Sunday, September 30, 2007

Do you hear the voices in the night, Bobby?

The story of little Bobby Zimmerman exemplifies many of the arguments of the time, so let's start there, then move westward. And to do that we really need to start with Joan Baez, who started out as a "true" folk singer, in that she was singing only traditional songs - songs whose authorship is lost in time. She first introduced Bob Dylan to the larger folk scene in New York by having him appear as a guest artist at her shows. He, of course, was singing mostly his own original songs, which were accepted as being in the folk tradition - especially because many of his early songs were based on traditional melodies. Dylan was the living embodiment of folk process, it seems to me. But this is where the divisions began - all those discussions about where our music comes from, and consequently, where it's going. Are there some that never listened to him just because he wasn't singing traditional music? Probably. Were there millions that saw him as a very powerful folk singer? Definitely. And there may be just as many now who wonder how that slipped away.

What happened after Newport in 1965 is that Dylan started playing the first half of his shows on acoustic guitar, and the second half with an electric back-up band, which eventually morphed into The Band. The stories of people booing and walking out as the second set began are legendary and often mythical. But they still came, maybe just so their voices could be counted. Much of the Newport ruckus was from poor sound quality and time constraints. Reports from other shows vary, but a split had definitely occurred, and it was about more than whether or not your guitar had an electric cable.

Bob Dylan not only abandoned an older musical style, he also abandoned the aspect of folk music associated with the movement for social change. As an artist, that was his right. From a commercial standpoint, it was brilliant. But that mantle was still being carried by Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Malvina Renolds, Pete Seeger and many others, many of whose careers were hindered or ended due to media and publishing company boycotts.

So there are the two basic questions: How old is your music, and do you express your opinions when you play? Back here in the Midwest, most people only worried about the first one.

Next stop: Mountain View, Arkansas, and the search for a bass fiddle.


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