The Folk Revival

The Folk Revival

“Man, when I was nine, I couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis Presley,” Springsteen remembers.

The first two Elvis Presley albums, both on RCA in 1956, neatly illustrate the basic dichotomy: Elvis Presley shows him onstage, eyes shut and mouth wide open, with his guitar thrust in the air, while Elvis has him seated in a staged pose, strumming his guitar. Here is the musician, they seem to say, and here are his musical instruments, his primary materials: his voice and his guitar.

In the 1960 songs in which women are part of the continuing love relationship, the male is clearly the dominant figure. The sixties were to see American popular music receive an unprecedented degree of attention. They began inauspiciously enough, dominated by the inoffensive sounds of “Philadelphia schlock”. This was a neutralized, watered-down version of rock’n’ roll.

This music accepted the emancipating changes wrought by Elvis and others in the fifties, but, unlike theirs, remained transparently artificial and commercial in intent. The music was predictable and unambitious, and, in reaction, many people began to seek something “authentic”, untainted by commerce.

Throughout the postwar period a small nucleus of musicians had followed a path that ran counter to the prevailing tastes of young and adult markets alike. They sustained and developed the part of the rural folk tradition (white and black) that had made a point of articulating its social grievances. This urban musical left wing was a mixture of an educated white middle class (Protestant and Jewish) and a “genuine” ex-rural proletariat.

Combining a fundamentalist approach to folk music with a form of political radicalism that drew heavily on the bitter experiences of the unions in the interwar period, their songs expressed two basic needs – the need for roots, and the need for change – in one form. The music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Almanac Singers and others demonstrated the stark contrasts between the phoneyness of contemporary popular music and the honesty of the traditional sounds, between the duplicity of current politics and an idealistic vision of justice. This radical and libertarian thrust of the folk revival found political form in the association between the music and the civil rights movement in the United States, as well as the anti-nuclear movement in Europe in the early sixties.

A major contribution to popular music of the ensuing “folk revival” lay in the increased importance of the lyrics, and the fact that the folk singer usually wrote his own material. Here one particular figure embodies both the achievements and the paradoxes of the genre. Bob Dylan’s songs, delivered in tones more nasal even than those used by earlier rural singers, specialized in a “shimmering collage of literary metaphor, alliteration and imagery” which musicians of an earlier age would have found incomprehensible. In the context of early sixties pop, through, this music opened immense possibilities for the use of language, and gave a sense of cultural tradition.

Bob Dylan began his career with some quarrelsome rhetoric, forceful but single-minded utterances. Dylan’s early lyrics are marked by fervor, righteous indignation, and a rigid dichotomy between them and us, villains and victims, haves and have-nots, treacherous women and betrayed men. To excoriate the wicked “Masters of War” (1962) and to affirm his own rectitude, Dylan presumptuously speaks for Christ: “Like Judas of old / You lie and deceive…. Even Jesus would never / Forgive what you do.” Tentatively, the young Dylan began to explore more complex dualities and — I will argue — dramatize more compelling quarrels with himself.

Dylan’s lyrics and his delivery also had the effect of moving the music firmly away from dance and providing the basis for the more intellectual reception of popular music characteristic of the later sixties. Once again, therefore, a tension became apparent, between music as supporting the domination of the explicit, literate tradition, and music as expressive of alternative, implicit ideas. Now, however, the poetry seemed to come “from within”, as if it were a companion the music had long sought; it was also frequently identified, if not always unequivocally, with politically radical sentiments, and this considerably broadened the range of subject matter.

Furthermore, Dylan’s complex lyrics were so lacking in the traditional qualities of popular music that they proved virtually unusable by the vested interests of the music industry. Dylan’s development indicates a seriously comic and self-ironic interrogation. In “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963), his apocalyptic vision includes the cameo appearance of a clown: “Heard the sound of a poet who died in the gutter, / Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley.” In this jejune jeremiad Dylan notices the crying clown without seriously regarding him as anything more than a fringe figure.

Gradually, in other songs, Dylan gives more license to clowns and fools, gargoyles and grotesques. Unleashing his humor strengthened his prophetic songs. Envisioning the last day, “When the Ship Comes In” (1963) blends salty yarn, scriptural idiom, and comic gusto: Dylan was learning how to make disparate, even contradictory, elements cooperate and cross-pollinate.

Next Page: The Protest Movement in the Sixties