On the Folk Revival of the 1950s and 1960s

 

Theirs is a generation which has grown up in a world which seems beyond the realm of influence or change by the individual. It is a world of war and atomic diplomacy, of basic decisions made by remote men in remote places. Where an earlier generation marched for Spain or sang for the CIO, today's "protester" apparently believes that direct action is hopeless....Accordingly, a sizeable body of nonconformist opinion which might have once found itself on the intellectual barricades is today finding an outlet in a highly stylized, unlettered individualistic folk music with an intense beauty and honesty which momentarily transcends the phony, grubby world of reality.

Raymond Williams, as quoted in Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good (Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 333.

 

According to Greil Marcus (see pdf) the folk revival was "an arena of native tradition and national metaphor, of self-discovery and self-invention...It was a a place of the spirit, where authenticity in song and manner, in being, was the highest value--the value against which all forms of discourse, all attributes inherited or assumed, were measured....[The folk revival implied] a scale of values that placed, say, the country over the city, labor over capital, sincerity over education, the unspoiled nobility of the common man and woman over the businessman and the politican, or the natural expressiveness of the folk over the self-interest of the artist...The Weird Old, America, pp. 19-21.

In his When We Were Good, Robert Cantwell argues as follows:

The postwar folk revival, in a straightforward way that may help us to understand the more complex social and cultural movements that followed it, was just such a series of transformations: when the carriers of a superannuated ideological minority found themselves celebrated as leaders of a mass movement; when an esoteric and anticommerical enthusiasm turned into a commerical bonanza, when an alienated, jazz-driven, literary bohemia turned to the simple songs of an old rural America, when a Manichean cold-war mythology created a huge pacifist counterculture more fundamentally threatening to the political establishment than a handful of ideologues had ever been, when state capitalism generated a massive antiestablishment reaction in which it found, ultimately, one of its richest new market constituencies...( 18)

The folk revival, then, is really a moment of transformation in which an unprecedented convergence of postwar economic and demographic forces carried a culture of personal rebellion across normally impermeable social and cultural barriers under the influence and authority of folk music, at once democratic and esoteric, already obscurely imbued with a spirit of protest. This passage across social lines, again, transformed it, endowing it with new expressive forms, and with a legitimacy both wonderful and terrible--terrible because of the massively politicizing issue of the Vietnam War, beginning in 1965, would swell to a tidal wave of protest that swept destructively over the cultural landscape, leaving behind it deep racial, class, gender, and other moraines...

In any case, its first visible stirrings seem to be in the early fifties, when Hollywood idols such as Marlon Brando and James Dean made heroes of the teenagers hanging around the soda fountain and cruising the streets on motorcyles, the brooding sons and daughters who could neither understand nor be understood by their parents. In 1954, the year both films were released, Brando's roles wedded the identity of Elia Kazan's moody, inarticulate proletarian hero Terry Malloy of On the Waterfront

to the implacable motorycycle outlaw of The Wild One.

But James Dean--restless but not warlike, diffident but not defiant, isolated but capable of love, with more than a trace of Steinbeck's Tom Joad in him--was the transitional figure; his Rebel Without a Cause, released in 1955 and shortly followed by East of Eden [actually, it was the other way around: East of Eden was released in April of 1955, Rebel in October], presented a figure vulnerable to both parental indifference and to the insistent tribalsm of the young--both of which were, by implication, emanations from a desperately aquisitive class conscious society.

Nicholas Ray, a folksong enthusiast closely associated as a radio producer in the forties with the left-wing folksong movement in New York, directed Rebel Without a Cause; it was Ray, perhaps, who detected in the film's theme of a young man's persona rebellion the messianic glow of New Deal populism--and the film itself predicted the youth movement's substitution of peers for the nurture of parents distracted by the struggle for status...

Through the folk revival, the broad typology of the American character, and with it the principle of cultural democracy, what Walt Whitman called the "democratic identity" and Kenneth Rexroth "the old free America," sought a new apotheosis on the social landscape. The old free America was of course an artifact too, of the poetic imagination--but without it we have only a winter of naked "society" to live in. It had emerged on the minstrel stage and in regionalist journalism and literature, in tent shows, vaudeville, and Hollywood, out of the traffic in human encounter that crosses the intricate network of America's social boundaries, particularly those lying between urban and provincial societies.

Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good (Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 346-351.

 

Suze Rotolo's memoir of life in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, has many interesting things to say about the times and about Bob Dylan. She was Dylan's girlfriend and appeared with him on the cover of his second album:

 

A self-titled "red diaper baby," i.e., the daughter of members of the Communist Party of America, Ms. Rotolo grew up as an outsider in the rather cold, unemotinal world of the 1950s which she describes as follows:

As the Cold War raged, the postwar economy was booming. Men went to work and women were happy homemakers who smoked, drank cocktails, raised children, and wore girdles. Working-class families aspired to move to the suburbs and have a two-car garage. Everything was hunky-dory. Meanwhile, the fear of nuclear war was ever present: children wore dog tags around their necks and every school had "duck and cover" air raid drills. Loyalty oaths had to be signed in workplaces and schools.

Segregation was a way of life. In the South, water fountains were clearly marked For White and For Colored. Black and white musicians on tour in the same band couldn't stay in the same hotel. Even hugely successful African American performers were subjected to these indignities.

I grew up in that 1950s lockdown on anything that deviated from the pastel norm. Fear of "the other," that dark cloud looming over the shiny chrome of a sleek new car, ready to sully it, ruled the day. Communists were behind Negroes' demands for quality. Rhythm and blues and rock and roll were torrid and sweaty the way Pat Boone and his ilk could never be. Beat poets and James Dean were stoking rebellion and delivering angst to an eager audience. For a kid like me, who grew up hiding, knowing I came from "the other," it was a relief to find some company on the big screen and in the streets. And those who knew in their lonely souls that something else had to be out there finally found what they were looking for and shed their pastels for indigo.

