Metamorphoses of Bob Dylan. Part I.

The historians of «The Beatles» point to the Bob Dylan’s influence on «The Beatles», which was already noticeable in the 1966 Revolver album. George Harrison himself claimed that the four played his discs to the holes. But here we should take a closer look not at Bob Dylan himself, but at what is behind him. Bob Dylan is certainly a talented author, but he wouldn’t be so popular if he hadn’t responded to the problems that worried the youth, and if he hadn’t offered the solution to these problems that it (the youth) had already found for itself.

Joe Hill’s Legacy

Bob Dylan came to rock from a folk-singing sphere that was much more politicized. American folk, is an older phenomenon than rock and roll, representatives of this style were much more closely associated with the «old left», with the working class. For example, the famous folk singer Pete Seeger was a member of the US Communist Party. Folk singers are like our bards, but much more politicized and bolder. Unlike Galich or Kim, they not only criticized or ridiculed the regime, but openly called on the audience to change it.

The first among folksingers, if not by seniority, then by value, was considered Joe Hill, who wrote songs and shaped history during the First World War. Joe Hill was not just a member, but one of the leaders of the American labor movement. American authorities fabricated a charge against him and shot him in 1915.

Songs for him were not just art, but a weapon of political struggle. A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over. And I maintain that if a person can put a few common sense facts into a song and dress them up in a cloak of humor, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read”1, — he said.

And his songs became music pamphlets. For example, in the song “The Preacher and the Slave”, written on the motif of the famous religious anthem, he exposed the preachers’ desire to reconcile the oppressed with injustice, to force them to abandon the struggle for a better life, promising them a posthumous retribution.

Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die

In fact, this song is a wonderful illustration of Marx’s thesis that religion «is the opium of the people.»
In another famous song
“Casey Jones the Union scab” Joe Hill condemned strikebreaking. This song was even translated into Russian and performed by Leonid Utyosov.

The Workers on the S. P. line to strike sent out a call;
But Casey Jones, the engineer, he wouldn’t strike at all;
His boiler it was leaking, and its drivers on the bum,
And his engine and its bearings, they were all out of plumb.

Casey Jones kept his junk pile running;
Casey Jones was working double time;
Casey Jones got a wooden medal,
For being good and faithful on the S. P. line.

After the death of Joe Hill, the song “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night”, which expressed the idea of the immortality of a national hero , was dedicated to him (this song was also translated into Russian):

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you and me.
Says I «But Joe, you’re ten years dead»
«I never died» says he.

In Salt lake city, Joe says I, in standing by my bed
«They framed you on a murder charge»
Says Joe «but I ain’t dead».

Bob Dylan and the Folksingers

The folksingers Woody Guthrie, Joe Glaser, Pete Seeger, Phil Oaks and others considered themselves the successors of Joe Hill. They performed Joe Hill’s songs and other popular folk songs, telling about the difficult life of the poor, and also composed their own. For example, during the World war II Woody Guthrie wrote the song “Miss Pavlichenko”, in which he admired the heroism of the Soviet woman sniper. And later Pete Seeger composed the song “Big Muddy”, in which he said that US leaders led the country into a quagmire, and it was time to stop obeying them.

Bob Dylan himself recognized the great influence of Woody Guthrie on his early work. Most of Dylan’s repertoire at first consisted of Guthrie’s songs. Dylan borrowed guitar techniques from him, imitated his manner of singing.
Folksinger songs (note: Phenomena similar to American folk can be noted in other countries
after the Second World War) were sometimes placard, but simple and understandable, they were not a way to have fun, but a call to action. Even when folksingers sang songs of non-political content, the public and political views of the performers colored these songs. In general, the fact of attending a concert of politically active folksinger was already a certain choice, especially since many songs at concerts were performed together with the audience.

Therefore, it was believed that folk was intended for a thinking, politically active audience, and rock and roll for fools and conformists. That is why many considered Bob Dylan’s transition to the rock and roll camp and a performance accompanied by electric instruments a betrayal, surrender to the mass cult, and Dylan’s performance with a rock band at the Newport Folk Festival was booed, and at a concert in Manchester an exclamation «Judas!» came from the crowd.

In the early sixties, Bob Dylan performed alone, accompanying himself with a guitar and harmonica. He performed folk songs such as “Lonesome River Edge” or “Back Door Blues”, as well as his own, blaming social injustice and wars, such as “Masters of War” and “With God on Our Side”. The last song ridiculed the hypocrisy with which the organizers of wars always declare God as their accomplice, and also briefly described the black pages of US history — from the genocide of the native americans to the readiness to wage a nuclear war against the Soviet people. The song “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” became a response to the Caribbean crisis, another warning against nuclear war.
Folk singer Joan Baez, with whom Dylan was then engaged, became a popularizer of Dylan’s work.

