A couple of years ago, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Among some, this aroused both fury and derision. How could a mere songwriter be in such a pantheon? How could he bear comparison with TS Eliot, Yeats or Heaney, Camus or Gunter Grass? In fact, quite a few winners of the Nobel Prize haven’t aged as well: anyone reading John Galsworthy, or Winston Churchill come to that?
Dylan’s Nobel citation has him ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. That undersells it: he created a whole new art form and played the central part in what the rock critic, Ian MacDonald, writing about The Beatles, called a Revolution in the Head. To understand that, we need to go back to the America of 1961, when the 19-year-old Dylan left his native Minnesota for the bright lights of New York City. This America was still the America of bright confident morning, the America of Doris Day and JFK’s inauguration. That America was, of course, the America of segregation, McCarthyism and the bomb. Dylan would come into his greatness just as those two Americas collided and were overturned.
Dylan’s teenage years were, of course, the years of rock and roll. the generation that grew up after the war, the first wave of the baby boomers, were in so many ways the lucky generation. The Great Depression had given way to the great boom: America’s teenagers were born, with money to burn and time to spend it. Rock and roll might not have been the first musical phenomena aimed at the teenage market, but the market it found was bigger, richer and younger than those that had come before. It’s musical language wasn’t new, but its style was. In many ways it would, and still does, mark a great musical dividing line: the likes of my parents’ generation were the ones that came before rock and roll; every subsequent generation comes with it as their fundamental musical language.
Lyrically, there was inventiveness too, whether in the hymns to teenage Americana of Chuck Berry, or the glorious opening salvo of Little Richard’s Tutti Futti: ‘Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom’. In truth, though, the lyrical content of rock and roll was primarily a roll call of teenage pleasures and heartaches: girls and boys, cars, more girls, school. And whilst the early rock and rollers had their wild moments, the true spirit of the age was probably best personified by its greatest star, Elvis.
The story is often told of how the wild, young Elvis was tamed by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, his military service, a series of increasingly awful movies, and Las Vegas. It was always an overly simplistic tale. In fact, Elvis made some fantastic blues driven music immediately after the end of his period in the army. However, one thing is true: the Elvis of the ‘sixties could still rock, when he chose to, but he was never a revolutionary.
In these years, cultural innovation came from other places.
The great American art form of the first half or so of the 20th century was jazz. The ‘fifties and ‘sixties saw jazz being taken to places that would, but a short while back, have seemed inconceivable. The Bee Bop of Charlie Parker et al evolved into what can only be seen as high art. In doing so, of course, it moved away from the mainstream audience. The likes of Miles Davis or John Coltrane moved far away from the old limitations of scale, chordal structure and length. Others, such as Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor, went much further. It could be a challenging listen, and as such it was inevitably a preserve of a few.
Similar movements came about in literature. Long before, modernism had seen writers move well beyond a mainstream readership. By the ‘fifties, a new generation of writers had grown up, the so-called Beat Generation. They had their origins in New York’s Columbia University, where the likes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg (left) and Lucien Carr met: it was there, that under the influence of Yeats, that Carr coined the term ‘New Vision’. The Beats celebrated spontaneity, free creativity and a bohemian lifestyle. Their writing reflected that. For any young bohemian type, the likes of Ginsberg’s Howl, Kerouac’s On the Road and William S Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch were required reading.
As well as experimental literature and free jazz, the Greenwich Village of 1961 was home to another cultural phenomena: the folk revival (you can read more about that here, to come). The father of the folk revival was the youthful Dylan’s hero, Woody Guthrie. The other great figure was Pete Seeger.
Robert Zimmerman was raised in Minnesota. Like so many teenagers growing up in the ‘fifties, Dylan fell in love with rock and roll. He learned guitar and piano, and played in high school rock and roll bands. By 1959, he was at the University of Minnesota. There, like so many would-be bohemian students of that era, he began to gravitate to its folk club, and began performing there. Coming across the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, he took his name: Bob Dylan was born.
Like Guthrie had done 20 years before, the young Dylan, having dropped out of college, gravitated to Greenwich Village, on the west side of downtown Manhattan. It had long been the preserve of the Beats, the avant garde and the folkies. One reason for him going to New York in the first place was to visit the man that had become his idol. By then, Guthrie was in hospital, seriously ill. Dylan also hooked up with the folk singer that was, above all, the keeper of Guthrie’s legacy: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
Through 1961, Dylan played the clubs around the Village, made contacts and picked up songs. By the summer, he had made his first radio appearance and by September had come to the attention of the critic, Robert Shelton. Then, he came to the attention of John Hammond.
Hammond was, by then, a producer for one of America’s biggest record labels, Columbia. In later years, Hammond would sign greats such as Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. In fact, in 1962, he already had a track record of producing and discovering some of the great American talents. He also had track record of strong support for racially integrated music, and civil rights.
