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, Chronicles, to 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.