The zenith of fame and the transition to rock

The 1964 albums “Times They Are A-Changing” and “Another Side of Bob Dylan” revealed Dylan’s talent even more widely and confirmed his protesting, rebellious stance. For example, the songs “Blowin ‘in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin” became the anthems of left youth. Today, official scribblers are trying to make Bob Dylan of those years a fighter for “liberal values,” but this is complete nonsense. Young people who sang along to Dylan’s songs stood against bourgeois society and despised liberal rhetoric. The fact that, instead of revolution and building a socialist society, they received only a series of liberal reforms and slightly broader civil rights, does not mean at all that it was their ultimate goal. Young people were looking not for minor improvements within the existing society, but a radical alteration of this society itself, a change in its foundations. That’s why the “changes” of which Dylan sang in those years take on in his songs a cosmic scale and are compared to the “second coming”.

The influence of John Keats and Arthur Rimbaud is felt on these albums, and it affects the complication, deepening of literary images, and enrichment of the language. However, there is already a certain duality. If Rimbaud was the spiritual heir to the French Revolution, participated in the uprising of the Paris Commune, was an ardent opponent of the bourgeoisie and an enemy of philistinism, Keats was a singer of his own soul, fixated on his inner world, alien to civilian or humanistic feelings. The conflict between public and narrowly individual attitudes was once to be resolved in one favor or another. In the meantime, the new character of poetry required a new musical form.

In fact, Dylan was going to perform his songs accompanied by a rock band back in 1963 when recording the album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan ”, but the producers (whose influence on the work of Western rock musicians should never be forgotten) did not allow this. Show businessmen in charge of Dylan’s affairs changed their attitude toward rock at the turn of 1964 and 1965 after Dylan’s songs such as “Mr. Tambourine Man» played by rock bands, climbed to the top of the American charts.
It is worth noting that the transition from the
folksinger community to pop culture was, among other things, outlined by the breakup with Joan Baez and a wild romance with Edie Sedgwick — a socialite, and an actress of the Andy Warhol movie studio.

In new quality

Moving to the rock and roll camp, Bob Dylan showed that socially pointed, protest songs can also be performed “in electricity”.

The 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited”, Dylan’s first full-length rock album, features the song “Tombstone blues” — a stream of metaphors, including Jack the Ripper as chairman of the chamber of commerce, as well as a barefoot mother working in the factory. The very way of organizing the text in the form of a stream of images, a mindflow was well suited to reflect what was happening in the heads of the townsfolk: the surrounding reality seemed to them to be a carnival of the absurd. In imitation of this song, later Mike Naumenko will create his «Suburban Blues» (Пригородный блюз), and Boris Grebenshchikov — «Old Russian Blues» (Древнерусская тоска).

In the song “On the Road Again” from the album “Bringing It All Back Home”, released in the same year, Dylan depicts American society as a house full of crazy people, and ends the song with the words: “Then you ask why I don’t live here, honey, how come you don’t move?” Of course, the author does not mean emigration and the audience understood this very well.

Thus, it can be stated that the transition from folk to rock allowed the singer to free himself from the traditions and requirements of working protest music, allowed Dylan’s talent to flourish if we compare the clarity and even some naivety of songs like “Blowing in the Wind” or the distinctive tendentiousness of “Masters of War” with the fabulous diversity of“ Changing of Guards ”or the Meterlink-like mystery of “All Along the Watchtower”, it becomes obvious that Dylan went to a whole new level of creativity and opened up new facets in his talent.

By Dmitry Kosyakov

Metamorphoses of Bob Dylan. Part II.

The Beatles: A Secret of Success

Rock portraits. Part 1. Russian rock-music and world rock-music


1Letter to the editor of Solidarity (1914-11-29)


Metamorphoses of Bob Dylan. Part I.: 2 комментария

  1. An interesting look at an American, and eventually world icon. I doubt even Joe Hill started it, probably it started in negro spirituals as they slaved in cotton fields and such. Negro singers took the spirituals and turned them into the Blues, and Blues took a sideways leap to folk with Leadbelly helping lead the way.
    I do not pretend to be an expert, I am just an old fan, but like most other things the white men stole the black man’s thunder. And their music too. White wage slaves were little different from black slaves, and the music of the fields became the sound of the factories and industries.
    A good interpretation. Thank you.


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