When the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, they justified Dylan’s eligibility due to his “creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. But what exactly is the great American song tradition? In Dylan’s case, its rather clear—folk music. But that only raises another question—what is folk music?
At first, it seems like the answer to that question is self explanatory—folk is what common folk sing and pass on from generation to generation, without any composer. Yet obviously that isn’t what Dylan or other great folk singers do—they may each do a cover of ‘Bread and Roses’ or ‘We Shall Not be Moved’, but Dylan’s real contribution is due to work he did himself, such as ‘Tambourine Man’ or ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. Instead, the folk Dylan is a part of is a product of the great mid twentieth century revival of folk music in the United States.
In the beginning of the 20th century it looked as if folk music would die away in the United States. Jazz and Ragtime music were crowding out the market for traditional American folk music, and most musicians seemed to be convinced that folk music would go by the wayside by the end of the century.
That Americans didn’t appreciate their own culture worried one particular Polish Jewish immigrant, Moses Asch. Asch was the son of the great writer Sholem Asch, and had come to America in 1915. In the 1930s, after recording a plea for German Jewry by Dr. Einstein, Asch had a conversation with Einstein. The great physicist told him that it was up to Asch, a Polish Jew, to let Americans appreciate their own musical culture.
Asch took this to heart, and began a career that would end up reviving folk music not just in America, but would end up being instrumental in saving folk music globally. Working with musicologists and anthropologists, Asch sought out traditional folk singers and recorded them. It was Asch who brought into the American musical mainstream musicians such as the Oklahoman Woody Guthrie and the Louisianan Lead Belly.
But Asch didn’t just record folk singers that already existed; he also influenced a new generation of folk singers. The most important of these in Bob Dylan’s tale is the son of a Harvard educated musicologist Charles Seeger, Pete Seeger.
Pete Seeger came from a traditional WASP family which could trace its family back to the revolution, and which had for generations gone to Harvard. But influenced by his father’s work and by Moses Asch, Pete Seeger entered the world of traditional folk singers. With the Almanac Singers, he recorded songs from the unionization struggles of the turn of the century, and became a singer of protest. A kindly man, Pete Seeger became the grand don of generations of folk singers, including the likes of Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan.
Dylan himself was born Robert Zimmerman, in Duluth Minnesota. In 1960 he moved to the center of the American folk scene—New York City. There he met the giants—there was a young Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, an aging Woody Guthrie, a ravishing Joan Baez, and of course, Pete Seeger. Within the decade Dylan would have expanded his range from just folk, but the early influence of these folk singers would stick with Dylan for the rest of his musical career, including his current work in his Never Ending Tour.
Dylan wasn’t just the most versatile folk singer of his generation—he is likely one of the most versatile folk singers ever. His generation of folk singers, the tail end of the great folk revival, have a good claim of being the greatest generation folk has ever known. He may have not excelled in any one area of folk—Phil Ochs, Utah Phillips, and Joan Baez were better at protest folk music, and John Denver was better at conveying genuine country songs (Take Me Home, Country Roads), and as he was equal to Willie Nelson. But Dylan was a preeminent figure in all of these genres of folk, ubiquitous in all areas of folk.
And he was influential. Before Dylan, for all the popularity of folk, it was for the most part still relegated to a slightly nostalgic section of the American public. Dylan was the man who broadened the appeal of folk with songs such as ‘Tambourine Man’, and who managed to make it mainstream. Without Dylan, there would have been no Kris Kristofferson, no John Prine or any of the multitude of folk genres that have spawned since Pete Seeger introduced Bob Dylan to the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
Dylan created new expressions in the American song tradition—that is undeniable. There is a bridge from Moses Asch collecting traditional music from old men in Kentucky Valleys, and the modern powerful institution of folk music that makes millions of year. And Bob Dylan is that bridge. He was the future of the American folk tradition, but also a link back to its past.