Because of her communist background, she knew she came from the "other," not just the other side but "the other" in the sense of something different, something scary, something to be demonized. She also has some very interesting things to say about the early 1960s when she met and lived with Bob Dylan as a 17 year old. Juxtaposing 1960 against the years in which she grew up, she drew upon one of Dylan's most famous lyrics to tet the tone.

The times would soon be a-changin':

 

The line it is drawn

The curse it is cast

The slow one now

Will later be fast

As the present now

Will later be past

The order is

Rapidly fadin' .

And the first one now

Will later be last

For the times, they are a-changin'

With the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, America had a young president who seemed ready and able to look at the problems at home and in the world in new ways. There was hope that the times would be changing. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Politics are politics, and progress moves at an excruciatingly slow pace.

The civil rights movement was tearing apart the old patterns of society and stitching up new ones while the escalating war in Vietnam was ripping into the fabric of American society in what seemed like irreparable ways. A cultural war was about to break out in many arenas.

Rock and roll was approaching adolescence and kids who had grown up with one foot in folk music and the other in rock were unsteady in their loyalties. Rock was tied to commercialism and selling out. Elvis was a flagrant reminder of that.

A musician will censure and judge music, but not by genre. Bob and I listened to rock and roll, which was part of the musical landscape. He didn't separate music into categories of worthiness; nor did I. I had grown up listening to all kinds of music. Bob soaked up everything and glommed onto whatever taught him something new. At the height of the folk boom, a variety of music was still being offered in the Village clubs. Jazz, although sidelined by folk music and rhythm and blues, was easy to find at the Vanguard, occasionally at the Village Gate, and at the often relocating Five Spot. Like Beat poetry, jazz was not trendy in the 1960s, but the music was ensconced within the culture. And like the folkies some years down the line, jazz musicians struggled to survive on fewer gigs.

The people from the old left looked to Dylan as the new spokesperson who would lead the next generation to join the good fight they had so nobly fought. They had struggled long and hard, only to be vilified by their own country, the country they deeply loved and honored, above all. They were not bitter; instead, they continued in the spirit of their belief in the better, more just world that Communism, in the theories of Karl Marx, not Stalin, had outlined.

Bob Dylan had to be the Next One, the Prophet. He fit the bill with the extraordinary songs he was writing, which expressed wisdom beyond his years. The old-left wanted to school him so he would understand well and continue on the road they had paved, the one that Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and others had traveled before him. They explained the way of the road and its borders. Bob listened, absorbed, honored them, and then walked away.

An artist can't be made to serve a theory. He headed toward the lights that beckoned at the end of the tunnel.   He made for the exit and from there he took the open road that led him where he chose to go instead.   He didn't want to accept the torch they were trying to pass to him.

Towards the end of her memoir, she takes the occasion to reflect upon the nature of the times, of Bob Dylan himself, and of their time together as a young couple. On Bob Dylan's fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, he wrote of his break-up with Suze in the song, "Ballad in Plain D." It is not hard even today to realize how painful their parting was.

As the years went by and I got a better handle on life, I understood Bob's ways. Distance gave me perspective and I had a clearer understanding of what a complicated time it had been. Bob was assaulted by many forces, most of them good, since he was gaining the success he always sought; but some were bad, because there was a new kind of complexity to everything going on around him. It was tough going for someone who underneath all the ambition and drive was very sensitive. I was equally sensitive and so overwhelmed by circumstances that I had trouble seeing how hard he was trying to hold things together.   People close to me felt I was defending his bad behavior, but I saw things in another light even though I was more than grateful for their loyalty to me.   Yeah, he was a lying shit of a guy with women. An adept juggler, really, and when he was on his "telling it like it is" truth mission, he could be cruel. Though I was never on the receiving end of one of his tirades, I did witness a few. The power he was given and the changes it entailed made him lash out unreasonably, but I believe he was trying to find a balance within himself when everything was off-kilter. Some of the songs from that period, such as "Positively 4th Street," give a sense of the backbiting that thrived in a hermetic environment.

Bob was driven-focused on his path. He could see how things were so very clearly that it could be scary to be around him. He was his own person from the beginning. There lies his honesty. Artists we admire aren't necessarily exemplary human beings just because they are exceptional in their chosen fields.   Their art is the work offered for public consumption, and nothing else.

We loved each other very much and when it ended it was mutual heartbreak. His way was to do as he wished and let things sort themselves out without making decisions that might hurt. Yet that hurt more. He avoided responsibility. I didn't make it easy for him, either. My mounting confusion and insecurities made me mistrust everything he said. I was difficult and unreasonable. He tried hard to reach me but I was too far gone to hear him. I made him crazy.

Though we had ostensibly broken up--were no longer living together--when Bob recorded the Times They Are A-Changin' album in late 1963, it was full of Our times and we saw each other a lot then, anyway. Another Side of Bob Dylan made for tough listening. Bob sure knew how to maul me with crazy sorrow, but I loved the sound in his voice.

Sylvia Tyson once told me that songwriters write their own story in their songs and include messages they want someone in particular to hear, with some abstraction for art's sake. Hearing Bob sing songs that were close to home was always strange for me. In an intimate setting, where half the audience knew us, it was fun, it was all right-in-jokes, inside-story stuff. But as time and troubles went by, I felt laid bare and sorry for it. We weren't in Gerde's or the Gaslight anymore. People would speculate and make judgments and that became an intrusion. I began to feel that people knew more about my life than I did. Gradually I learned to let go and accept the abstraction of his art.