Bob Dylan’s Blues: Tradition vs. Innovation
By: Zach Diamond (December 2012)
Moving to Greenwich Village as a curious 19-year-old in 1960, Bob Dylan began his long career busking through New York City and playing traditional folk songs to anyone who would listen. He was one of many folk troubadours in the Village singing for little or no money at various clubs, yet, after he began writing his own songs, Dylan was the one to gain extreme popularity and leave a monumental legacy in music and civil rights. At the beginning of his career, however, Dylan received heavy criticism for becoming popular by imitating other influential folk musicians. While his societal and musical impact is now indubitable, many music historians, Dylanologists, and literary critics argue that his persona is a masquerade inundated with pretense and exaggeration. But if Bob Dylan’s whole facade was nothing but a fake character, how did he write his incredibly pithy lyrics of vivid expressions and compelling messages? Bob Dylan did not achieve lyrical proficiency by imitating his idols. Rather, Bob Dylan balanced tradition and innovation to maintain familiar sounds of the past while reinventing folk music and its purpose.
In this sense, Bob Dylan accomplished what all folk musicians attempt to do: balance tradition and innovation. Because folk music tradition consists of echoing sounds of the past, folk musicians attempt to add their own flavor to a previously created sound. As a result, folk musicians have struggled since the late 1950s to gain fame in the popular music scene. However, with the recent rise of musicians like Bright Eyes, Devendra Banhart, and the Avett Brothers, are we witnessing another folk revival? While today’s music scene is flooded with electronic noises, vulgar raps, and fabricated teenaged pop groups, there must be a portion of young adults longing for authentic tunes. Just like Bob Dylan resurrected sounds of Woody Guthrie, folk musicians today attempt to bring back the familiar sounds of Bob Dylan while adding hints of their own identity.
Before Bob Dylan had a chance to make a name for himself, Anthony Scaduto, in the biography Bob Dylan, argues that Dylan masked himself in pretense when he moved from Hibbing, Minnesota to Greenwich Village, NYC in 1960. After first hearing Woody Guthrie, Dylan became obsessed and began emulating him in his mannerisms and music. As Dylan’s old friend Jennifer Warren recalls, “He knew more Guthrie songs than Guthrie knew. He had this Guthrie accent...Why the hell would a kid his age want to be somebody else?” (50). Soon, Bob Dylan started playing folk songs for local clubs around the Village, making a name for himself as a new folk singer. Scaduto shows Dylan’s innocence and immaturity as he excitedly soaked up the Village’s music scene, calling Dylan a “lost little boy” (44). When Woody Guthrie’s health declined due to Huntington’s disease, Bob Dylan began visiting him in the hospital, singing him songs and conversing with him. As Dylan met other folk musicians visiting Guthrie, his reputation grew. Scaduto describes Dylan’s tendency to lie to fellow folk musician’s by making up “many tales” to make it sounds like “he’d been on the road for many years” (51). Despite being a charlatan, his ability to play songs impressed his listeners. Woody Guthrie himself once said, “Pete Seeger’s a singer of folk songs, not a folk singer. Jack Elliot is a singer of folk songs. But Bobby Dylan is a folk singer. Oh, christ, he’s a folk singer all right” (56).
Woody Guthrie had a clear perception of Bob Dylan. Dylan had no intent to mimic or plagiarize -- he was merely searching for an identity that fit. And, according to Woody Guthrie, he found it. While Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and the dozens of other Greenwich Village folksters sang traditional songs that pleased ears but lacked potency, Bob Dylan submerged his entire identity and being in folk music culture to emerge with a cigarette-smelling cape of renewed originality and poetic rasp. He didn’t lie about his experiences because he wanted to be somebody else; he lied to create an image that seemed intriguingly weathered, yet excitingly fresh. By trying to seem older than he was, Dylan began balancing innovation and tradition at the dawn of his career.
