Folk Songs Containing Multitudes

bob dylan as art song classical music composer.

I wonder if the significance of Bob Dylan’s late career, say since the fittingly titled “Love and Theft” in 1997, is less the lyrics or Nobel Prizes or Never Ending Tour than his expansion of his approach to the “folk tradition” to include not only old Elizabethan balladry, but also mid-twentieth century blues and rhythm and blues. Just as he found his voice early in his career using older tunes to which he set new lyrics, often with bits of older lyrical references also scattered throughout, in the twenty-first century he has often taken old blues and rhythm and blues songs as scaffolding for new lyrics (with lots of lyrical fragments turning up too).

There were intimations of this broader repertoire of borrowing from the earliest moments of his musical career, but one thinks especially of many recent songs such as “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” on 2006’s Modern Times or “My Wife’s Hometown” on 2009’s Together Through Life. If in the early 1960s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” drew its power partly from the melody and harmonic setting of “Lord Randall,” then now “False Prophet” on the new My Rough and Rowdy Ways album gets its mojo from Billy Emerson’s 1954 Sun Records single “If Lovin’ Is Believin’.”

The approach Dylan uses for these songs suggests we might most accurately not think of him alongside other classic rockers from the 60s, but rather he is more like earlier classical music composers. They turned to folk music for source material and often outright appropriation that they then reset in art songs. So too does Dylan. In other words, he is up to something more like what Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Copland, Britten, and Bartok pursued with regard to traditional music, only now he has broadened the category of tradition to include blues composers and musicians such as Billy “The Kid” Emerson, Hambone Willie Newbern, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Memphis Minne, and Willie Dixon.

What’s most intriguing about this is that those songwriters themselves might also be considered alongside Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Copland, Britten, and Bartok. They too adapted vernacular sounds and lyrics for the art songs that we call pop music. They themselves were folk-inspired composers hiding out—or forced into—the recording studios of the independent label music business from the 1920s to the 1950s. So perhaps we might think of Dylan’s more recent compositional tactics as art song settings of art song settings of folk material.

At what point do these categories no longer make sense? The dials start to go into the red and we find the terms folk and art, traditional and commercial, the created and the appropriated, starting to bust out the speaker cones, distort the signal, and create new ambiguous overtones and rumblings. There’s something gnarly in that rough and rowdy feedback, indeed, but also something artful and slippery and beautiful.

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