Sunday, January 29, 2017
Dylan Goes Electric
This is the opening of Elijah Wald's exhaustive but enlightening Dylan Goes Electric, recounting the night that "Split the Sixties." It was certainly a pivotal moment in popular music history, but I'm not sure it had a wide effect on popular culture in general. "What happened at Newport in 1965 was not just a musical disagreement or a single artist breaking with his past. It marked the end of the folk revival as a mass movement and the birth of rock as the mature artistic voice of a generation, and in their respective halves of the decade both folk and rock symbolized much more than music."
The book sets up two poles--Dylan and Pete Seeger. Wald begins the book with chapter-length biographies of both men. Seeger was the son of a musicologist, a Harvard grad who was at the forefront of folk music from the '30s on, singing with Woody Guthrie in The Almanac Singers and then with The Weavers. He quit that band over doing a cigarette commercial: “the job was pure prostitution . . . [and] prostitution may be all right for professionals—but it’s a risky business for amateurs.” Seeger was an almost saintly figure in the folk music revival of the late '50s and early '60s, when young people took up the style again, but he had his faults, and could be viewed as holier-than-thou.
Dylan, of course, came from Hibbing, Minnesota, though he invented many lives for himself, such as claiming he rode the rails as a hobo or grew up on a ranch. He liked rock and roll, but eventually drifted to folk music: "For Dylan, as for Pete Seeger, the attraction of folk music was that it was steeped in reality, in history, in profound experiences, ancient myths, and enduring dreams. It was not a particular sound or genre; it was a way of understanding the world and rooting the present in the past." He audaciously went to visit Woody Guthrie, who was dying in a hospital in New Jersey, and sang songs with him.
Folk music was booming then, but like most genres of music, there were fierce arguments. There were purists, who detested the college boy bands like The Kingston Trio, who had lots of hits but little authenticity. Not much has changed, all the way through the punk movement artists were accused of selling out. Dylan was seen as a purist at first, mostly singing ballads written by others, but when he started to write his own music and became a drawing card which made him suspicious in the eyes of others.
The Newport Folk Festival began in 1960, dovetailing the Jazz Festival. Wald gives a history of it that may be a little too thorough for some; it seems like he lists every act that ever appeared there. He does give us a taste of what it was like there--true believers, hanging out with musicians of every stripe. There is a supporting cast of characters, such as Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Albert Grossman, their manager, who basically was the brains behind the whole movement. "Grossman was another beast entirely: he had started one of the first folk nightclubs, Chicago’s Gate of Horn, coproduced the first two Newport Folk Festivals, and hung out on the Village scene, so he was very much a folk world insider, but he was also a brilliant and gleefully rapacious businessman who enjoyed distinguishing himself from the homespun Bohemians with officious displays of wealth and power."
Dylan's songwriting soon set him apart. He wrote "Blowin' in the Wind," which Peter, Paul, and Mary turned into a big hit. He wrote complex masterpieces like "The Times They Are a-Changin'," and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," "It Ain't Me Babe," and "Mr. Tambourine Man." Many of them were covered by other artists, making him a millionaire. He was set up as a spokesman for his generation: "He was more than a musician, more than a poet, certainly more than an entertainer: he was the Zeitgeist, the ghost-spirit of the time," but he didn't want to be. He had trouble accepting his fame: "He didn’t know what to make of people wanting his autograph—he liked it, sometimes, but it was weird."
The fateful night finally arrives and Wald sets some things straight--there were other electric acts at Newport before, including the Chambers Brothers and the Butterfield Band. Dylan, though, had never performed with a band before. On that night, dressed like a rock star, he used some of the Butterfield Band, particularly Mike Bloomfield on guitar. They hadn't really rehearsed. Dylan was introduced by Peter Yarrow, who was sort of stage managing the event. Dylan wanted the music loud, and it drowned out his signing. This enraged Seeger backstage, who is said to have gone looking for an axe to cut the cables. Wald disputes this, as Seeger did. He wasn't against electrification so much that the music was too loud to hear the words. Someone witnessed Seeger weeping in his car, saying "He had so much promise."
Dylan basically left the folk world and became a rock star, though he has constantly reinvented himself in the last fifty years. The Newport Festival ended after 1969, though it was revived in 1985. Seeger became one of America's most beloved elder statesman (although that seems too stuffy a word) before he died in 2014. Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, thought that post-dates this book.
For Dylanologists and folk music devotees I highly recommend this book. For those who don't care about Dylan or folk music one way or the other, you will probably wonder what the fuss was all about. Wald puts it this way: "the Dylan who presided over what most of us remember as “the sixties”—the Vietnam era, the campus riots, the summer of love, the hippies, the drug culture, the Weathermen—was truly a Zeitgeist, the ghost of a sacrificial Dylan who stood before the elders in the temple of folk music and was condemned, scourged as he carried his electric cross up the Gethsemane of his yearlong tour (the fan in Manchester who called him Judas had it backwards), and finally died so rock could be redeemed."