Editor’s note: In case you missed the airing of No Direction Home: Bob Dylan on PBS, it is available to purchase here as a two-disc DVD.
In the early 1960s, the United States was in a “police action” that not many of its citizens would support by the end of the decade; the counter-culture was picking up supporters; and the youth of the nation were moving decidedly left as they rejected their parents’ baby-boomer values. This was the part of history that included the assassinations of the Kennedys and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the meteoric rise of the Beatles, the proliferation of the Beat poets and the advent of an artistic explosion in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Into this world stepped Robert Zimmerman, a strange sort of folkie musician from Hibbing, Minn. Steeped in the traditions of Woody Guthrie folk and country music, Zimmerman was to become known to the world as Bob Dylan.
Dylan’s cultural impact is difficult to overstate; he has become the iconic everyman of American music, someone who still seems to maintain a grip on the mind of the American music community. His early years have recently come under more scrutiny, with the release of his autobiographical Chronicles: Volume 1 and the release of No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, an excellent documentary from filmmaker Martin Scorsese. No Direction Home spans 1961-1966, recording Dylan’s rise from unknown to cultural tour de force.
Dylan and his Greenwich Village compatriots were like expatriates within their own country. Relegated to small coffee shops where they found the support for their avant-garde, backward-looking music and controversial politics, the likes of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and a young Dylan honed their craft. They sought to make a new legitimacy within American music. They were trying to be, in 1960s bohemian Tommy Mackem’s words, “free from the shackles [… and] baggage of tradition, of bad tradition.” Ironically, they did so by exhuming the musical history of the United States. Such respect did they have for the American tradition of music—whether it was country, jazz, the blues or bluegrass—that they used elements of that tradition (or, in some cases, simply covered old songs) in their new songs and counter-cultural movement.
It was from this new pseudo-traditionalism that Dylan stepped. Had he remained active within the neo-folk explosion that took place in the 1960s, he would have been, no doubt, lionized by its members and remained a key figure in their political agitation and civil action. He would have had his moment in the political and musical movements in the 1960s, but he would have been a blip on the cultural radar; he would have been no different from Donovan or Joan Baez. However, Dylan seemed to transcend the notion of a disgruntled folkster bent on changing the world through smooth harmonies and songs about hard times. Much to his cohorts’ chagrin, he “tuned out”—and plugged in.
Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s 1965 album, gave listeners the howling sound of a full blues band, screeching electric guitar and all. Dylan matched his newfound penchant for writing his own, less transparent music with sounds that would send shockwaves through the worldwide folk scene. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan wanted to recreate the sounds heard on his record; “Maggie’s Farm,” delivered in all of its noisy and cacophonic glory, split the audience into two groups: those who would accompany Bob Dylan into the musical unknown and those who thought he was a traitor. Boos rang out at the festival, and as onlookers recount in No Direction Home, Pete Seeger, a New York folk musician, was backstage threatening to cut power to the stage with an axe. To Seeger and others, Dylan had “gone commercial”; not only had he put away the explicit social consciousness that had driven much of his early career, he had also turned his back on the folk scene that had nurtured him as a musical infant. He was a traitor to many of his followers and, on his subsequent world tour, was heckled with cries of “Judas” and “traitor” from irate English audiences.
To many of his friends and influences in the New York folk community, turning to electric instruments and a full band backing was “selling out.” To Dylan, it was simply the next step in his creative evolution. He began to write his songs differently, using more metaphor (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”) as opposed to more direct, sociopolitically focused music (“Blowin’ in the Wind”). Dylan, perhaps intentionally, rejected the mantle of generational spokesman, political, musical or otherwise; it seemed that he became too big to be contained by one particular scene.
A closer look at the first decade of Dylan’s music reveals what is missing from the majority of current, popular music. He entered the music scene with a deep respect for musical tradition, a tradition that remains relevant for 21st-century listeners. He also entered with a more explicit social consciousness, one that he was content with sharing in public. However, he did not limit himself to obeying the whims of a particular musical movement; he simultaneously left behind the folk scene and the political posturing and went to make his own music. In No Direction Home, Harold Leventhal, a music producer in the 1960s, noted that “when Bob began to ignore topical material it bothered me; it meant that he was going away from the political consciousness we thought we all had. One can attribute that as going commercial, and that bothered us.” Dylan had outgrown the need to fulfill the expectations of a particular artistic community; he took it upon himself to forge on ahead, not looking back as he went forward.
Our time is defined by artistic mediocrity, in which popular music is controlled by the whims of Clear Channel and MTV, in which the masses are instructed who to vote for by the politically “savvy” members of the music community (read: Britney “I think we should just trust our President” Spears, Kanye West and 2004’s “Vote for Change” tour), and musical “daring” consists of Green Day writing a punk rock opera. Perhaps it’s time that our age paid tribute and looked to Bob Dylan as an artistic archetype. In rejecting the notion that he ought to be someone else’s political or social spokesperson, he inadvertently became someone people listened to all the more. Over the shouts of his contemporaries and despite the real possibility of popular failure, Dylan followed his artistic muse, leaving the extracurriculars behind and focusing on his musical expression. In doing so, he transcended the person that people wanted him to be, becoming the icon he remains today.