How Bob Dylan Changed American Folk Music
The 1960s were a watershed decade in many ways. The civil rights movement became prominent not only in the United States but everywhere. The Women’s Movement also saw its start in the United States in the ’60s and spread to many other countries. The Gay Rights Movement started in New York City and spread across the globe as well.
Politically, the ’60s were a time of upheaval as well. The Vietnam War catalyzed protest throughout the United States and Western Europe. The sixties also saw a slew of political assassinations.
So, it might seem trivial to talk about the sixties in terms of their impact in the field of entertainment, music, and sports. Still, they were watershed years in this area as well.
Casino gambling became ever more popular. The internet had not yet become part of everyone’s daily life so it would take some years for the Grande Vegas online pokies to achieve superstar status. Movies began to feature some moderate amounts of nudity setting the stage for the modern television and movies culture in which nudity has become entirely accepted.
The most important development in sports was the beginning of the high salaries paid to top performers in many sports. The second big development was the advancement of black athletes in every major American sport.
The prudery with which the 1960s began was also replaced by a more vibrant culture in the musical development of the ’60s. The decade began with the sappy sounds that had been the hallmark of popular music since the 1930s and developed all the way to the hard driving rock and heavy metal sounds that characterized the late 60’s.
Since space is limited, we will devote this article to the folk music scene and to the great controversy that the introduction of the electric guitar had on the folk music scene in the United States and then across the oceans to the rest of the world.
Two full generations have come and grown since the “authenticity” controversy of the early 1960s some fifty years ago. So the time is ripe to look at that controversy and the effect it had on music.
Short Overview of American Folk Music
The two biggest influences on American folk music have been the music of England, Ireland, and Scotland and the music brought to the US by black slaves from Africa.
The music of the British Isles has the well-known twang that we still associate with the music of Appalachia, bluegrass, and zydeco. It spawned the zither and the sound of the most famous protest music of the Great Depression in the nasal twang of Woody Guthrie. The ballads of Bob Dylan have their roots in Irish and Scottish music.
Black-American music was more of an ensemble sort of music. The slaves played together at night after their long, hard days of labor. This music spawned the banjo and the New Orleans style of jazz music in which there is no lead instrument and each instrument plays harmony, the blues which had relatively little musical innovation but sung about the trials of life on the slave plantation, and the spiritual which was created to give song to the Christianity the slaves had acquired from their slave masters and the ship crews that brought them to America.
By the 1930s each of these strands in the folk music tradition had grown more mature and expressive but they all used pure instruments: guitars, banjos, fiddles, percussion, wind, piano and so on. What had not yet been introduced was the electric guitar.
Dylan was a mercurial songwriter who could not be pigeonholed by the customs of American folk music. The taming of electricity was less than 100 years old by 1965 but it certainly had as much impact as the taming of fire had thousands of years earlier.
Musical traditions such as country music, jazz, blues, rock and roll, and others had accepted electricity as means to fashion a new sound but the leaders of the folk music scene in the US held out in favor of true and traditional folk music. Until Dylan introduced the electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the primary instrument of American folk music was the acoustic guitar.
In the hands of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, folk music in the US had become a musical way to express political sentiments. Long before the Vietnam War, Woody Guthrie sang about the downtrodden masses during the Great Depression.
Bob Dylan was seen as the newest troubadour of traditional folk music. His early songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times they are A-Changin’, and Tambourine Man indicated that the folk scene had found a new leader.
Then Dylan played at the Newport Festival with an electric guitar and everything changed. It is amazingly ironic that the people who had sung so eloquently about the oppression of the masses by the elite class would themselves become the self-appointed elite of the folk music scene.
Dylan had played to adoring crowds in 1963 and 1964 but he was booed by many throughout his performance at the festival in 1965. Five days before his performance at Newport, he had released Like a Rolling Stone, heavy with amplification. But the purists didn’t think that he would “sully” the festival with an electric guitar.
That was the source of the boos he heard as he and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band played.
The folk music elite never recovered from their opposition to electrical amplification. If anything can be learned from the debacle at Newport, it is that any elite is subject to hypocrisy including an elite that does everything it can to reveal the hypocrisy in others.
Within a few years, the folk music scene had evolved into the singer-songwriter scene in which amplification was accepted whole-heartedly. The Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 put the final nails in the “coffin” of “purist” folk music with Jimi Hendricks’ electric rendition of the American national anthem.
Folk Music Today
The tradition of singing songs that express hope for the future, a longing for freedom, criticism of entrenched power, and other important sentiments is alive and well but it is expressed in ways that the folk music elite were never able to come to terms with.
Today, the most important form of folk music is urban rap. The days when Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, and the Weavers played and sang are long gone