Note: This is an updated version of my essay, Bob Dylan at 75, which was an updated version of my essay, Bob Dylan at 70.
Bob Dylan turns 80 on May 24 – 60 years and a few
months after he first arrived in New York City with a repertoire of folksongs
learned from Odetta and Woody Guthrie records.
Within a relatively short time, Dylan was one of
the premier folk artists in Greenwich Village and was well on his way to
becoming, arguably, but certainly in my opinion, the most important and
influential songwriter ever.
I’m reminded now of something the young Dylan said.
In 1963, talking to Nat Hentoff for the
liner notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan about his ability to pull off
a song as difficult as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Dylan said, “It’s a hard
song to sing. I can sing it sometimes, but I ain’t that good yet. I don’t carry
myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly
and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to
someday, but they’re older people.”
Dylan was all of 21 years old when he made that statement. Woody Guthrie – hospitalized with the Huntington’s disease that would kill him in 1967 – and Lightnin’ Hopkins were both then around 50. Big Joe Williams was about 60 and Lead Belly had died in 1949 at 61.
Dylan now is significantly older than Williams,
Guthrie and Hopkins were then – and older than Lead Belly was when he died (as
am I, for that matter). The young Dylan was highly influenced by those
legendary artists who had come along decades earlier – his own influence would
soon surpass all others. He changed what was possible to do in the context of a
And, yes, he does carry himself with all of the
musical gravitas that Williams, Guthrie, Lead Belly and Hopkins had then.
Dylan’s music has been part of my life for most of
my life. I bought Dylan’s first few LPs in 1967 when I was 13 and have listened
intently to everything that he’s released over the past 60 years (and a fair
bit of what’s never been released). I’ve seen him in concert many times and I’ve
read most of the good books (including his own Chronicles Volume One),
and maybe a few too many of the bad books, that have been written about Dylan
over the years.
I was even introduced to him once – in 1975 – for
about half a second. “Pleased to meet ya,” he said. I was 21, he was 34, ages
that now seem so young.
I’ve written about a bunch of Dylan albums and
books over the years in newspapers and magazines (and here on the Folk
Roots/Folk Branches blog), I’ve produced and hosted a bunch of radio
specials on him and his songs, but I don’t know Dylan. He is easily the most
enigmatic, the most unknowable, person I’ve ever encountered.
As I noted in my book review of Bob Dylan in
America by Sean Wilentz in a 2011 issue of Sing Out! magazine, I’ve
long thought that one of the reasons I so appreciate so much of Bob Dylan’s
oeuvre is that (I think) we’ve listened to so much of the same music. To the
traditional folk and blues songs, and to so many of the musicians who played
them. When Dylan sang, “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,”
I knew what he was talking about because I’ve listened to all those old Blind
Willie McTell records. When he borrows lines or settings from Woody Guthrie or
Lead Belly or others, I know where they come from. Dylan’s music is rooted ever
so strongly in what Greil Marcus termed the “old weird America,” the
folk music and the folk-rooted blues and country music that developed in
particular regional locations and began to spread everywhere in the first half
of the 20th century.
This leads me to the point I wanted to make when I
started writing this little essay. Even before Dylan went electric at the
Newport Folk Festival in 1965, there have been commentators who’ve said that
Dylan left folk music behind. I don’t think that’s at all true. To this day,
Dylan’s songwriting continues to be rooted in the “old weird America.” Dylan
didn’t leave folk music behind when he embraced rock ‘n’ roll, he changed what
was possible in a folk music context; both in how it’s played and how it’s
expressed. I hear folk music at the heart of so much of Dylan’s songwriting –
from his earliest work to his most recent.
As I noted last year when Dylan released Rough
and Rowdy Ways, “On his first album of new songs in eight years, Bob
Dylan, at 79, has given us his some of his most fascinating songs in decades.
From the opening song, “I Contain Multitudes,” an exploration of complicated
identity, to the final, epic song, “Murder Most Foul,” ostensibly about the
assassination of John F. Kennedy, but also much about iconic music,
cinema and literature, Dylan continues to use a musical foundation drawing on
folk music, blues and the Great American Songbook composers to complement his
And anyone who thinks that folk music is
necessarily defined by acoustic guitars does not understand folk music.
Even the three albums celebrating the Great
American Songbook that Dylan released between 2015 and 2017, in my opinion, are
less a homage to Frank Sinatra, than
they are a recognition that those classic songs somehow form part of that “old
weird America.” It’s not so much the circumstances of how and when they were
written as the context in which they are interpreted.
When jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy
Gillespie developed bebop, they weren’t leaving jazz behind, they were
changing it; even though some of the traditional jazz greats like Louis
Armstrong were slow to accept or understand what Parker and Gillespie were
doing. Just like some in the folk establishment of 1965 were slow to accept and
understand what Dylan was doing. Bob Dylan changed folk music in much the same
way Charlie Parker changed jazz.
As far as I’m concerned, Dylan playing his
folk-rooted songs with rock musicians in his time is not very different from
the Weavers playing folksongs with the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra in
Anyway, real rock ‘n’ roll, is a folk-rooted form. Just listen to the Sun-era recordings of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis. Listen to Wanda Jackson’s 1950s records, listen to Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley or Little Richard. The folk and blues roots are there in that music.
By the way, Louis Armstrong was a folksinger, too.
Happy Birthday, Bob!
I will be hosting a series of three radio specials “The
Times They Are A-Changin’: A Nod to Bob Dylan at 80,” on CKCU in the week
surrounding Dylan’s birthday.
Part 1 will be on Stranger Songs on Tuesday May 18, 3:30-5 pm (EDT).
Part 2 will be on the Saturday Morning show on Saturday May 22, 7-10 am (EDT).
3 will be on Stranger Songs on Tuesday May 25, 3:30-5 pm (EDT).
All of those shows can be heard at 93.1 FM or ckcufm.com
at the time of the broadcast and will also be available 24/7 for on-demand
streaming. I will update this post with links for each show’s stream here as soon as they are
available (a few days before each broadcast).
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