Student Showcase: Chronicling Dylan’s Chronicles

lily orlan explores dylan as folk artist (or not).

This is the sixth student showcase of digital history audio podcast projects completed by students in the 2016 edition of my Digitizing Folk Music History seminar at Northwestern University. These projects are explorations in how scholarly history might take on new, multimedia forms. In this case, students probed the possibilities and challenges of the audio documentary format for historical interpretation. Collectively, we learned a lot from working on these projects (sometimes as much through how they do not quite work as how they did!).

Lily Orlan finds fresh perspectives on a much-studied topic: Bob Dylan’s controversial choice to “go electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. She draws upon our secondary readings in the seminar—Benjamin Filene’s study of folk music authenticity and romanticism; Robert Cantwell’s exploration of the folk revival—but most of all she selects two moments in Dylan’s memoir, Chroniclesto broaden the historical lens on Dylan’s much-mythologized choice to don a polka-dot shirt, sunglasses, and Fender Stratocaster and, backed by members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, turn up the volume on folk music while, supposedly, Pete Seeger frantically ran around backstage looking for an axe to cut the sound cables and save the purity of the folk revival.

First, Lily closely analyzes Dylan’s details of his time spent at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center after the young Minnesotan arrived in New York City in the 1961. Then she turns to Dylan’s recounting of his time spent with poet Archibald MacLeish in 1968, an unlikely encounter that, as with the Folklore Center, oriented Dylan toward a more epic sense of the past that transcended the immediate issues facing young people of the 1960s, for whom he was unwittingly supposed to be the “spokesman of their generation.” It is especially this different way of understanding and organizing history, suggested in the very title of Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles, that Lily notices and examines.

Here is podcast as annotation leading to interpretation. The value and pleasure of the project is following Lily’s close readings of Dylan’s book, and then her contextualizations of his details, which together with her own sensibility, create a far richer sense of the stakes of Dylan, the folk revival, and issues of authenticity, bohemianism, art-making, commercialism, and understandings of the historical past itself.

Download the PDF file .

One thought on “Student Showcase: Chronicling Dylan’s Chronicles

  1. Had some trouble with the internet and wasn’t sure if this went through. Thanks.

    Dear Ms. Orlan –

    I applaud your willingness to tackle such a complex question as “what is folk music?” As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge you chose to look at the question through the lens of Bob Dylan, where one is never sure what one is getting or going. The thought of it makes the mind real for sure.

    What I’d like to do with this uninvited assistance is to do a little correcting of the historical record, try to help you with a matter your say you don’t understand, and suggest some other relevant sources you might want to read for your own edification.

    First, is a statement in the introduction (I know this is not your work but it needs to be changed to agree with the historical record of the event.

    “Dylan’s much-mythologized choice to don a polka-dot shirt, sunglasses, and Fender Stratocaster and, backed by members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. . .”

    For his “electric” evening concert, Dylan wore a leather jacket and a solid color shirt of a style known at the time as a snap tab collar. The few color photos of the event at Flickr show the shirt to be a “melon” color. He did not wear sunglasses that evening. The polka dot shirt and sunglasses were worn at the sound check.

    The Paul Butterfield Blues Band as a whole did not back Dylan in his first electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. That backing group, however, did include three of the Butterfield Band’s members – Mike Bloomfield (guitar), Sam Lay (drums), and Jerome Arnold (bass) – along with Al Kooper (organ) and Barry Goldberg (piano).

    “Before the audience can ask “What the Pete Seeger,” the band roars to life, playing an electric version of the traditionally acoustic “Maggie’s Farm,” off of Dylan’s recent album “Bringing it All Back Home.” Dylan’s song, which was recorded on January 15, 1965, and released on March 22, 1965 can hardly be considered “traditional.” “Maggie’s Farm” was not traditionally acoustic; it was an electric-backed number written by Dylan and featured on “Bringing It All Back Home.” You may be thinking of “Down on Penny’s Farm” by The Bently Boys (1929), a traditional song that appears on the Anthology of America Folk Music

    You express having some difficulty with Izzy Young’s description of Dylan as “saying more through his voice than through his words,” saying: “Exactly what this means, I can’t be sure.” I hope the following can dispel some of the confusion for you:
    “The same was true of the way Dylan used his voice as he strived to turn it into a musical instrument. Words would have meaning in their sounds as well as their definitions. As Dylan said of his work, “The semantic meaning is all in the sounds of the words.” These sounds – and their meanings – would, in turn, contribute to the overall process of creating a certain emotional state of mind in the listener and the performer alike.

    “Singer Billy Joel saw this as one of Dylan’s great triumphs: “I always had a deep-seated suspicion that a lot of what Dylan was talking about wasn’t anything – it just sounded good. He was using words like a musician would use notes to create a certain sound. A guitar player would use a fuzz-box to get a distortion. It was still a guitar playing; it was just a distorted guitar. I think Dylan found the fuzz-boxes in the English language. I think a lot of it is nonsense. But a lot of creative, well-done nonsense. . . Dylan was musical in a lyrical way.”

