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Hey, hey woody Guthrie I wrote you a song: The political side of Bob DylanR. Serge Denlsoff; David Fandray

Online Publication Date: 01 January 1977

To cite this Article Denlsoff, R. Serge and Fandray, David(1977)'Hey, hey woody Guthrie I wrote you a song: The political side of Bob

Dylan',Popular Music and Society,5:5,31 42To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/03007767708591096 URL:

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R. Serge Denlsoff and David Fandray Bob Dylan appears as the most enigmatic and controversial artist of the turbulant 1960s. Dylan was all things to many people, at least at one point in that decade. His fans and the media enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the singer that has rarely been witnessed. He was labeled a voice of a generation, yet turned his back on the role. His importance was immense long before "Like a Rolling Stone" finally reached the pop charts. Very few people aware of Dylan are neutral about him. His aesthetic changes have been roundly criticized. The stormiest side to Dylan is in the sphere of politics. Originally heralded as the heir apparent to Woody Guthrie, Dylan was roundly condemned as an "opportunist" and a "sell-out" by the same people who championed his career. Counter culturists who bootlegged records chose Dylan as their first and main target. A.J. Weberman, a selfproclaimed revolutionary, even started a Dylan Liberation Front. The underground Weathermen chose thier name from "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Nowhere but in the radical press has Dylan been so violently attacked and yet so loudly praised. Several biographers and critics have attempted to explain this Janus-like relationship. Craig McGregor, perhaps, summed it up best writing "Dylan is a master of masks. If any proof were needed, his manipulation of the mass media and his deliberate choosing among images to present to the public are sufficient."1 Certainly there is a manipulative aspect to Dylan's career as Toby Thompson and Tony Scaduto have aptly illustrated in their biographies.2 However, Dylan's relationship with the Left, Right, and indeed, political Middle are not merely a symptom of the man's personality. Dylan is a child of the folk music revival which exploded upon the consciousness of American youth in the waning years of the 1950s. Triggered by "Tom Dooley," the revival found literally hundreds of guitar carrying youths wandering into the world of Greenwich Village. The Village was more than just a string of "basket houses" such as Gerde's where guitar pickers could exhibit their wares for a few dollars and an occasional free beer. The Village had an entire Zeitgeist. The Village was the home of Bohemianism and progressive politics going back to the days of John Reed, John Dos Passos, and the literary Masses. It was here that the Almanac Singers-Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and numerous othersheld the first hootennanies to pay their rent and help various political causes. The short-lived Weavers paid their dues at the Vanguard. Folk music as well as jazz dominated the MacDougal Street music scene. During the 1950s, folk music was mere replication of Child and Lomax ballads. Only Pete Seeger and a handful of ex-People's Songsters continued to topical song traditions of the post-war years. Some of the early Village artists looked with some degree of crypticness at topical song-writing. In 1959 Dave Van Ronk and Dick Ellington put out a satirical songbook title The Bosses Songbook: Songs to Stifle Flames of Discontent This is an obvious parody of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Little Red Songbook. In the lyrics, Van Ronk and Ellington mocked the agit-prop material of previous years. One verse commented tersely: Their material is corny But their motives are the purest And their spirit will never be broke, As they go right on with their great noble crusade Of teaching folk songs to the folk.3 While generally discarding the political ideology of the preceeding decade, singers did find the works of Woody Guthrie and other artists to be of considerable value. Guthrie was somewhat of a saint in the dingy folk clubs. There were few village performers that


POPULAR MUSIC IN SOCIETY did not toss in at least one "hard travelin" number from the Dust Bowl days. In the beginning, artists such as Dave Van Ronk, the New Lost City Ramblers, and other "interpreters" intermingled with veterans like Brownie McGee, Sonny Terry, and of course Pete Seeger. This was before the HUAC protest in San Francisco, the freedom rides, the SDS Port Huron statement. In the Village there also existed a small in-group of singers that dominated the scene. These were the people with recording contracts. Most of these contracts were with the small esoteric labels such as Prestige and Folkways. There was little money, but having a record out served as a badge of honor. In the early 1960s the underground heritage of the American Folk Music movement began to surface. Its uneasy alliance with the Left of the 1930s and 1940s suggested musical directions at a time when many collegiates were finally awakening from the deep sleep of the 1950s. Labor songs and the topical material of Guthrie, Seeger, and Leadbelly appeared contemporary in light of Selma and the Bay of Pigs. Still, only Seeger seemed to be carrying the political torch. There is a good deal of controversy as to who was the first topical songwriter in the New York milieu. Phil Ochs claims he was the first, and their is little reason to dispute that assertion. But it was Bob Dylan that drove the vehicle to stardom. Dylan's original involvement with topical material seems to have been motivated more by his roommate than by any deeply felt political convictions. Tony Scaduto suggests: Suze was working for CORE as a secretary and envelope stuffer. She spent many hours telling Bob about the realities of the black man's life as she saw it from her desk at CORE, where the phones rang day and night as field men called in to describe the latest segregationist brutalities. And so one of Dylan's first protest songs, "The Ballad of Emmett Till," was written for CORE.4 ' "The Ballad of Emmett Till" was a narrative depicting the murder of a young black youth in Mississippi. The true story was somewhat of a cause celebre in civil rights circles as Till's killers went free. While not as well written as some of his later material, the song did create a pattern. The motif was a social injustice and lack of public reaction, or better yet indignation to it. Songs like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Percy's Song," "Only a Hobo," "Oxford Town" and "Hollis Brown" were all in this vein. Dylan's concluding verse included "Your eyes are filled with dead man's dirt" and "Hattie Carroll" concluded with "Now is the time for your tears." His second "protest song, "The Ballad of Donald White," an executed black, ended with "When are some people gonna wake up..." This type of material greatly appealed to those involved in movement politics. A basic premise of any social movement is that if the false conscience of the public could only be eradicated, then social change would take place. Dylan's writing of topical and protest material revived in the Village an aura of the 1940s where the Almanac Singers sang for various causes, followed after the war by People's Songs, Inc. The role of the folksingerthen was fairly well defined by liberal and "progressive" politics. The balladeer was the social conscience of the people.* Phil Ochs labeled this orientation "the Guthrie-Seeger tradition." Needless to say, many veterans of the earlier years were only too happy to proclaim Dylan "the great white hope" of the 1960s. Dylan was to be the "new Guthrie," a role which he did not originally totally reject. In fact, his first album as well as official record company biography stressed his heritage of the Dustbowl Balladeer. Bob Dylan included "Song to Woody" as well as the following liner notes: "Although they are separated bythirty years and two generations, they were united by a love of music, a kindred sense of humor, and a common view toward the world." 6 Dylan's actual connection to Guthrie is different to establish. In fact, the famous Hospital visit has been denied by Dylan himself on several occasions. Some observers claim that even if Dylan did go to the Greystone Hospital in New Jersey, Woody was


HEY, HEY WOODIE GUTHRIE, I WROTE YOU A SONG incapable of communicating with h