(Page 2 of 3)
Echoes of this complaint against the unprecedented wealth and opportunities of postwar America sound through the Beats (whose style Dylan pinched in some of his mid-'60s work); intellectuals such as Paul Goodman, whose classic Growing Up Absurd (1960) argued that the "system" in the '50s gave young men no meaningful, authentic choices for life, leading the intelligent and spirited to rebellion; and J.D. Salinger's massively popular The Catcher in the Rye (1951), whose protagonist Holden Caulfield, the patron saint of disaffected, whiny kids everywhere, tellingly directs his harshest contempt at "phonies." Far from merely an era of bland conformity, it seems one couldn't swing an Organization Man in the '50s without whacking some sort of far-out rebel.
Hajdu's explanation of the folk authenticity ethos is evocative, and certainly as good as or better than anything the folkies themselves could have come up with. Folk authenticity was an ill-defined quality you claimed to possess, one that dripped virtue and decency, and that your enemies lacked. Yet the insistence on it was a self-deluding exercise at best. The usually white, usually well-off college kids who championed folk were not the rural, mountain, poor, and often black folk who had actually developed and kept this music alive. By pretending that singing those songs meant absorbing the values that their original guardians exemplified, the folk revivalists were faking it, becoming something that they were not.
But their values still seemed to them "real" somehow. They resolutely sided with nature vs. artifice, cotton vs. rayon, wood vs. plastic. They were opposed to what they saw as the commercial and intellectual values of the dominant culture. While rock 'n' roll in the '50s may have scared many mainstream Americans, to folkies it was just one more plastic, inauthentic product of the Commercial Machine. The Pete Seegers and Joan Baezes of the folk world sought to replace such crass, moneymaking music with songs that reflected what they saw as the struggle and dignity of the common man.
It's easy to laugh at the folkies now, to find their music effete and dull and to find absurd their dream of building a proletarian social consciousness by playing precious British love ballads and songs about miners' travails. But within their own circumscribed world, who can fault them? They had a music and style they loved and wanted to preserve. As Joan Baez buddy (and son of Masterpiece Theater's Alaistair Cooke) John Cooke told Hajdu, "One of the things that made [folk] music different and better than whatever everybody else was listening to was the fact that everybody else wasn't listening to it....It was anticommercial music."
Alas for snobs like Cooke, folk music became a full-on cultural explosion by 1963. Joan Baez became a major pop star; folk was the subject of a weekly ABC TV show Hootenanny and used as a general-purpose cultural signifier in everything from pinball machines to candy bars. Folk may never have lived up to its implied politico-cultural promise to re-authenticate a plastic American middle-class "death culture," but its insistence on authenticity remains a cornerstone of self-consciously cool subcultures, ranging from punk's disdain for "posers" to hip-hop's concern for "keepin' it real."
By any definition, authenticity is something Bob Dylan lacked, even before he adopted his stage name in 1960. Born in 1941, he has warped and changed year by year, evincing no solid core other than an ability to write great songs. He was a small-town, middle-class kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, who loved Little Richard more than anything. He went off to a hip college scene at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and, as insecure new college kids are wont to do, shed his past. He fell in with a crowd of hard-left folkie types and became consumed by the Woody Guthrie myth -- not through the man's actual music but through Bound for Glory, his autobiography about life on the road.
Though he fancied himself a vagabond, Dylan traveled the country only a little bit -- one trip to Colorado and back to Minneapolis, with occasional visits to another left-leaning college town, Madison, Wisconsin. According to stories Sounes dug up, he burgled records from benefactors along the way and lied madly to create a phony legend about himself. He eventually tracked down his hero Guthrie in New York. Guthrie was dying, his voice uncharacteristically slurred by late-stage Huntington's Disease. Guthrie's wife complains that Dylan, thinking he was tapping into Guthrie's essential style, began emulating some of the verbal tics brought on by his illness.
