What Is Folk Music? Bob Dylan Edition

Bob Dylan weighs in during a February 1966 interview for Playboy Magazine, written (and possibly embellished by) Nat Hentoff:

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.

Folk Songs, and More Folk Songs!, WBC TV, with Bob Dylan and others (May 1963)

2 thoughts on “What Is Folk Music? Bob Dylan Edition

  1. Don’t forget that in Bob’s legendary December 3, 1965, KQED interview he had this to say about what folk music is: in response to a question about how he defines folk music:

    Mr. Dylan, how would you define folk music?
    As a constitutional re-play of mass production.

    Would you call your songs “folk songs?”

    Are protests songs “folk songs”?
    I guess, if they’re a constitutional re-play of mass production.

    What you have here is a passage from the second “version” of the Playboy interview. Here’s the story:

    Hentoff: I was also responsible in part for a notorious interview with him. It has been anthologized. I did a Playboy interview with him. I had done other Playboy interviews with Joan Baez and the anti-war people. I did a normal interview with Dylan at Columbia Studios. Playboy had a proviso that I should never have agreed to. When they were ready to run an interview it had to be shown to the subject in case that person had something to object to. So one Saturday morning I was sitting ready to type and the phone rings. It’s Bob Dylan. He is furious. “They changed some of my stuff, I won’t allow that.” I said, “You know the deal with that. You just tell them not to run it.” Dylan said, “No. We are going to do another interview right now.” Fortunately I had a tape recorder on the desk. When we started the interview, I realized I was going to be the straight guy. Dylan was improvising surrealistically and very funny. I don’t know if you have ever seen the interview.

    (The original is available on a 2 CD bootleg version)

    And never to be forgotten are these words from David Lee Roth: “Any kind of rock music is what I call high velocity folk music.”

    And remember:

    Help Make America Grate Again
    Throw away your food processors.


  2. I am so pleased that we can include David Lee Roth in the folk revival. Yes!

    I had never heard that quotation before—”a constitutional re-play of mass production.” That is really rich. Thanks, as always!

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