    It wasn’t just Dylan either:

    Grace Slick also likened the way she sounded to conveying meaning: “I don’t think of myself as a singer. When I get out on stage, I become a musical instrument that just happens to have words coming out of it. If you want to translate the lyrics into an integral component of a song, you have to play the lyrics like an instrument. Sometimes you perform them for the meaning of the words, and other times you have to project them as sounds in reaction to the sounds of the other musicians, or match an intonation to the feeling of the lyric.” Critic Ralph Gleason called Slick’s voice “one of the finest musical instruments being played today.

    This characteristic also informs and powers Slick’s singing on “Somebody to Love” on Jefferson Airplane’s Bless Its Pointed Little Head album. Her “emphases seem indifferent to the content (i.e., meaning) of the words. They seem to be just sounds to her and one doubts that their meaning occurs to her during the entire piece. Indeed, what is the meaning of lines such as “The garden flowers are dead/Your mind is full of bread”? Yet she sings these lines with apocalyptic passion.”

    Dylan’s February 1966 “Playboy” interview contains some insight about folk music and may have provided some good background on Dylan’s thoughts. The interviewer was Nat Hentoff:

    PLAYBOY: Do you feel that acquiring a combo and switching from folk to folk rock has improved you as a performer?

    DYLAN: I’m not interested in myself as a performer. Performers are people who perform for other people. Unlike actors, I know what I’m saying. It’s very simple in my mind. It doesn’t matter what kind of audience reaction this whole thing gets. What happens on the stage is straight. It doesn’t expect any rewards or fines from any kind of outside agitators. It’s ultra-simple, and would exist whether anybody was looking or not.

    As far as folk and folk-rock are concerned, it doesn’t matter what kind of nasty names people invent for the music. It could be called arsenic music, or perhaps Phaedra music. I don’t think that such a word as folk-rock has anything to do with it. And folk music is a word I can’t use. Folk music is a bunch of fat people. I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die. It’s all those paranoid people who think that someone’s going to come and take away their toilet paper – they’re going to die. Songs like “Which Side Are You On?” and “I Love You, Porgy” – they’re not folk-music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead. Obviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery – just plain simple mystery – is a fact, a traditional fact. I listen to the old ballads; but I wouldn’t go to a party and listen to the old ballads. I could give you descriptive detail of what they do to me, but some people would probably think my imagination had gone mad. It strikes me funny that people actually have the gall to think that I have some kind of fantastic imagination. It gets very lonesome. But anyway, traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected. Nobody’s going to hurt it. In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player. But like anything else in great demand, people try to own it. It has to do with a purity thing. I think its meaninglessness is holy. Everybody knows that I’m not a folk singer.

    PLAYBOY: Some of your old fans would agree with you – and not in a complimentary vein – since your debut with the rock-‘n’-roll combo at last year’s Newport Folk Festival, where many of them booed you loudly for “selling out” to commercial pop tastes. The early Bob Dylan, they felt, was the “pure” Bob Dylan. How do you feel about it?

    DYLAN: I was kind of stunned. But I can’t put anybody down for coming and booing: after all, they paid to get in. They could have been maybe a little guitar and not so persistent, though. There were a lot of old people there, too; lots of whole families had driven down from Vermont, lots of nurses and their parents, and well, like they just came to hear some relaxing hoedowns, you know, maybe an Indian polka or two. And just when everything’s going all right, here I come on, and the whole place turns into a beer factory. There were a lot of people there who were very pleased that I got booed. I saw them afterward. I do resent somewhat, though, that everybody that booed said they did it because they were old fans.

    PLAYBOY: What about their charge that you vulgarized your natural gifts?

    DYLAN: What can I say? I’d like to see one of these so-called fans. I’d like to have him blindfolded and brought to me. It’s like going out to the desert and screaming and then having little kids throw their sandbox at you. I’m only 24. These people that said this – were they Americans?

    I have found the following three observations to be of great help in clarifying my thoughts abut folk music:

    While the folk establishment would have him “wear Iron Boy overalls and sing songs about Hattie Carroll” and live in the world of the 1930s leftist radical, he sought relevance through the development of a vision and a voice that would allow him to communicate the unvarnished reality of what was happening to him in the here and now. (“Quoted phrase about Iron Boy overalls by Mike Bloomfield)

    Any kind of rock music is what I call high velocity folk music. (Said by David Lee Roth.. Yes, that David Lee Roth)

    If the folk are electrified shouldn’t their music be electrified, too? (I said that)

    Thanks for letting us read/listen to your work and comment on it. Keep it up.

    Peace

    Ed del Vecchio

    P.S. Watch out for those facts or they’ll bite you in the ass every time. Also do not ever read a book abut Dylan written by an English professor. They want to do the same old things with something new.

    Good luck.

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