Referred to frequently as today’s Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, the lead singer of Bright Eyes began his career in a similar fashion. Chris Norris, in his article “Conor Oberst’s Mystical Awakening,” points out that “Oberst, who admires Bob Dylan as much for his nomadic lifestyle as his songs, keeps moving, because moving keeps him sane” (1). While Dylan grew up in a small town in Minnesota, Oberst grew up in the similarly plain Nebraska. Perhaps a symbol of changing times, Dylan chose to run away to New York; Oberst, to California. In an interview with Chris Norris, Oberst remarked, "Dylan's obviously a great example of keeping everything fluid, never staying in one position, I totally adhere to that philosophy" (1). Sustaining a career since 1995 with Bright Eyes, Oberst has successfully created a life for himself in folk music -- a feat not easily accomplished nowadays. Like Bob Dylan, his songs consist mainly of strummed chords and many provide introspective messages of life and love. He even sings with a similar unrefined voice that complements his lyrics perfectly. Yet one particular trait of Oberst’s music is completely foreign to Bob Dylan: his elegiac angst that digs into his listeners’ minds making them question whether its folk music or angry grunge that reveals ardent emotions unbeknownst seconds before the music began. While Dylan’s imperfect voice sounds like it has been chapped by cigarettes, Oberst’s seems to have been forged in the smithy of despondency. “And I want to scream out that it all is nonsense. All your life’s one track, can't you see it's pointless?” bellows Oberst in his song “Waste of Paint” as he bemoans the wonted, superficial routines that cloud our daily vision. Sounds of potential tears drip through the cracks of his perturbed voice. Oberst took the reflective quality Bob Dylan added to folk music and lit it on fire to add his own unique twist. Conor Oberst became one of the more famous folkm usicians of today by balancing Dylan’s heavy influence with his own innovation of emotional fury.
While Conor Oberst uses his distinguishing melodramatic voice to preach messages from the maw of malaise, David Yaffe, in his literary critique Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, asserts that Bob Dylan utilized his distinct voice to separate himself from other musicians. Yaffe argues for Dylan’s idiosyncrasy by recalling the words of English poet Philip Larkin, who “memorably described Dylan’s ‘cawing, derisive voice,’ [which] he provisionally meant as a compliment” (1). Yaffe goes on to say that “Dylan’s influences seem to emanate from all over,” though he notes that accusing him of being an imitator is “an act of aesthetic anachronism” (2). Although Dylan may be heavily influenced by folk musicians of earlier decades, the fact that Dylan projects their sounds years later makes his folk revivalism an innovation. Yaffe writes: “Dylan staked out a cultural space that was well trodden, but in a combination unlike anyone else’s” (2). Yaffe points out that even though Dylan’s influences are obvious, without the “full power” of “that derisive caw,” there would be “no Leonard Cohen, no Lou Reed, no Patti Smith, no punk rock, no grunge. The entire persona of Bruce Springsteen would have to be reinvented from scratch. Neil Young would be unthinkable” (4). His evident, numerous influences will never be outnumbered by the myriad musicians he inspired: “Dylan didn’t invent all the things he was doing,” Yaffe asserts, “but he consolidated, assimilated, and with that relentless voice became one of the most influential forces in American Song” (5). Bob Dylan did not create folk music; he reinvented it.
David Yaffe’s points prove that Bob Dylan mastered the art of balancing tradition and innovation. While Dylan would be the first one to admit that his musical style was derived from those of many great folk musicians, he pieced together his influence’s strengths in an original fashion. A modern singer-songwriter who could learn from this ability is Andy Cabic, lead singer of San Francisco folk group Vetiver. Eric Grandy, writing for indie music review site, Pitchfork, gave Vetiver a 6.4 out of 10 rating on their latest album, describing it as “great background music” that “[doesn’t] grab your attention as much as gently hold your interest.” Sure, these aren’t necessarily bad remarks, but for a genre that clearly doesn’t dominate today’s music scene, hearing Vetiver’s sleepy sounds on the radio is far-fetched. Andy Cabic struggles to balance tradition and innovation. While his voice is warm and clean, his guitar, summery and smooth, he fails to distinguish himself from the folk musicians who influenced him. As Eric from music blog site Maimed and Tamed asks about Cabic, “Who is this guy trying way too hard to be like Bob Dylan?” As Woody Guthrie would put it, Andy Cabic is a singer of folk songs, not a folk singer. Although Vetiver has a cult following of indie folk enthusiasts, it lacks an innovative quality to differentiate itself from other indie folk groups. Perhaps Vetiver’s traditional approach explains why former collaborator Devendra Banhart stopped recording with Vetiver after its first album in 2004.
