Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Idiosyncrasies that Dylan Did Assume

In order for young Bobby Zimmerman to become intimately acquainted with the salt-of-the-earth folk music of America, he had to leave his home in the bustling metropolis of Hibbing, Minnesota (population in 1960, 17,000) for the backwoods town of New York City (population that same year, about 7 million).

Bobby "Che" Dylan
(c) 1972, 2010 Susan Kawalerski

By the time Bob Dylan arrived in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood in south Manhattan, the revival of traditional British and American folk music was already very big business.  This belays its image “grassroots” movement based in coffeehouses and hootenannies. 

In fact, by 1961, four albums by the Kingston Trio had already reached the number 1 position on the Billboard charts.  That year, too, business manager Albert Grossman, after lengthy rehearsals, formed a trio in order to cash in the folk-revival boom: Peter, Paul and Mary were, it turns out, as fabricated as the Monkees.

Bob Dylan ultimately signed on with Grossman (a business relationship that did not end well).  He got a deal with the Columbia records conglomerate, and after an initial slow start, Dylan became much more successful than the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and even his onetime girlfriend, Joan Baez.

Flushed with success, Dylan would soon turn his back on the purist folk world, who in turn rejected the new folk-rock style that Dylan premiered at the Newport folk festival in 1965, when he was backed by members of the Paul Butterfield  Blues Band.  “Going electric” assured Dylan’s place in the rock pantheon, even while his predecessors and contemporaries in the folk-revival movement – like the Kingston Trio, PP&M and even Baez herself – became increasingly obscure and irrelevant as the decades went on.

His adoption of amplified instruments (especially the electric-bass guitar) inspired many other folkies to “plug-in”: like the members of successful folk-rock groups such as the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, and so on.

Of course, John Phillips, Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark, Grace Slick, John Sebastian, Jerry Garcia, Neil Young and Stephen Stills – along with Dylan himself – were themselves greatly influenced by the success of the Beatles. 

Dylan’s real consequence to popular music, however, had less to do with going electric, than with how he changed the focus of songwriting itself.  This started, in turn, even while he was still performing with an acoustic guitar accompanied only by his harmonica.

“Folk” has in recent decades been renamed more accurately as “roots” music.   By whatever name, however, before Dylan the form consisted of largely traditional songs and ballads that may have been decades or even centuries old.  The authorship of the House of the Rising Sun (widely known in the version as performed by the Animals, but made famous originally by Woody Guthrie), is unknown, for example, and the verses themselves may stretch back to the eighteenth century    

Thereby, pre-Dylan folk/roots music was sung by performers in what I call the Assumed-Voice.   That is to say, since the folk-singer didn’t write lyrics that were, however, intended to be a passionate expression of the plight of the little people, he (or she) had to essentially assume a role for the duration of the song.

Thus, when Woody Guthrie sang the original lyrics to House of the Rising Sun, it was understood that he, a grown man, was assuming the voice of a teenage girl who was trapped in a life of prostitution.  (Tellingly, on the Animals’ version, the gender of the song’s first-person narrator was changed to a male – though as Cracked pointed out a couple of years ago, this caused the lyrics to make no sense).

This tradition was so strong in the folk/roots tradition (before Zimmerman) that the many songs written by Guthrie himself maintained the conceit that the singer was assuming the voice of someone else (typically, the Everyman or Everywoman crushed under the foot of the Bosses).  

Bob Dylan was an acolyte of Guthrie, visiting his mentor as the older man slowly succumbed to Huntington’s disease, a progressive neuromuscular disorder – and writing his early music in the Assumed-Voice characteristic of all the old folkies, as well as most of his contemporaries in the roots-revival movement of the late 1950s and early ‘60s.  

Yet, even on these earlier albums, Bob Dylan was pioneering the songwriting approach that would characterize not only his subsequent work, as well as those “folk” singers that came after him.  This is what I call the Individual- or Idiosyncratic-Voice.

In contrast to the Assumed-Voice tradition, Dylan’s Idiosyncratic-Voice was openly about the experiences of the singer himself.  This was evident already on Dylan’s albums while he was still considered a “protest” singer, such as Girl From the North Country on the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), or Boots of Spanish Leather from The Times They are a-Changing (1964).  The Idiosyncratic-Voice approach came to full flower, with the release in ’64 of Another Side of Bob Dylan.  

This was still solo-acoustic Zimmerman, accompanying himself on harmonica only.  Yet, it was qualitatively different from his previous albums, in so far as nearly all the lyrics were of a personal and “confessional” nature that would characterize the music of what came to be known as the Singer-Songwriter tradition.

It was not a move that was welcomed by the folk-music establishment.  Irwin Silber, editor of the folk periodical Sing Out!, wrote an open letter to Dylan in which he lamented that “You seem to be in a different kind of bag now, Bob.”  Silber went on, “Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, innerprobing, self-conscious – maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion.”

Left-wing boosters of folk as exclusively protest music may not have liked it, but it was the wave of the future.  After Dylan came Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Gordon Lightfoot, Tim Buckley Randy Newman, Nick Drake, Jackson Browne, and countless more by the 1970s.  After the folk-rock groups — the Byrds, Springfield, the Airplane — imploded or went on extended hiatus, their constituent members usually tried or succeeded as singer-songwriters themselves.  

Him and some of His Step-Children.

Some, of course, successfully resisted the trend away from the Assumed-Voice toward the Individual-Voice, at least for a while: Joan Baez, for example, who as late as 1971, had a hit with The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down, a cover of a song by The Band, in which she assumed the role of Virgil Cain, a southern man lamenting the loss of the Confederacy in the American Civil War (which, one can assume, the leftist Baez would view as a great moment in U.S. and human history, for abolishing African-American slavery).

However, by 1975, Baez had shifted into the singer-songwriter mode, releasing Diamonds and Rust, the title track of which narrated her feelings about her old flame, Dylan, and which she wrote herself.  Another Idiosyncratic-Voice track on that album that received substantial radio play was Children and All That Jazz, about the stresses of single-parenthood.  

An even more prominent exception to the dominance of the Idiosyncratic-Voice among singer-songwriters has been Bruce Springsteen.  Like Dylan, Springsteen worshipped Woody Guthrie; but quite unlike Dylan, “the Boss” has never really given up on the Assumed-Voice style that characterized folk music until the mid-1960s (fusing it, as he did, with the 1950s-style r’-n-’b of his E-Street Band).

Though Springsteen came from humble roots, he has been a multimillionaire rock-star celebrity for four decades nearly.  Nevertheless, the persona projected on most of his songs (including his most famous titles) is that of a working-class American man whose dreams and ambitions are frustrated by “the System.”  

The voice of the downtrodden everyman who is ... the Boss?

It is the Assumed-Voice that we hear on Springsteen’s biggest hit, Born in the U.S.A., where he takes on the role of a Vietnam-veteran jailed for involvement in the drug trade; we know that he is not speaking from direct experience when he sings of himself as desperate gambler on the run in Atlantic City (done in the traditional folk style for Nebraska in 1982); and of course, he is not the person who describes himself driving through his new hometown with his son on his lap in My Hometown (at the time of the song’s release in 1984, Springsteen was childless).  

In this respect, then it is Springsteen, and not Dylan, who is the proper heir to the folk-tradition of Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

But in spite of Springsteen's vast success, most other singer-songwriters stick to the Idiosyncratic-Voice style established by Dylan.

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