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A Twentieth-Century Orpheus Takes
Hold of a Lightning Bolt
1965 was an important year for American
music. American rock and roll had sent a ripple across the Atlantic
in the late Fifties. By 1965, that ripple had returned as a tidal
wave called the British Invasion. Between 1959 and 1964, American
rock had been transformed into pop music pap for teenyboppers
(sound familiar?). The best of American music was being written
and played in the underground.
Folk and blues music was on the upswing of a revival starting
in the very late Fifties while rock and roll fell into a rut.
Elvis joined the Army, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big
Bopper died in a plane crash, a payola scandal involving DJs
who were paid by record companies to play certain songs, Jerry
Lee Lewis' marriage to his young cousin turned people off, and
rock music seemed to lose momentum. Music lovers were looking
for something that was honest, pure and soulful - something that
had not been tainted by the dirty hands of the recording industry.
In New York's Greenwich Village, people like Joan Baez, Pete
Seeger, and the Kingston Trio were playing in coffee houses like
the Village Vanguard. Bob Dylan arrived on the scene from Minneapolis
in December of 1960. Dylan and his colleagues all hailed and
emulated Americaís favorite folk singer/songwriter Woody
Guthrie, but what separated Bob from the others was his brilliantly
poetic, and masterful command of language.
Bob Dylan became a kind of hero in the folk scene. He was young
(only 19), but his lyrics demonstrated the wit and wisdom of
an old poet. Like most of his compatriots, his lyrics were also
sarcastic and subversive commentaries on contemporary social
and political issues like civil rights, the escalating situation
in Viet Nam, and socio-economic inequity. Bob Dylan's psyche
not only had room for artful poetry and social invective, but
rock and roll as well.
The Beatles were a major influence on Bob Dylan musically. Though
he usually performed and recorded solo in the early years, he
still had a yearning to accomplish more with a band behind him.
This yearning came from the time when the Beatles were making
their first, and very deep, impressions on America. In the book,
Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography, biographer Anthony Scaduto
quoted Bob from 1971:
"[The Beatles] were doing things that nobody was doing.
Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies
made it all valid. You could only do that with other musicians.
Even if you're playing your own chords you had to have other
people playing with you. That was obvious. And it started me
thinking about other people."
In May of 1964, Bob Dylan toured England and was blown away by
what was happening there with rock and roll. Working class Englishmen
like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Eric Burdon,
John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey
had all picked up records by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Howliní
Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley and many others.
They were driven by those records to make their own style of
rock and roll and ended up reinventing it and revitalizing it.
When Dylan hit London, the major bands of the British Invasion
including the Rolling Stones, The Animals and, of course, The
Beatles, went to see him and they were influenced once again
to take their music to a higher level with more meaningful lyrics
and subject matter in their songs. The Brits werenít the
only ones who were influenced.
While in England, Bob Dylan spent some time with The Beatles
and ended up getting them high for the first time on marijuana.
Bob Dylan didnít come away from that time with just blood-shot
eyes and a grin. Upon his return to America, he began thinking
of ways to bring his folk music into a new aural medium. What
came out of his head were two albums released in 1965: "Bringing
It All Back Home" and "Highway 61 Revisited".
Robert Shelton, author of the biography, No Direction Home:
the Life and Music of Bob Dylan wrote: "Bringing It All
Back Home is not a series of intentionally difficult" song-poems.
The album title is a fine colloquial phrase which Dylan tattooed
onto our language. It reminds Beatles' and Stones' fans, who
vaguely thought rock was a British invention, that it all started
This album featured an electric backing band on most of the
songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Maggie's
Farm", and the songs that are solo and acoustic still maintain
a rhythm and feel that potentially could be backed by a rock
"Highway 61 Revisited" delves a little deeper into
the rock and roll realm with the albumís most famous offering,
"Like a Rolling Stone". Just as with "Bringing
It All Back Home", "Highway 61" brought out moans
and protests from folk purists who accused Dylan of selling out
because of their high commercial success and the widespread popularity
of some of the singles. It was also the first time Bob recorded
with Robbie Robertson and some other members of what would eventually
become The Band. Also playing on the recording were members of
the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
"Bringing It All Back Home", released in the spring
of 1965, caused rumblings among Bob Dylan's folk music fans.
There was a feeling that "the times they are a-changin'".
"Back Home" caused mere rumblings, but the Newport
Folk Festival of late July, 1965, brought on shouts of disapproval.
On the Sunday night of July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan took the stage
with an electric guitar and three members of the Paul Butterfield
Blues Band: guitarist Mike Bloomfield; bassist Jerome Arnold;
and drummer Sam Lay. They immediately began with a hard-edged,
rocking "Maggie's Farm" that brought out an incredulous
reaction from the audience. After the first song ended, only
a few people bothered to show their approval while the rest booed
the abrupt change in style. Dylan and his co-conspirators followed
up with his commercially popular "Like a Rolling Stone"
which only served to evoke, "sell out!" and "get
rid of the band!" They were finally booed off the stage
completely right after they tried to start "It Takes a Lot
to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" (from "Highway 61
In the unsettling silence, which was broken only by lingering
heckles, Dylan was handed his acoustic guitar and harmonica rig.
He stepped onstage again and heard the audience shouting for
"Tambourine Man". In order to placate them, he said,
"OK, I'll do that one for you." "Tambourine Man"
quelled the audience, and he followed up with "It's All
Over Now, Baby Blue" which served as Dylan's subtle way
of saying good-bye to his folk music background and promising
a new direction toward rock and roll.
That night in Newport, RI, Dylan heralded the arrival of a new
kind of music called folk-rock. It had been introduced by The
Animals when they recorded a rock version of the folk standard
"House of the Rising Sun". If the incident at the Newport
Folk Festival merely hinted at what was to come, "Highway
61 Revisited" confirmed Dylan's transformation when it was
released for sale the next month. The folk purists had lost their
hero to rock and roll.
What rock and roll gained, though, was a deeper understanding
of its power and force as a form of folk music. From 1965 to
the present day, rock bands strived to achieve the same socially
editorial, poetic and artistic standard set by Bob Dylan in his
folk days. Particularly in the late Sixties, rock and roll was
put to work for the protests against the Viet Nam War and racial
inequality. What the folk musicians had hoped to achieve in the
underground was being facilitated by the revitalized popularity
of rock music. Because Bob Dylan simply wanted to rock, he managed
to inspire rock musicians to create music that people could rally
behind in their efforts to end the war and institute social change.
Thanks to Bob Dylan, rock and roll went from the culturally rebellious
expression of individualism to the socially powerful voice for
change and artistic expression.
NOTES TO THE MASSES: I suggest listening
to "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", then "Bringing
It All Back Home" and "Highway 61 Revisited" (all
produced by Columbia Records) to get an aural illustration of
Bob Dylanís transition from folk to rock. Also, give an
ear to The Beatles' album "Rubber Soul" which demonstrates
the influence that Dylan had on their music. You can read about
Bob Dylan in Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography, by Anthony Scaduto
and No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, by Robert
Shelton. Always remember, "...the sun's not yellow, it's