In the ‘thirties, Hammond took to visiting the jazz clubs of Harlem. This was both unusual and courageous: those clubs were black, and a white man like Hammond was not necessarily welcome. However, he struck up friendships and, as such, began to open doors for black musicians. He was a key figure in the career of the great jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman (above, centre; Hammond is on the left, and guitarist Charlie Christian on the right). Hammond helped Goodman get together with black players that would be key men in his greatest line up, notably Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton.
At a time when black jazz artists usually made race music aimed at black people, Hammond brought black artist across. He brought the great Count Basie to New York, and gave the young Billie Holiday her debut.
It wasn’t just jazz. Hammond was interested in black music of all kinds. In 1938 and 1939, he organised From Spirituals to Swing concerts showcasing blues and gospel too, and at the prestigious Carnegie Hall (where Goodman’s greatest album was recorded). It was Hammond who oversaw the posthumous release of Robert Johnson’s surviving recordings, as the two-volume King of the Delta Blues Singers, after Johnson’s murder in 1938. His love of gospel would lead him, years later, to sign the young Aretha Franklin (above).
By the ‘forties, jazz was changing, and the new beebop style wasn’t to Hammond’s liking. His attention turned to folk: in the ‘fifties, he signed Pete Seeger. In many ways, the Dylan of 1961 was just another young folkie. However, Hammond saw something; as he would later say, ‘he just happens to be an original’. Dylan’s debut LP was, in may ways, nothing very original: an album consisting mostly of old folk and blues numbers. It sold just over 5,000 copies. He was ‘Hammond’s folly’.
In 1962, however, something remarkable happened. Dylan had written songs before. One, A Song to Woody, had appeared on that debut album (in many ways it was something of a pastiche of praise to the great man). Throughout 1962, as Dylan hung around the Village,and made his first trip to the UK, he began writing his own songs. Musically, they were very much in the folk tradition, often rehashing classic old tunes (folk music has always done that).
Nor was the fact that some of Dylan’s new songs were quite clearly protest songs anything new. The village scene of 1962 abounded with topical protest songs. Nor were all of Dylan’s so very different: Oxford Town, about James Meredith’s attempts to enlist in the University of Mississippi, was pretty much straight out of the Guthrie playbook. Others were different.
His second album, The Freeweheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in May 1963: it introduced that songwriter to the world. Another, Talkin’ World War III Blues, took the talking blues that Woody Guthrie had made so much of, to a new level of (largely improvised) wit.
The album’s other protest songs were at another level. Its most famous song, which became a number one hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, remains Blowin’ in the Wind. It took the conventional structures of the folk song, and the protest song, but made it somehow poetic, and universal:
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
And with it, comes the possibility of redemption, with the warning of a prophet:
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Will you, will they just only lift their head and feel it?
The most pointed of Dylan’s songs on Freewheelin’ was Masters of War. Drawing its melody from an old English folk song, it railed against those who ‘fasten all the triggers/For the others to fire’. It is hardly subtle, but has all the fire and brimstone of an old testament prophet (a book to which Dylan would often return. ‘Like Judas of old’, but this time not even Jesus ‘would forgive’, and all the money would ‘never buy back your soul’.
And I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
Closing the LP’s first side was A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Dylan would deny that Hard Rain of the song was nuclear fallout, but in a world recently scared witless by the Cuban missile crisis, that’s how many read it (the song was, in fact, first performed a month before Cuba). As with all Dylan’s finest songs, simple meaning is elusive. It’s written in the style an old answer ballad:
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
In what follows, Dylan reveals the breadth of his gift for the first time in a stream of vivid wild imagery. ‘I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it’; a man ‘wounded in love’ and another ‘wounded with hatred’.
It is a world in of some kind of end time:
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And from which there is no escaping: ‘It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall’.
Even before Freewheelin’, Dylan was getting a name for himself. In part he was helped along the way by a raft of admirers, musicians and friends. None were more important than Pete Seeger and Joan Baez (you can read more about them here).
Both were certainly important to Dylan’s early career. Seeger, the leading like of the folk revival and protest song for more than a decade, had the clout to get Dylan a hearing, and his enthusiasm for ‘the voice of a generation’ did much to see Dylan raised up on a pedestal he would seek to dismount afore long. In 1962-63, however, Seeger to much to politicise the young Dylan, such as by taking him to Greenwood, Mississippi.
Seeger, who had a wide and loyal audience, both sang with Dylan, but also sang his songs. So did Joan Baez. By 1962, Baez was an established star (she had even appeared on the cover of Time). She began to invite Dylan on stage at her gigs; she also sang his songs. Her fourth album, Joan Baez In Concert, Part 2, which was a top ten hit, featured her version of Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright (the stereo version also had With God on Our Side).
