In a recent essay for Psyche Magazine, Timothy Hampton, author of Bob Dylan: How the Songs Work, writes about Dylan’s ability to transform American folk traditions into modern prophecy. Click here to learn more about Hampton’s book. Click here to read the full article. An excerpt appears below:
“In 1961, Robert Zimmerman left college in Minnesota and hitchhiked to New York to become a folk singer, renaming himself Bob Dylan. Initially, Dylan presented himself as an imitator of the Dust Bowl singer Woody Guthrie, whose nasal twang and rural accent he took on. Yet there were limits to a career built on the performance of Guthrie’s songs. The Dust Bowl was two decades in the past, and songs about migrating to California or building the Grand Coulee Dam sounded quaint. New songs were needed. Dylan’s evolution from imitator to original artist illustrates the changes in American folk music, and shows how a strong artistic personality can reshape tradition.
From the first descriptions of ‘folk culture’ in the early 19th century, folk music has been understood as a communal art: the voice of a collective. Songs that had been handed from generation to generation – ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’, for example, or ‘Pretty Peggy-O’ – offered glimpses into an unofficial history comprised of the desires and sensibilities of common people. In the mid-20th-century United States, the collective aspect of folk music took up residence in Left-wing political circles. Through such artists as the Weavers or Odetta, folk music came to be thought of as the ‘authentic’ voice of marginalised peoples. With the advent of the long-playing record, the songs of the past became available to singers in the present, and often juxtaposed in surprising ways.”