Since Devendra Banhart left Vetiver, he has released four studio albums and signed with major record label Warner Music Group in 2009. While all aforementioned musicians are grouped into the folk music genre, Banhart, along with a couple other musicians, have pioneered a new subset: freak folk. Freak folk not only maintains the familiar sounds of folk music’s groundbreakers, but also interweaves auditory oddities to keep its listeners on their toes. Devendra Banhart offers a prime example of freak folk. His lyrics discuss topics from taking his teeth out dancing (“This Beard is for Siobhan,” Rejoicing in the Hands) to fathering dozens of Chinese children (“Chinese Children,” Cripple Crow) and everything in between. Also, as Dylan and Oberst both have their vocal quirks, Banhart fancies projecting a goatish vibrato when he bawls out a high pitch. However, despite his copious eccentricities better fitting almost any description than mainstream, Devendra Banhart achieved the difficult task of being signed to a major label as a folk musician. Banhart has the ability to balance tradition and innovation, and because of that, has made a career for himself in folk music.
While today’s pattern in folk music seems to be that peculiarity is imperative, Bob Dylan himself has an interesting take on the topic. ''Nowadays, you go to see a folk singer -- what's the folk singer doin'?'' Dylan asked in an interview, ''He's singin' all his own songs. That ain't no folk singer. Folk singers sing those old folk songs, ballads.'' Dylan reminds us of the roots of folk tradition. Before rushing forward with innovation, a folk singer must first indulge in sounds of the past. In his eyes, folk tradition has no plagiarism laws. Rather, melodies and lyrics should be sung by many people and passed down through generations. Although he complains about the disappearance of folk tradition, in many ways, he was the root cause of it. While the other Greenwich Village troubadours continued to sing tunes of the past, Dylan added his own twist to folk music. In an article about the interview, Anthony DeCurtis writes, “Dylan’s impact was so profound that it gave birth to a singer-songwriter movement founded on notions about authenticity derived not from popular music -- where interpretive singers and professional songwriters had collaborated successfully for decades -- but from romantic poetry.” Dylan transformed folk music tradition from uniquely reciting past songs to spilling the deepest emotions contained within him over fingerpicked guitar. However, he still advocates the significance of tradition. DeCurtis states that Dylan created the “combination of plain-spokenness and emotional urgency that...characterized both Mr. Dylan's work and that of the innumerable performers who sought to emulate him.” The chain reaction of introspective folk singers that ensued from Dylan’s innovations redefined not only folk music, but lyrics in every genre. Nevertheless, according to Bob Dylan, original songs should still be imbued with a strong sense of tradition.
