The Folk Musician

BOB DYLAN Master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation

  • 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Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson--all those pioneers Dylan had loved and emulated in high school rock-'n'-roll bands--had been superseded by a series of well-scrubbed teen idols who had as much edge as a corsage.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.

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