Looking deeper into Folk and Country music has been a case of overcoming the final prejudice in many respects. These were always genres I shied away from, even though I’ve happily cherry picked tracks that I’ve liked along the way. I suppose I dismissed Folk as antiquated, and Country as over-sentimental, and although I’ve had a basic understanding of their roles in shaping popular music, I’ve never had the inclination to look beneath the surface. Until more recently that is.
With black music underpinning my musical taste, my big mistake was regarding Folk and Country as purely ‘white’ genres, connecting them primarily with the confederate flag waving rednecks of America’s Deep South. These connotations do exist, but more by default than design – a major revelation for me being that Country music was originally a fusion of the Blues and Hillbilly music. The American Folk tradition is also infused with the Blues, so, in reality, rather than being a black and white separation, as I’d always presumed, the evolution of these forms was all about the coming together of both black and white musicians.
During the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to catch some brilliant documentaries on the history of the Jazz, Blues and Folk. It’s become increasingly fascinating for me to look back further into the 20th century, and even earlier, providing new points of reference to add to my own personal cultural roadmap, whilst bringing a fresh perspective to areas I’ve previously focused on.
It was The Beatles that enabled me to begin mapping things out in this way. Their cultural significance is central, so the deeper you get into them, the more you learn about the ’60s in general, and all its various aspects (arts, leisure, politics, drugs, spirituality etc). Furthermore, this takes you back through Rock & Roll and Rhythm & Blues in the ’50s, where the group’s influences lay, adding more layers of context to what came before if you wish to look back even further.
It’s a key that’s helped me unlock the past bit by bit as I explore the various avenues that branch off, making connections both expected, but often unexpected – it’s always a buzz of discovery for me when two things that I’d never previously put together collide head-on. It’s the flint of this realisation that provides those eureka moments, when, like a huge jigsaw, more of the picture falls into place.
Although I’ve been fully aware of Bob Dylan’s cultural contribution, and his place at the top table of artists who shaped the 20th century, I’ve always picked up my information about him via other avenues of interest, rather than placing my full focus on him. I’ve had Dylan on my ‘to do’ shelf for a long time, literally decades, waiting for the right moment to bring him down and give his work the attention it obviously merits. That moment arrived recently.
The catalyst was the brilliant Martin Scorsese Dylan documentary film, ‘No Direction Home’ (2005), which I saw on TV a couple of years ago. That really stirred my juices, and the Folk documentaries I mentioned put further meat on the bone, but what really brought it to a head was the recent Love ‘Forever Changes’ Living To Music session (see //blog.gregwilson.co.uk/2011/04/living-to-music-love-forever-changes), for this got me thinking about other classic albums I’d never taken the time to listen to, and Dylan jumped right to the front of the queue.
So I decided to correct this immediately, at least with regards to what are arguably his two most pivotal albums, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ (1963) and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965), getting the CD’s to listen to in the car during my frequent trips up and down the country (I’ve since bought copies of all his albums between his self-titled debut in 1962 and ‘Blonde On Blonde’ four years later in ’66). I’ve also re-watched ‘No Direction Home’ and the famous D.A. Pennebaker fly on the wall ‘Dont Look Back’, one of the classic music documentaries, which famously followed Dylan and his entourage around England on his 1965 tour. I also picked up the book ‘The Rough Guide To Bob Dylan’ – it’s the first music ‘Rough Guide’ I’ve bought, and I’d definitely go for others as this has provided a highly informative first port of call whilst I work out which biography would be the best to read in order to get deeper into the detail.
Putting things back into their original context, in order to get closer to the true essence of things, is paramount to understanding their full significance. For example, nowadays most people visualize Elvis Presley as the bloated ’70s Vegas showman in a spangly white suit, so much so that he’s continually parodied in death by legions of lookalikes, eager to entertain you, or even perform your marriage service for a fee, all in the name of ‘The King’. This is in complete contrast to the vital young singer who’d go on to change the entire musical landscape following his 1954/55 Sun recording sessions with Sam Phillips in Memphis. If you only know the white suited Elvis you don’t really know Elvis, just the stereotype that persisted. John Lennon once famously said “Elvis really died the day he joined the army (in 1958). That’s when they killed him, and the rest was a living death.”
Bob Dylan is someone the majority of people have heard of, even if they haven’t heard his music, or are aware of his legacy. The stereotype associated with him is his vocal style, which sounds slurred to many, and, as such, is easy to lampoon. For this reason a high percentage of people won’t get beyond his ‘sand and glue’ voice (as David Bowie described it in his 1971 composition ‘A Song For Bob Dylan’), so they’ll never be able to fully appreciate what he’s actually saying, and thus discover the poet who was hailed as ‘the voice of a generation’.
