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The Folk Musician

7 minute read
Jay Cocks

He was born with a snake above his fist while a hurricane was blowing.

You must know that. Know the fact, or the music, or the truth inside the mythology, spun from roots by his rough magic into cloth of gold, into songs that are the shifting, stormy center of American popular music in the second part of the very century when the music was invented.

Bob Dylan couldn’t wait for the music to change. He couldn’t be only part of the change. He was the change itself. The snake and the hurricane.

And you do know that. If you’ve been listening only in passing, you know, among other things, that the answer’s blowin’ in the wind, the times they are achangin’, everybody must get stoned, they’re selling postcards of the hanging, and that to live outside the law you must be honest. Later, listening more closely, you found out that we’re goin’ all the way till the wheels fall off and burn, that dignity’s never been photographed, and that no one plays the blues like Blind Willie McTell.

Those are legends and home truths, passed along in song, that became part of a cultural vocabulary and an ongoing American myth. Hundreds of songs; more than 500 and counting. Forty-three albums; more than 57 million copies sold. A series of dreams about America as it once and never was. It was folk music, deep within its core, from the mountains and the delta and the blacktop of Highway 61. Rhythm and blues, too, and juke-joint rock ‘n’ roll, and hymns from backwoods churches and gospel shouts from riverside baptisms. He put all that together, and found words to match it.

Before him there was only Bobby Vinton. Well, no, not really. But at the time Dylan first arrived in New York City from the Midwest, rock music had lost its leader–Elvis, in a series of movie musicals. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson–all those pioneers Dylan had loved and emulated in high school rock-‘n’-roll bands–had been superseded by a series of well-scrubbed teen idols who had as much edge as a corsage.

It was a bland-out all across the bandwidth, a kind of musical hangover from the Eisenhower era. Rock ‘n’ roll had erupted dead in the heart of Ike’s easeful America. In the Kennedy years, when the world started to shake and rattle, the music suddenly turned as thick and sweet as a malted. Jazz had the power, but jazz was for grownups, and its impact was largely instrumental. Anyone who wanted to listen to a song, and take something away from it that would last a little longer than a good-night kiss, turned on to folk.

So Bob Dylan, a rock-‘n’-roll American kid who first heard Woody Guthrie while enrolled for a few months at the University of Minnesota, took up folk. Got a ride to New York. Settled in Greenwich Village. Took any gig he could get. Within two years–tops–turned folk inside out.

And then abandoned it. Subsumed it, really, inside the raucous, unyielding, cataclysmic rock ‘n’ roll that he let loose on an audience that didn’t like to be reminded how hidebound it was. What had been music of comment and protest became songs of unprecedented personal testament, delivered with a literal and savage electricity.

Dylan got booed when he showed up with rock musicians behind him, and the booing didn’t let up until his great songs like Desolation Row and Like a Rolling Stone pierced the consciousness of a whole new generation, making everyone realize that rock music could be as direct, as personal and as vital as a novel or a poem. That popular music could be expression as well as recreation.

Dylan was suddenly a singer no longer. He was a shaman. A lot of people called him a prophet. In a way, it must have been scarier than being booed. Everything he sang, said, did or even wore took on a specific gravity that made it harder and harder for him to move. The music became so important to so many people, took on such awesome proportions, that Dylan could respond only with the ultimate sanity: silence.

After a motorcycle accident in 1966, he used the recovery time to retreat and cook up some new music that was mystical and playful, and so deliberately rough-edged that it seemed almost spontaneous. It wasn’t, of course, but the music of those years–much of it heard in the song cycle that’s known informally as the Basement Tapes–charted a more inward course. It was music that deflected any easy response.

A dizzying number of changes followed–from born-again Christian testifying to deep blues–but Dylan has been consistent only in one thing: he has never stopped making great music, or being cagey about it. And funny, when he feels like it. And hip, without peer or precedent. Accepting a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991, he leaned into the mike and delivered himself of this reflection: “Well, my daddy, he didn’t leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, ‘Son,’ he said, he say, ‘you know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you, and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.'” Say amen, somebody. He gave us a great record last year. The album, Time Out of Mind, was greeted as a masterpiece, his greatest work since Blood on the Tracks more than 20 years before. In fact, it was much of a piece with the extraordinary albums he’s been making for most of this decade, including Oh, Mercy, a kind of prelude and companion piece released in 1989, and two subsequent albums of folk music that seem to have been made in some secret, mysterious place where the past never stops.

Dylan had a brush with mortality just before the last album was released, and spent some serious time in the hospital, which brought everyone up short. It was a warning that time was passing, everywhere but in his music. So Time Out of Mind brought Dylan safely back home again to the hot center. It was as if everyone suddenly woke up and figured it was Dylan who had been asleep all these years. In fact, as always, he was the only one with his eyes open. To know that, all you had to do–still, and ever–is listen. And ask yourself the same question he flung at us.

How does it feel?

Jay Cocks, a former film and music reviewer for this magazine, is a screenwriter

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