Dylan, the folk revival … and Stalinism

October 15, 2016 at 8:38 am (culture, music, posted by JD, protest, stalinism)

By Matt Cooper (this article also appears on the Workers Liberty website)

The 1950s saw a revival of interest in “folk” music in Britain and the USA. Folk revivalism in Europe has a long heritage going back to the early nineteenth century and was largely allied to nationalist movements.

European nationalists sought out, and often invented, national cultures on which to base their claims for statehood. This was not always an illiberal project — it was based on the idea that a common identity was the basis for national self-determination and that in turn was the basis for democracy.

Composers helped the search for common identities: thus Greig researched Norwegian hardanger fiddle music and orchestrated folk tales, Bartok adapted Hungarian folk dances into his work, and Glinka interpreted the balalaika music of the Russian peasantry.

In the 1930s this “nationalist” view of culture re-emerged in the state policy of the Soviet Union. It was a million miles way from the cultural policy of the Bolsheviks in the early years of the Russian Revolution.

The Bolsheviks were for free artistic expression, and if their policy had a tendency it was towards modernism, cosmopolitan internationalism and the avant garde.

Like all else democratic and progressive in the Russian Revolution, cultural experimentation was abandoned and subverted with the rise of Stalinism. In 1934 the USSR adopted an official cultural policy of socialist realism.

Socialist realism had two elements. The first, and the one that is unusually emphasised, was that the measure of good art is the degree to which its message was “progressive”. That was in practice synonomous with the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy. As one supporter of the new orthodoxy put it in the 1930s, “A writer today who wishes to produce the best work that he is capable of producing, must first of all become a socialist in his practical life, must go over to the progressive side of the class conflict… unless he has in his everyday life taken the side of the workers, he cannot, no matter how talented he may be, write a good book, cannot tell the truth about reality”.

In Britain or the US Stalinists, and those who lived in their intellectual shadow, began to like any old crap so long as it toed the party line. In Soviet Russia and its satellites it was accepted that art and culture be put at the service of the “people” and “socialism”, or rather the state that claimed to embody these. In the USSR it was dangerous to think otherwise. Writers who refused to adapt to the new thinking were executed or died in labour camps.

There was a second element to socialist realism — an element of folk culture. One of architects of socialist realism, Andrey Zhdanov, stated, after the Second World war, that music should be, “realist and of truthful content, and closely and organically linked with the people and their folk-music and folk-song.”

The idea was that music should not only carry a socialist message but also be the “people’s” music, a national music, music that is not “owned” and only enjoyed by a cultural elite but of everyday life. In Russia this came to mean regimented state folk ensembles that make Riverdance look like an honest, restrained and tasteful expression of Irish culture.

Outside of Russia, coming as its did at the time of the Popular Front where the Communist parties sought to align themselves with the “progressive” section of their own ruling classes against fascism, this very quickly came to mean promoting a nationalist conception of folk music.

Of course the Communist’s approach could also attach itself to a living tradition. This was particularly true in the USA which had a strong and living tradition of workers’ song, both black and white. Woody Guthrie was someone in this tradition. He became intellectually close to the Communist Party while never joining. A writer and performer of real merit, his songs often transcended the kind of doggerel and simplistic propagandising that characterised what passed for “socialist” song-writing at the time.

It is impossible to say whether the folk revival in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain and the USA were directly caused by the ideas and the members of the Communist parties, but it is certain that they were heavily influenced by the Communist line.

In Britain one of the major protagonists for the folk revival was A L Lloyd, a card-carrying CPer, as were some performers such as Ewan McColl (although he left the CP in 1953, he continued to bear its politics). The CP ran a Workers’ Music Association and its record label, Topic, was the first British folk label.

In the USA the folk-song collector and folk-promoter Alan Lomax was a CP member, as were key performers such as Pete Seeger (like McColl, Seeger left the CP — in 1950 — but continued to hold its beliefs in music).

The folk-revival had programmed into it the idea that there was an authentic workers’ music that was superior both in its folk-style and its political content to the pop music of the day. This “authenticity” was something of a concoction. The folkies were, at heart, middle class urbanites. The folk revival in the USA happened in Greenwich Village and university campuses; in Britain it happened in rooms above pubs in middle class suburbs.

The invented nature of the tradition it claimed to stand in can be seen in its attitude to the blues Most of the important blues artists in the US in the 50s played in electric bands in the north, but this is not what the folk purists wanted. When John Lee Hooker played New York and when Big Bill Bronzy played in Britain, they had to go acoustic, and imitate a Southern country blues style for the white middle-classes. They were not “allowed” to present the revolution in popular music that they were really engaged in.

Folk music was also seen as politically of the left. Tribune had a folk music column until the mid-1960s.

The folk revival was not a bad thing. It engendered interest in music beyond the increasingly bland pop-mainstream, which after the rock and roll of the mid ’50s had fallen back into saccharine crooning. Much of what collectors like Lomax collected was interesting in its own right and suggested new musical directions. It was not merely bucolic reaction. Out of the folk-revival grew the 1950s British skiffle boom and out of that eventually came the British beat bands, including the Beatles.

But these developments were opposed by many folk purists. Folk became a straitjacket — performers were expected to work within the tradition. Even when they wrote there own music it was expected to be musically conventional (and above that meant acoustic) and “realist” in its lyrical approach.

By the early 1960s new folk writing consisted either of “protest songs” — topical songs that showed folk’s political engagement — or songs which simulated the form of the “folk canon”. The template for this was Woody Guthrie, who mixed political songs, traditional songs, and songs that sounded very much like traditional ones although he had written them. It is at this point in the story that Bob Dylan comes in.