To get the full weight of this, consider the words of Allen Ginsberg, the legendary Beat Poet and leading light of the Hippie movement, who, many years later, still feeling enough emotion in his memories to have to fight back the tears and compose himself, recalled;
“when I got back from India (in 1963), and got to the West Coast, a poet, Charlie Plymell, played me a record by the new young folk singer, and I heard ‘Hard Rain’ I think, and wept, ‘cause it seemed as though the torch had been passed to another generation, from earlier bohemian or beat illumination and self-empowerment.” He added; “poetry is words that are empowered that make your hair stand on end, that you recognize instantly as being some form of subjective truth that has an objective reality to it because somebody’s realised it – then you call it poetry later.”
The Beatles were introduced to Dylan via the ‘Freewheelin’’ album, when they were in Paris, just before they flew off to conquer America in February 1964. John Lennon remembered; “Paul got the record from a French DJ. For three weeks in Paris we didn’t stop playing it. We all went potty about Dylan.”
Dylan and The Beatles would meet on a fateful night at the Delmonico Hotel in New York on August 28th 1964. The legend goes that The Beatles got stoned for the first time during this momentous meeting of minds, which would change the course of popular music – Dylan had mistaken the lyrics in ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, thinking they were singing ‘I get high’, when in reality the words were ‘I can’t hide’. The upshot was that Dylan’s inspiration would be heard in subsequent Beatles songs including ‘I’m A Loser’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ and ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, whilst Dylan was influenced by The Beatles to start his own band and ‘go electric’, controversially kicking off the Folk-Rock revolution.
It’s difficult to comprehend how now classic Dylan tracks like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ would be met with such hostility in Folk music circles, but those folkies were pretty radical when their traditions were shaken, and Dylan’s move towards Rock was viewed as heresy by the purists. In 1963, at his Newport Folk Festival debut, Dylan had been elevated to the status of modern day prophet, with ‘his finger on the pulse of our generation’, having picked up the baton from Pete Seeger, who, in turn, had taken it up from Dylan’s great hero, Woody Guthrie. Yet two years later, at the 1965 Newport Festival, his appearance for the first time with his band had resulted in ferocious outrage from a large section of the audience, who booed throughout the three tracks they played (he was later persuaded to return on stage to placate the crowd with some acoustic numbers). Dylan was later gutted to learn that Pete Seeger had been so incensed that he threatened to take an axe to the band’s cables.
The whole thing came to a head during his UK tour of 1966, where audiences were split down the middle, with many people walking out in disgust during second half of the shows, when his band joined him on stage, culminating in the infamous ‘Judas’ taunt from a member of the audience at Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17th ‘66, an incident which has gone down in Dylan folklore, having been caught on a bootleg recording (erroneously attributed to a concert at London’s Albert Hall ten days later) as well as the documentary film that followed the tour, ‘Eat The Document’, which wasn’t screened until 1971, and can only be found nowadays as a bootleg DVD.
All a far cry from his emergence in the coffeehouses and clubs of New York’s Greenwich Village during the early ’60s, and his remarkable development as a songwriter of true substance (inspired by his muse, political mentor, and then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo), who tackled the issues of those turbulent times like nobody else.
This is perfectly illustrated by Dylan’s appearance in a field in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1963, where he’d flown down to play, along with Pete Seeger (a long-standing campaigner for equality), before an audience of southern blacks, as part of a black voter registration rally. Dylan struck a chord when he premiered his song ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’, a deeply insightful comment on the racially motivated murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, just a few months earlier. His assassin, Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist and Klansman, avoided justice for 31 years, before finally being convicted in 1994 (having stood trial twice in the ’60s, with the jury failing to reach a verdict). Dylan had highlighted the fact that the killer was a product of his environment and, whilst condemning his actions, placed the focus not on the individual, but on the Southern politicians and police who upheld segregation, enabling the climate of bigotry in which the shooting took place – an incredibly astute and articulate observation from someone who had only just turned 22 years of age. Dylan would also write songs about other racially motivated killings (Emmet Till, Hattie Carroll, George Jackson).
The following month, on August 28th, he sang with Joan Baez on the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial at the historic civil rights March On Washington, before a crowd of a quarter of a million people, standing just feet away from Martin Luther King as he made his era defining ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Here’s Dylan performing that day:
Bob Dylan’s place in American history is assured. In 1997, US President Bill Clinton paid tribute to his legacy, stating; “he probably had more impact on people of my generation than any other creative artist. His voice and lyrics haven’t always been easy on the ear, but throughout his career Bob Dylan has never aimed to please. He’s disturbed the peace and discomforted the powerful.”
His recent 70th birthday will hopefully help re-awaken interest in the life and work of this enigmatic artist, especially for a younger generation, to whom the measure of his impact and influence can hardly be fathomed. Maybe, as I did, they’ll put him on the back burner for future exploration – he’s not the easiest artist to approach, but, as the Buddhist proverb tells us, ‘when the pupil is ready the master will appear’, and there’s a hell of a lot to learn from Dylan and his legend.
Bob Dylan Wikipedia: