Reactionary Assault on Dylan’s Break with Folk Music Traditions
American folk music was based for centuries on strings: guitars, banjos, fiddles and, if you went deep enough into the “hollers” dulcimers and zithers. The tradition was kept by all new songwriters.
There are some moments when traditions explode back against us and we recoil.
Indoor toilets were considered disgusting 150 years ago. That is until winter came. Fast food was considered devilish until one fast food hamburger chain changed eating habits forever. Miniskirts and bikinis were not for young eyes only 50 years ago; today they are so modern that one piece swim suits for women are considering hopelessly frumpy. And when a company tried to recreate Vegas casinos online, it was banned by many governments. Today there are thousands of online casinos and governments are trying to regulate them so the governments can get some of the profits back as taxes.
Into this world stepped young Bob Dylan. After achieving great early fame with his songs like “The Times they are a Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Dylan had the temerity to add electric guitars to a song and the folk music scene was never the same.
The folk music scene in the United States at least since the great Depression was based on protest with a strong anti-government slant. However, the anti-government slant only applied to the governments then extant. It actually extolled what we call today progressive government which is a political euphemism for socialist cum communist government.
In the 1950’s, such folk singers as Pete Seeger, a committed communist, took over the tradition of political protest through song. Government was demonized at every turn but the goal of a different kind of all-powerful government was subtly kept below the surface.
The two Dylan songs mentioned above were well within this tradition. Then he produced the electric version of “Turn, Turn. Turn”. Not only did it have a more spiritual and less overtly political message, it used electric guitars!
White People’s Music
It must be stated that the folk music tradition we’re talking about here was the white people’s style of protest song. Black people expressed their own form of protest primarily through the blues and jazz.
So, when folksingers criticized Dylan for his musical apostasy, they were actually criticizing him for wandering off the white people’s musical plantation.
It wasn’t just people in the folk music scene who criticized Dylan. In 1967 Commentary Magazine, which was just then moving away from mainstream political liberalism toward what has come to be known as neo-conservatism, and was being severely criticized in its own milieu, published a wordy article in which it said that Bob Dylan is basically all about marketing.
That must have terribly reinforced the folk music people who thought that electricity in folk music was akin to religious heresy.
Positively Fourth Street
This was Bob Dylan’s own version of a protest song in which he protested the conformity then present in the folk music scene. He was signaling that he had to leave that tradition in order to explore a broader, deeper, and richer type of music. Dylan wrote this song in 1964. He must have already felt that the high priests of white America’s folk music scene had no room for a creative, forward thinking person.
A Hard Rain’s a’Gonna Fall
This may have been the song, written in 1963, that solidified Dylan’s feeling that he needed to explore music more freely. It features only a guitar. It’s as if Dylan knew that the traditional folk rules were too narrow for him to fully explore the misty mountains, the crooked highways, the sad forests, the dead oceans, the graveyards, and, of course, the hard rain coming.
Dylan wasn’t content with a single vibrant image like flowers that have disappeared. He piled a couple of dozen powerful images into this one song. He was a very young man and knew that he had many miles to walk.
Like a Rolling Stone
If “Turn, Turn, Turn” began the electric revolution in folk music, “Like a Rolling Stone” gave us a first taste of the enormous potential in that genre that had long gone untapped. To Bob Dylan it wasn’t simply adding electricity to the music. The tradition was too soft for him and he needed to harden it and broaden it.
The Earlier Tradition
Pete Seeger did see folk music as the means by which multitudes would be galvanized to social action. The war in Vietnam came at a very opportune time for him as it served to move progressives far more than the civil rights movement did. The changing times may have also meant that millions of people were coming to realize that communism was not the heaven-sent new political system we had all anxiously been waiting for.
The little people Seeger fought so valiantly for did not include anti-communist Cubans, South Vietnamese, or South Koreans. Nor did it include such anti-communists as Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Cast not Stones
Pete Seeger can’t be blamed for not being forward thinking enough in his politics but he was also quite Neanderthal in his music. That is the legacy that Bob Dylan leaves and that Pete Seeger and his cohort don’t leave. Their music is still vibrant with passion but it wasn’t their music that got people moving to demonstrate. It was simply a war. When the war ended, people went back to doing what average people always do: they pursued careers, family, and success.
Dylan knew instinctively that he wasn’t a protest song writer, he was a songwriter. He needed to break free of the political and musical chains that tried to bind him. His Nobel Prize is proof that he succeeded in his pursuit of poetic excellence.