Dylan was well-known for pinching techniques and songs wholesale from others during his early days. Indeed, his genius is intertwined with his ability to both pick up and shed new influences and styles over time. As one Hibbing friend told Sounes, Dylan "had it calculated all the way....Each step, how he was gonna do it, and how you get to be a star." Even while he was the young king of the Greenwich Village folk scene, Dylan violated "authentic" folk codes, first by writing his own songs in a folk or protest mode, and then by returning to his real, hidden roots -- the rhythms and electricity of rock 'n' roll. Dylan's live debut with a full electric band happened at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. A legend has bloomed around it: When he performed three songs with an electrified rock band, hidebound folkies booed en masse, shocked and appalled that Dylan dared to challenge folk's limits.
The reality is that he'd already released Bringing It All Back Home, which included a whole side of electric rock. At the time of the Newport show, his rock classic "Like A Rolling Stone" had been released as a single the week before and would in three weeks hit number 2 on the charts. It's unlikely most of the audience was shocked or angered by anything other than a bad sound system. Still, there's no question that folk reactionaries such as Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax were appalled by Dylan's performance. Seeger still maintains that if he'd had an ax that day, he'd have cut the electric cable to shut Dylan up.
Dylan has carefully played to the myth of the overwhelming boo, once noting in his best hipster-bitch mode that "I can't put anybody down for coming and booing. After all, they paid to get in....Lots of whole families had driven down from Vermont, lots of nurses and their patients, and, well, like they just came to hear some relaxing hoedowns, you know, maybe an Indian polka or two. And then just when everything's going all right, here I come on, and the whole place turns into a beer factory."
More than his folk comrades, Dylan recognized that authenticity -- at least the folkies' restrictive version of it -- is likely to lead to artistic stagnation and irrelevance. "He not busy being born is busy dying," Dylan sang. Yet even as he was leaving the folk world's values behind, Dylan couldn't even manage to be an authentic apostate. Through most of "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," which appears on the acoustic side of Bringing It All Back Home, he seems to be channeling Paul Goodman. Dylan trowels on disturbing visions of the emptiness of modern life, spitting at standard authority figures and the lie of commerce, at "toy guns that spark/flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/It's easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred."
Like Goodman, Dylan tried to lay bare the supposed spiritual emptiness of consumerism and middle-class life. So even as he was selling out by going electric, Dylan failed at being authentically inauthentic. Or to put it differently: He was a contradictory human being, with no allegiance to entrapping cultural codes. He had everything he needed, he was an artist, and as he exited the folk world, he didn't look back.
For the most part he still hasn't. In every step of his career, Dylan's vitality as a singer and writer has come from creating new personae and new voices. A generic Dylan imitation is something every drunken wag at a party thinks he can nail. But listen in a row to vocal performances ranging from "Mr. Tambourine Man" (1965) to "Lay Lady Lay" (1969) to "Gotta Serve Somebody" (1979) to "Things Have Changed" (2000). You'll hear an immensely skilled vocalist who can sing with marvelous expressiveness in a wide variety of styles and tones. While rock performers such as David Bowie and Neil Young get more play out of being "musical chameleons," it is equally true of Dylan, who has invented fresh ways for a rock band to sound on almost every one of his albums since the mid-'60s. It's rare that a song from one would not sound out of place on another. On tour, he reinvents his own oldies every time he plays them, radically altering the tempo, tone, and arrangements. Dylan's singularity as an artist comes from his penchant for -- perhaps even his commitment to -- constant reinvention of the self. As one might challenge Holden Caulfield, what does it mean to be a phony if constant change is what the individual personality chooses? We are all nothing more than what we are -- existence precedes essence, as Jean-Paul Sartre, another hip intellectual who loomed large in Dylan's early days, said. Thus, authenticity becomes a slippery idea indeed. Perhaps endless carping about who is more "real" could be settled in the manner of Bishop Berkeley, by the debaters bashing themselves against rocks.