In the early 1960s, when Dylan came on the folk scene in Greenwich Village, he consciously modelled himself on Woody Guthrie — sang his songs, mimicked his clothes and his political engagement. It soon became clear that Dylan had a greater and more mercurial talent than his idol. After a throwaway album of folk standards, Dylan’s real debut as a songwriter was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Here Dylan went beyond the protest song.

Typically a protest song would retell a news story, sometimes with a bit of editorialising. Indeed Phil Ochs, a protest singing contemporary of Dylan’s, called his first album All the news that’s fit to sing. Sometimes there would be calls to action, such as Pete Seeger’s Which side or you on? But the songs on The Freewheelin’… and its follow up The times they are a-changing’ did not fit these templates. The questions raised were often rhetorical; they offered no answers. In many ways Dylan’s most famous protest song, Blowin’ in the wind was not a protest song at all. It mentions no specific injustice, and offers no answer; it was a demand to think. As Dylan commented at the time, “Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is, but oh, I don’t believe that.”

The complexity and texture of Dylan’s lyrics gained Dylan a huge following. (As opposed to his music, which was derivative; his guitar playing, which was mediocre; and his harmonica playing, some of which was diabolical.) Bizarrely Dylan’s non-specific “message” raised him in the eyes of many to the spokesperson, if not the leader, of a new movement. The designation clearly revolted him, and eventually angered him. In his next set of songs, the carefully titled Another side of Bob Dylan, he began to question the ideas of the left, the morality and motivation of himself and those around him. In My back pages he writes:

“Equality, I spoke their word

as if a wedding vow

but I was so much older then

I’m younger than that now”

As Dylan stated, “Me, I don’t want to write for people any more — you now, be a spokesman. From now on I want to write from inside of me… the bomb is getting boring because what is wrong goes much deeper than the bomb… I’m not part of no movement…” For those who expected folk to be about the repetition of received truths and comforting consensus, it was something of a shock, but it really was no preparation for what was to come.

Dylan’s first albums had been musically unexceptional, old folk and blues tunes recycled. But all along something else musically had been happening in the world. While the folkies were singing to themselves, while mainstream pop was sinking into a pit of pink glop, black urban America had created a new, dynamic, electric music. For a long time this had been designated a “race” music, and then Rhythm and Blues, and despite Rock and Roll (which was R&B played by white people) it had really passed the American mainstream by.

In Britain, to the disgust of the folk purists, some moved beyond acoustic blues and started to discover the electric R&B. Bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Beatles took black urban music back to the USA.

For Dylan these developments were a way to cut himself out of the cocoon of folk music. Dylan gathered a group of (white) electric blues musicians around him. In response to the heckler in the Albert Hall in 1966 demanding that he play folk music he responded that, “This is not British music, this is American music, now come on.” Popular music had at last very imperfectly come to terms with a changed world. While modernism had transformed the visual arts, jazz had been transformed by bebop and orchestral music was comfortable with dissonance, pop music was still swaddled in easy certainty and formal order. Folk music even more so. Dylan splashed out with shocking colour and let rip a splenetic howl.

Freed from the assumption that songs should be realist, topical and in service to a movement’s immediate political requirements, Dylan looked to the avant garde, the absurdist and the surreal to develop his lyrics. This kind of experimentaion underlay a trio of albums, Bringing it all back home, Blonde on blonde and Highway 61 revisited.

The story of the huge confrontation created between Dylan and his folk audience, a section of which booed him for these years, has been well told. But what it is difficult to understand is enormity of what Dylan had wrought. This was loud, raucous and challenging music. He played American music, the music brought to the UK by the Beatles and Stones, but played with more energy than either. And welded to this were rich and multilayered and at times downright oblique lyrics, that demanded to be listened to, demanded to be questioned. This was pop-music as art, serious, literate and modernist. It was a cultural watershed.

So when someone shouted “Judas” at Dylan when he was playing his electric set at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, there was a political background to it all. The “purist” heckler was demanding that music was not modern, was rooted in tradition, even if that tradition were invented. It was a demand that easy questions be given and that the audience could already mouth the answers. It was a demand not to be challenged, confronted and questioned.

As Irwin Sibler, a leading member of the left-folk establishment in the early sixties who denounced Dylan’s electric turn, and later recanted, put it: “Dylan is our poet — not our leader”. Of course in time he ceased to be that, but that is another story.


  1. tedjedwards said,

    As I began to read this I was worried it might be a Dylan is God essay so I was pleased having read it to find that it wasn’t and was rather a more level headed essay about Dylan’s contribution to folk music and his lack of real involvement in Socialist politics. Well that’s how read it.

    • Jim Denham said,

      I’d say you’ve read it right, Ted.

  2. kb72 said,

    Interesting piece. You could make a case that the white folk music of the USA is Country & Western, & the black folk music was blues and jazz and then rap. The kind of folk that Dylan did was not really from the “folk” at all.

  3. kb72 said,

    & English folk was the Beatles & the Kinks doing music hall.

  4. jschulman said,

    It’s a good piece. It’s best not to focus too much on Dylan the man and just appreciate the quality of his songs regardless of what genre they fit in. And a lot of his early “protest” songs, even if they’re very much “stuck” in the years in which they were recorded, are brilliant: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” “Hollis Brown,” “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues,” etc. (Well, the last one isn’t a protest song, just a funny one.)

    BTW, although the Weekly Worker publishes a lot of bad pieces these days, this one on Dylan is quite good: http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1127/saint-bobs-bauble/

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