Both of them were highly polticised. Dylan followed in their wake. The high-water marks of Dylan’s political engagement came with his performance for the civil rights march on Washington (you can read more about that here), and the release of The Times they are A-Changin’.
Some of the album seems, in retrospect, somewhat heavy handed (something Dylan himself came to feel). However, the title track manages to do what Blowin’ in the Wind also did: catch the mood of the day, and yet be somehow timeless. And, it told a kind of truth.
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is one of Dylan’s finest narrative songs, and quite probably his finest protest song: you can hear it, here.
Not only did Baez cover With God on Our Side, she often sung it with Dylan; this version is from the Newport Folk Festival.
Dylan had imposed constraints upon himself: he didn’t easily fit them. For the march in Washington, rather than play the clearly anthemic Blowin’ in the Wind (which Peter, Paul and Mary did) or The Times they are A-Changin’, Dylan played two unreleased songs. When the Ship Comes In was a best elusive in its intent. Only a Pawn in their Game was about the murder of Medgar Evers, but came at from an angle many found difficult. In Hattie Carroll, Dylan had come at the story from another angle. We were not to cry over her murder, but over the injustice of the six month sentence given to the killer. Evers’ killer was not the real problem, ‘only a pawn in their game’.
Dylan later confessed to feeling uneasy, as a very young white man from a comfortable background, about singing that day at all. Soon after, he began to see the ‘protest singer’ label as a constraint.
In truth, there had always been so much more to him. The second side of Freewheelin’ opened with Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright. Often taken as a farewell to Suze Rolto, the girlfriend seen on the album’s iconic cover walking down Greenwich Village’s Fourth Street (see tghe top of this post) , it has much of the methinks he protesteth too much insouciance at the end of the affair:
Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
Then, a more honest plea, even if it reverses the roles (Rolto was the one going cool over the relationship):
But I wish there was somethin’ you would do or say
To try and make me change my mind and stay
And then, what would become a Dylan specialty in these years:
I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
I have always preferred Girl from the North Country, is a tender and wistful look back at a lost love, with its roots in Child’s Ballad #2, which later became Scarboro’ Fair.
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
It’s gentle sense of longing is something Dylan would return to again and again:
Please see for me if her hair hangs long
If it rolls and flows all down her breast
Please see for me if her hair hangs long
For that’s the way I remember her best
If Girl From the North County hymns lost love, Bob Dylan’s Dream looks back at youth (yes, I do know how young Dylan was in 1962). It’s melody, usually associated with the old song Lord Franklin (or Lady Franklin’s Lament), is in fact a 16th century Irish air, Cailín Óg a Stór (O Darling Young Girl).
If The Times They are A-Changin’ is remembered for its protest songs, Dylan’s writing was also going elsewhere. Lay Down Your Weary Tune was recorded for the album: it was was written at Joan Baez’s California home around the same time as Hattie Carroll. Apart from its gorgeous melody, what is most notable is what is almost an Old Testament feel, and the sense of a writer who was straining at the leash of protest.
That fact was made evident by his next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan. It eschewed politics. Dylan made that clear on My Back Pages, where he turned on his younger self:
‘We’ll meet on edges, soon,’ said I, proud ‘neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now
The tone of spite that had briefly surfaced before (Don’t Think Twice) now came up more clearly. The intensely personal Ballad in Plain D, about his break up with Suze Rolto would, Dylan later felt went too far: ‘her parasite sister’. The tone that he set for the future was, rather, better seen in It Ain’t Me, Babe.
And he could still do tenderness, beautifully. To Ramona sees him bid farewell:
Just do what you think you should do
And someday maybe
Who knows, baby
I’ll come and be cryin’ to you
Ballad in Plain D made fine use of the folk form, to beautiful effect in places:
Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
‘How good, how good does it feel to be free?’
And I answer them most mysteriously
‘Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?’
The last stanza was poetry of Dylan’s writing now took the ascendancy. Chimes of Freedom gives us the ‘wild cathedral evening’ and ‘disrobed faceless forms’ as ‘the sky cracked its poems’:
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
The album’s back cover reads like a non-statement of intent.
Written at the same time was a song recorded for Another Side, but not used (Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s backing vocal was somewhat off key). Mr Tambourine Man took a folk form, but now took it somewhere else altogether. ‘Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand’ and ‘the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming’, then ‘far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.’
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
The song was first performed in May 1964, at the Albert Hall. Here it is at the same year’s Newport Folk festival.
It was released on 1965’s Bringing it All Back Home. A month later, The Byrds’ electric version was a smash hit (you can hear it here). And Dylan’s version featured an electric guitar. And that’s another story, for part two of this series.