Bob Dylan is an American institution. He is a living god who has done more in his life than most of his fans, me included, probably ever will do, The music he has made, the songs he has recorded, the language that was created through something simple as song lyrics, all add to his legacy. The problem though is a legacy can be burden to an alive and still working artist. The recent release of the trilogy of albums where Dylan covered the songs of Tin Pan Alley exposed a bitter truth to his fans. The color of Bob Dylan’s musical roots, the very foundation that the legacy of Bob Dylan, is a hue that remains as complex as it has ever been. that changes how outsiders will see future incarnations of Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan.
If you were to affix blame for the distorted image of what rock and roll now claims itself to be, it might rest on a well meaning Jann Werner and the fact that Rolling Stone magazine was allowed to become rock and roll’s advocate. While their narrative captivates with the images it conjures, it is inexcusably narrow and incomplete. And don’t be mistaken. Both Dylan and rock and roll’s stories are intertwined.
Folk music was all the rage for the white kids of the late 1950s. Girls got the chance to be cool and independent, playing this new kind of honest music. Guys got to hang out where the girls were going, play music, earn money and, quite possibly bed one of these liberated fresh faced, book learned but not real world learned girls. Don’t kid yourself. You never went to Joan Baez concerts because you liked to hear her sing
This scenario represented the safe version, clean and sanitary and very white. Woody Guthrie was King. Pete Seeger was the teacher, because he knew everything yet sought more. Of course, Joan Baez was the Queen. This was the Rolling Stone version, that still perpetuates. Bob Dylan’s music says something completely different. It hearkens back to the when music had no divides, no genres.
Dylan, in a must read interview with Bill Flanagan, put the music of his youth into perspective:
“These songs are some of the most heartbreaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice. Now that I have lived them and lived through them I understand them better. They take you out of that mainstream grind where you’re trapped between differences which might seem different but are essentially the same. Modern music and songs are so institutionalized that you don’t realize it. These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll.”
But it becomes very quickly that Dylan soul lies with the old blues men, the true creators of rock and roll. Men like Skip James, Slim Harpo, Mississippi Fred McDowell. The soul of Dylan lies with them. They were the first rock stars and their songs had the quirk that Dylan was to make famous. And, as with Bukka White and his song Aberdeen, could operate with a social awareness.
If you’re looking for the musical roots of Bob Dylan, you will find them all in the lyrics of Skip James and the rhythmic pulse of Slim Harpo, the cool groove of Jimmy Reed. When you take these various parts and combine them together, the result is….