Saturday, July 28, 2007

Dylan controversy

Helium, an online writers' website, recently solicited opinions on the question "Is Bob Dylan a Folk Singer?"

My response is here:

1 comment:

Jeff Pinzino said...

Here's the text of that article:

Bob Dylan has been running away from the "folk music" label for most of his professional career, but in a Faustian twist of fate, folk music claimed his soul in the end.

Dylan stumbled into the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960's, more an opportunist than a traditionalist. He had an obsession with Woody Guthrie and his music, and found a scene that fed his obsession. When John Hammond brought him into the studio to record his first album, he played the kind of songs you'd hear on any given night at a folk club open mic - traditional blues ("In My Time of Dyin'", "Fixin' to Die"), old time country ("Man of Constant Sorrow," "Freight Train Blues"), and gospel ("Gospel Plow"). Buried on the album was Song for Woody Guthrie, the first flash of his songwriting genius, which set the tone for the first phase of his career. Dylan rose to popularity writing brilliant new songs that sounded ancient and familiar.

Within a year he was recording some of his most well-known songs: "Blowin' in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." Pillars of the folk music world such as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul, and Mary shared these songs with audiences as if they had been passed down through the generations and taught to them by some obscure West Virginia fiddle player.

Dylan wasn't trying to create a new traditional style of music. He was just, well, being Dylan. And when being Dylan meant playing with a rock band on stage, the folk music purists turned their back on him as quickly as they embraced him.

For the next 40+ years, he continued to reinvent himself, subverting expectations with each album: folk-rock icon on _Highway 61 Revisited_, country revivalist on _Nashville Skyline_, tortured artist on _Blood on the Tracks_, and born-again Christian on _Slow Train Coming_. Dylan was called many things in this period, but "folk musician" was generally not among them. Freed of all expectations, he went back in the 90's to make two albums of mostly traditional music - _Good as I Been to You_ and _World Gone Wrong_, moving into his most recent work that draws inspiration form early rock, electric blues, and rockabilly.

The irony is that the result of his constant innovation has been that Dylan has become the new American tradition. Is there a documentary about the 60's that doesn't include "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall?" A hymnal published in the last 20 years that doesn't include "Blowin' in the Wind" or "I Shall Be Released?" A college sophomore that doesn't undergo the right of passage of discovering _Highway 61 Revisited_, feeling the same sense of awe with which Dylan's contemporaries discovered an obscure West Virgina fiddle player?

Pete Seeger in _The Incompleat Folksinger_ muses "Maybe we should say that folk music is not so much any particular group of songs or singers, but rather it is a process, an age-old process of ordinary people making their own music, reshaping old traditions to fit new situations." In other words, being Dylan.