect of American protest music, appears to have endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Or did he?
In an apparent break from the singer-songwriter's lifelong policy of refusing to make political endorsements, Dylan told The Times of London, "Well, you know right now America is in a state of upheaval.
"Poverty is demoralizing,'' he said. "You can't expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor. But we've got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up — Barack Obama. He's redefining what a politician is, so we'll have to see how things play out. Am I hopeful? Yes, I'm hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to."
Dylan had granted the rare interview to talk about the opening of an exhibition in London of his paintings. The comments about Obama came at the end of a lengthy interview.
If indeed intended as an endorsement of America's first black major party presidential candidate, the statements were extraordinary for Dylan — from a cultural if not necessarily political standpoint.
Even at the height of his fame in the 1960s, when mass movements like the civil rights brigades and the anti-war establishment literally begged Dylan to lead them, the artist recoiled from taking sides.
Dylan, 67, has spent his entire career confounding expectations and constantly re-inventing himself -- a nimble, endless effort to dodge definition.
As recently as 2004, he baffled the globe when he appeared in a 'Victoria's Secret' commercial with supermodel Adriana Lima and allowed the lingerie company to license his song "Lovesick."
As he has so many times before, Dylan silently endured baffled, angry accusations that he'd sold out and somehow betrayed his own values -- or at least those of his mob of fans.
The commercial led writer Mike Marqusee to ruefully note that "forty years ago [Dylan's] motto was 'Money doesn't talk, it swears …'
"Today, it's 'stretch-lined demi-bra with lace.'"
That same year, Dylan puzzled lefties everywhere by admitting in his autobiography, decades after it would ever matter, that in the early 1960s "my favorite politician was [Republican Arizona Senator] Barry Goldwater,'' who Dylan said reminded him of Tom Mix, the cowboy actor who starred in hundreds of silent Westerns in the 1920s and 1930s.
In a 2006 interview with Jann Wenner in Rolling Stone, Dylan was prompted to weigh in on contemporary politics. Here's how the exchange went, according to the magazine:
Wenner: What do you think of the historical moment we're in today? We seem to be hellbent on destruction. Do you worry about global warming?
Dylan: Where's the global warming? It's freezing here.
Wenner: It seems a pretty frightening outlook.
Dylan: I think what you're driving at, though, is we expect politicians to solve all our problems. I don't expect politicians to solve anybody's problems.
Wenner: Who is going to solve them?
Dylan: Our own selves. We've got to take the world by the horns and solve our own problems. The world owes us nothing, each and every one of us, the world owes us not one single thing. Politicians or whoever."
'Surprising' Nod to Obama
There was no immediate reaction from the Obama campaign, and neither Dylan nor his spokesperson could be reached for comment or clarification.
Despite an indelible reputation as a protest singer, Dylan has steadfastly refused to lend his name to American politics or movements. Legendary Dylan literary biographer Christopher Ricks said Dylan's apparent reticence to make endorsements over the years likely stemmed from a fear of being labeled by his political affiliations.
"I don't remember his endorsing anyone, ever,'' said Ricks, a professor at Boston University, told ABC News. "I'm surprised by this. I think he's been studious about not signing up for anything. I think, politically, he became very wary of answering the question, 'Which side are you on?'"
Noting Dylan's signature wariness of movements, Ricks, author of Dylan's Visions of Sin, said that "on the whole, un-misgiving political alignment seems to be something he gave up a long time ago."
Dylan has always zigzagged across political and ideological landscapes without explanation or apology. The so-called protest songs that made him famous as a young man were all written in a remarkable, 20-month explosion of artistic creativity from January 1962 to November 1963 — the month John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
By the mid-1960s Dylan tired of being hounded to lead movements. He'd married and fathered children and said he wanted nothing more than to live a quiet life away from the cloying demands of his fame.
'The Streets Exploding'
In his award-winning autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan revisits that tumultuous period in the 1960s when he sought to escape his fame in a then-obscure rural hamlet in upstate New York called Woodstock.
But his followers found him.
"The events of the day, all the cultural mumbo jumbo were imprisoning my soul — nauseating me — civil rights and political leaders being gunned down, the mounting of the barricades, the government crackdowns, the student radicals and demonstrators versus the cops and the unions — the streets exploding, fire of anger boiling — the contra communes — the lying, noisy voices — the free love, the anti-money system movement — the whole shebang,'' he wrote. "I was determined to put myself beyond the reach of it all. I was a family man now, didn't want to be in that group portrait."