North Carolina based folk band, the Avett Brothers, offer an example of cohering with traditional music as they attempt to revive music of their heritage: Appalachian folk. Albeit active since 2000, the Avett Brothers struggled to gain popularity until 2008, when they signed with record label American Recordings. Music reviewer Will Hermes, in his article “Avett Bros: From String Band to Soft-Rock Force,” describes their album following their major record deal, I and Love and You, as an attempt to further balance tradition with innovation. “I and Love and You,” Hermes writes, “confirmed the Avett Brothers' transformation from quasi-bluegrass combo to modern soft-rock force” (1). Prior to signing with American Recordings, the Avett Brothers’ sound was marked heavily by twangy banjo and screeching voices that captured the essence of traditional Appalachian music. Afterwards, their intention to make a dent in the pop music scene became evident. Their raw noises of banjo strings snapping against their bushy beards were replaced with delicate banjo nicely complementing melodic piano. While their grip around Appalachian music loosened, their ability to interject modern and original sounds greatened. And the response from their audience was ebullient. Peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 best selling albums and No. 1 in folk albums, the Avett Brothers finally emerged into the pop music scene. After appearing on television shows such as Late Show with David Letterman, and Austin City Limits, and after performing with Bob Dylan in the 2011 Grammy Awards, the Avett Brothers gained national publicity. Their most recent album, The Carpenter, released in late 2012, received a similar response, ranking No. 4 on the Billboard 200 best selling albums. “The Carpenter,” Will Hermes states, “does an even better job balancing their roots charm and pop ambition, with straightforward and sturdy songcraft that holds up even when these polite Southern boys' lyrics tilt toward corn.” The Avett Brothers harmonize innovation and tradition almost as well as they harmonize their voices. Being one of the only true folk bands today to gain quality radio air time, the Avett Brothers epitomize the strategy to revive folk music. While their roots in Appalachian music remain sturdy, their musical tree grows tall with ingenuity. Like Bob Dylan remolded Dust Bowl blues to fit with his time, the Avett Brothers have amazingly reworked Appalachian folk music in such a manner that it can be considered pop music.
David Pichaske, author of Song of the North Country, describes the goal for which both the Avett Brothers, Bob Dylan, and all other folk musicians aim to achieve, saying that it is a natural struggle for poets to balance tradition and innovation. He compares Bob Dylan to any aspiring poet by turning to T.S. Elliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” saying, “Poets strive to be innovative, because we value them for how they are different from their predecessors — how they find their own material and their own voice, and speak to the present generation” (1). Yet, at the same time, as T.S. Eliot writes, “We shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously” (2). Pichaske analyzes Bob Dylan’s evolution in the early 1960s through Eliot’s lens, remarking that as Dylan gained popularity, and when he switched from acoustic to electric, “innovation won out over tradition” (2). In Pichaske’s perspective, Dylan does not imitate his influences, he merely struggles to find the equilibrium between innovation and tradition that Eliot states all poets strive to find. Dylan’s proclivity to preserve the sounds of Dust Bowl folk songs only shows his respect for those who influenced him. As his music matured, Dylan’s innovation protruded through his committed ties to the past. Pichaske quotes Eliot, “‘What is to be insisted upon...is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career” (3). Pichaske recognizes Bob Dylan’s evident influences, but refuses to criticize him for them.
Essentially, T.S. Eliot elucidated the folk musician’s struggle decades before Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Eliot, and Bob Dylan picked up their guitars. When looking at music as poetry, it becomes obvious that rewording the messages of existing poems is pointless, yet acknowledgement of past masterpieces remains important. The same holds true for folk music. Both folk music and poetry being traditions that have lasted for hundreds if not thousands of years, an attempt to create a completely new version of either would not only be impossible, but sophomoric. With today’s music blasting newly developed noises of computerized trills, a musical void awaits to be filled with traditional sounds before they are lost all together. Following the lead of Conor Oberst, Devendra Banhart, and the Avett Brothers, today’s folk musicians need to recognize the urgency to perpetuate a genre whose sounds are not ersatz and whose lyrics do not preach promiscuity, insolence, and irresponsibility. Whether it is Conor Oberst lamenting of distinguishing the mundane from the meaningful (“At the Bottom of Everthing,” I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning), Devendra Banhart warbling of always being young (“I Feel Like a Child,” Cripple Crow), or the Avett Brothers serenading of the decision to get married (“January Wedding,” I and Love and You), folk music will forever teach only the most significant values. Through folk music, past lessons can be handed down to today’s generation to preserve vital verities of creativity, identity, and love. While we may never find the key to delivering these messages globally, most of today’s popular music inhibits our ability to try. By conserving an ancient music tradition as we adapt it to modern times, through song, we can chase the key to peace as it gusts by us. For as Bob Dylan has taught us, “the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
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