Bob Dylan: Golden Footprints on the Path of Folk Music
Bob Dylan's style of music stands out with its unique sound and lyrical mastery. He walks the path of folk music with other greats such as Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead. These musicians share a talent and passion for folk music that has a lengthy history and no possibility of fading away.
"May your heart always be joyful. May your song always be sung."
A 21 year old recently conveyed to me that he believed that Bob Dylan was something close to a God on the basis of his pure artistic genius. Hearing this really stopped me in my tracks. For a 21 year old to connect with Dylan and songs written 60 years ago there must be something that carries over generations, this I find intriguing and not an easy feat.
I love Bob Dylan music and sometimes sing his songs while playing my guitar. The music is so powerful that even with my limited guitar playing abilities I seem to enter a deep spiritual place when I play and sing them. The songs are lengthy and tell a story that resonates deeply.
This got me to wondering, what is it about this legend that carries so much power and is now transcending generations? What artists consider Dylan to be their influence? Who was Dylan’s mentor?
I first discovered that Bob Dylan, as well as other musicians including Bruce Springsteen, credit Woody Guthrie as being their inspiration. So let's look at who Woody Guthrie was first:
Woody Guthrie a Folk Music Pioneer
Woody Guthrie grew up during the depression and seemed to have a natural affinity for music and easily learned to "play by ear". He began to use his musical skills around town, playing a song for a sandwich or coins. Guthrie easily learned old Irish ballads and traditional songs from the parents of friends. He grew as a musician, gaining experience by regularly playing at dances with his father's half-brother Jeff Guthrie, a fiddle player.
For some years he worked as a musician in radio and became connected with leftist, communist causes. After losing a radio job a friend invited him to come to NY. While in NY Guthrie was tired of the radio overplaying Irving Berlin's "God Bless America". He thought the lyrics were unrealistic and naïve. Partly inspired by his experiences during a cross-country trip and his distaste for "God Bless America", he wrote his most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land", in February 1940. He adapted the melody from an old gospel song. Woody signed the manuscript with “All you can write is what you see.”
He protested against class inequality in the fourth and sixth verses of the song:
As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, it said, "no trespassing." [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
Guthrie was looking for deeper meaning in the lyrics that related to the issues of the day and his songs reflect this desire. Guthrie’s predecessors, including Dylan and later Bruce Springsteen, were drawn to this method of song writing and carried it on.
John A. Lomax made folk song field recordings to preserve roots music. This song was recorded in 1939.
The Appalachian Influence
The folk music that Guthrie sang had Appalachian roots and before that a connection to European music. One Appalachian song called “The Ballad of Barbara Allen” was first printed in England in 1750 but had existed in oral versions at least a century before that. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Bruce Springsteen have performed Appalachian songs or rewritten versions of Appalachian songs.
Jerry Garcia singing "Shady Grove" a 18th-century Appalachian folk song.
Women Were the Original Singers
Appalachian music has its roots in Anglo Celtic folk ballads and instrumental dance tunes. Appalachian music was most often sung by women in the single person narrative with the purpose of keeping their minds occupied during the monotonous work that filled their day as well as pass on the families cultural heritage. The subject matter in songs such as “Barbara Allen” focused on sexual struggles. More than half of the American Ballads were about pregnant women who were murdered by their boyfriends.
Later male singers got into the act of singing and this is when it became ‘professional’. Broadside Ballads written and sold on the street by men also became part of the folk tradition. The songs focused on day-to-day topics like logging, ranching, mining and also more extreme events like disasters, murders and tragedies.
Bob Dylan the Legend
Bob Dylan tapped into the emotive wealth of folk music that already existed. He reinterpreted it and made it more relevant using his musical and lyrical talents.
Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941 in Duluth Minnesota and discovered an interest in folk music while studying at the University of Minnesota. In 1985 Dylan explained the attraction that folk music exerted on him during his university years:
"The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough ... There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms ... but the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings."
Dylan wanted to convey this deeper feeling and connect with the listener in more ways than just hearing a sound, feeling a beat or enjoying a melody. He wanted to provide this deep connection to the listener and it worked. Now, 60 years later there is another generation of people feeling this connection.
As stated by music writer Herb Bowie “More than any other rock artist, Bob Dylan was a poet with a guitar. While the music came first for many groups, Dylan was first and foremost a wordsmith. He helped open up the form to a broader range of subject matter, and to more daring and imaginative use of wordplay. Thanks to Dylan, other singer/songwriters were able to follow the path that he had blazed, and find appreciative audiences for their own works. Yet none surpassed Dylan in the breadth and artistry of their lyrics.”
For me, Dylan strikes a perfect yet difficult balance of having a simple melody, a soothing but earthy voice and deep, heartfelt lyrics.
"No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky." ~Bob Dylan
Musicians That Follow in the Folk Tradition
What comes next? Who are the musicians that walk in Dylan’s footsteps?
Some musicians, aside from the legions of folk singers like Pete Seger. Peter Paul and Mary etc, who have acknowledged Dylan's influence include: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Syd Barrett, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits. In the 1960s The Byrds recorded a version of "Tambourine Man" which is credited for giving the group their initial success.
Today’s Folk Inspired Musicians
Folk music has traveled a great distance; at least as far away as from the rustic kitchens of Europe in the 1600’s to the performance stages and digital recordings of today. To any Dylan or folk music lover this style of music is a connection to themselves and all of humanity. The message is both timely and timeless. Though Dylan stands out with his unique sound and as a master of lyric, the genre of folk music has a lengthy history and no possibility of fading away.
It amazes me how a man with only a guitar slung on his shoulder and a few tunes etched in his memory can reveal to me the map of my soul; no electricity required.
"Some people seem to fade away but then when they are truly gone, it's like they didn't fade away at all." ~Bob Dylan
- Cray, Ramblin Man, p. 28
- Cray, Ramblin Man, p. 44
- Klein, Woody Guthrie, p. 144
- Cray, Ramblin Man, p. 165
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Tracy Lynn Conway