Monday, February 21, 2011

Recently read: Political Folk Music in America from its Origins to Bob Dylan

This is an engaging history that focuses largely on the influences of three major figures: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan. Their careers are put in context, giving opportunity to tell many other stories as well, resulting in social and political history told in a compelling way. Only near the end does the author go astray by spending too much time on his own take on Dylan's lyrics in his early rock period. But this is a small diversion in an otherwise strong and focused story of social and political history.


As Pete Seeger tells the story, Woody asked Seeger where he could find a typewriter.  Seeger took him to a friend's sixth-floor apartment. Woody sat at the typewriter,   accompanied by a half gallon of wine, and his guitar. Using the  melody from the song "John Hardy," Woody worked through the night.  When Seeger arose the next morning, he found the wine bottle emptied,  Woody sleeping on the floor, and the ballad "Tom Joad" still in the typewriter.

Woody hated songs with slogans. He was a balladeer, a songwriter   who liked to tell a story about a real person and have any lessons  emerge from the story. He thought too many of the folk songs the Left  wrote and performed were about abstractions, not people.
Woody and Pete reacted to this new role in very different ways.  Woody, while wanting recognition, could never see himself as a popular  entertainer, as someone singing for someone else's pleasure rather than for  their political education. Pete was much more conflicted. He shared Woody's disdain for the corporate powers that put him in front of audiences.   But he thought once he got the audiences, he could shape them.
As quickly as fame had kissed them it slapped them. Three days after  the "This Is War" show, the New York World-Telegram  ran a story connecting   the Almanacs to the Communists. The New York Post had a story  the next day repeating the charges but with an emphasis on Songs for John  Doe.Bookings were canceled. So were future radio shows. The Morris  agency dumped them. Decca told them there would be no record.
Hammond was trying to find a singer who could carry on the tradition   that Hammond so admired. It wasn't that Dylan was the most gifted  musician. It was that he was angry at the country, and he could write. That  was it. Hammond had found his man. Dylan's new embrace of politics  after meeting Suze Rotolo led him to speak Hammond's language.

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