On July 29, 1966, Dylan's motorcycle allegedly skidded off an upstate New York road and nearly killed him. He was virtually unreachable for several years and stopped touring completely. Biographers have speculated that Dylan made up the motorcycle accident up in order to escape the attention of the media, but that's never been proven.
He eventually fled Woodstock and returned to Manhattan's Greenwich Village with his family, hoping to find anonymity in the big city. But his efforts to disappear failed there as well.
'Spokesman Denies He's a Spokesman'
"It wasn't any better there,'' Dylan wrote derisively in "Chronicles." "It was even worse. Demonstrators found our house and paraded up and down in front of it chanting and shouting, demanding for me to come out and lead them somewhere — stop shirking my duties as the conscience of a generation … Joan Baez recorded a protest song about me that was getting big play, challenging me to get with it — come out and take charge, lead the masses — be an advocate, lead the crusade … Later an article would hit the streets with the headline, 'Spokesman Denies That He's a Spokesman.' I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs. The New York Times printed quacky interpretations of my songs. Esquire magazine put a four-faced monster on their cover, my face along with Malcolm X's, Kennedy's and Castro's. What the hell was that supposed to mean?"
For a period in the 1970s, having embraced conservative Christianity, Dylan sermonized from the stage, refused to sing anything but religious-themed songs and even decried homosexuality as a sin to the boos of worldwide audiences. (Earlier, he had embraced conservative Judaism for a period and was photographed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.)
Even then, he refused to invest his name or his faith in other men.
At a concert in Tempe, Arizona in 1979, Dylan was quoted as saying that "I don't think I've ever said anything that's been a lie. Never told you to vote for nobody. Never told you to follow nobody."
'Chimes of Freedom Flashing'
Despite his lack of endorsements, Dylan's music has certainly been driven by the politics of the day, particularly early in his career. His rise to fame paralleled the explosive 1960s social and political movements.
In August, 1963, he played a freshly penned song called "Only A Pawn in Their Game," about the murder of civil rights activist Medger Evers, at Washington D.C's Lincoln Memorial -- as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. stood steps away, preparing to deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech.
It would be an understatement to say that song choice was bold and unexpected. The song was about Evers' killer. But it urged the hundreds of thousands of African-American listeners gathered around the Reflecting Pool — many still shattered by that stunning murder just two months prior — i>not to blame Evers' killer.
"To kill with no pain/Like a dog on a chain/He ain't got no name/But it ain't him to blame/He's only a pawn in their game."
Nearly 30 years later, he sang "Chimes of Freedom" on the same spot the night before Bill Clinton was inaugurated in 1992.
Dylan has toyed with Democratic presidential politics before. After Jimmy Carter quoted "Blowin' in the Wind" in his autobiography, Dylan complained publicly that he hadn't been invited to Carter's inauguration. An invitation to the White House swiftly followed.
Still, his music for decades has been implicitly aligned with ideologies of the right, particularly Christianity.
"I think the fundamental touchstone of his work is the Bible,'' said Dylan enthusiast Sean Curnyn, who runs the blog RightWingBob.com. "I don't think his outlook on life is all that different now than during what is called his gospel period. I don't think anything he's done since then has clashed with that.''
Interestingly, Dylan is believed to have fathered an African-American child in the 1980s with then backup singer/girlfriend Carolyn Dennis, according to a biography by Howard Sounes. Dylan has never denied the claim, though he rarely comments willingly on his private life.
But Curnyn questions whether Dylan's comments on Obama are an endorsement at all.
"I think he himself would chafe at the notion that he's made a political endorsement,'' Curnyn told ABC News. "You have to look at the context here. This was a long interview that seems to be all about his art. He seems to be in a relaxed, good mood. It's kind of typical of him in that, at the end of the interview, as a last aside, he's asked for his take on the election and he gives this answer. What may have seemed to him as a casual remark to a friendly interviewer is going to be interpreted as an endorsement. I don't see this as much of an endorsement of a politician as an endorsement of the positive symbolism that Barack Obama's candidacy carries."
Another noted Dylan chronicler agrees.
"I wouldn't see this as a twist in his career,'' said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University professor who has written extensively about Dylan, in an e-mail to ABC News. "His career is in his art. Still, he's plainly got the feeling, as many Americans do, that maybe, just maybe, as in the Sam Cooke song (which Dylan once performed at the Apollo Theater[in Harlem]), 'a change is gonna come.'"
ABC News' Candace Stuart contributed to this report.