What's yours is Dylan's, and what's Dylan's is his own

 

CULTURE SHOCK:IT WAS, of course, Bob Dylan himself who put into mocking words the ultimate cultural nightmare of the 20th century, the terror of being the one who doesn’t get it: “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is / do you Mr Jones?”

Who wants to be Mr Jones? Who wants to be the critic who accused Ibsen of peddling obscenities or who dismissed the Impressionists as madmen? Who, indeed, wants to be the poor eejit who shouted “Judas!” at Dylan when he plugged in his guitar?

“Dylan goes electric” is one of the heroic moments of modernism. The modern artist must be, like Jesus, “despised and neglected” for a period before being resurrected in a dazzling glow of triumph and ascending into the eternal afterlife of genius. Dylan’s story fits the narrative arc, with the deliciously neat detail that his detractors mistook Jesus for “Judas!”. But what if those who felt betrayed had some kind of a point? For something big was happening and, unlike Mr Jones, they may have sensed what it was.

There is, of course, an element of stupidity in the anti-Dylan reaction.

The apocryphal story of Pete Seeger trying to take an axe to the electric cable that powered Dylan’s amps is so funny it ought to be true. There is an underlying comedy to the whole misunderstanding: a naive belief that he belonged to the left-wing protest movement coming up against the reality of Dylan’s ruthlessly individual need to develop his own art. In retrospect, expecting Dylan to continue writing The Times They Are a’ Changingis as daft as expecting WB Yeats to keep writing The Lake Isle of Inishfree.

Nevertheless, Dylan’s plugging-in crystallised a crucial moment in cultural history: the monetising of folk culture. The emerging cult of Dylan as poet, as individualist artist, was also the death of a notion of folk songs as a collective possession. Dylan was turning something that was loosely possessed into something that was definitively and individually owned.

All great folk songs were written by someone. Large elements of them are made of collective tropes, and often of stock phrases and repetitions, that don’t belong to any one singer. But the really good ones have the stamp of an individual personality and vision. Dylan wasn’t the first folk singer to infuse traditional materials with touches of personal genius.

Consider John Jacob Niles, for example, whom Dylan acknowledges as an influence. Dylan steals the opening line of It Ain’t Me Babe (“ Go ’way from my window”) from Niles’s song with that title. Niles wrote Go ’Way from My Windowin 1908, when he was 16, in an attempt to impress a “girl with blue eyes and blond hair”. (According to Niles’s spoken introduction to the recorded version, she remained steadfastly unimpressed.) And Niles wasn’t some kind of unselfconscious hick. He was as much an artist as Dylan is. Indeed, he is like Dylan in two important respects.

Firstly, like Dylan, he picked up snatches of existing folk songs and used them as the basis for his own compositions. Niles got the idea for Go ’Way from My Windowfrom a black ditch-digger called Objerall Jackson, who was working on his father’s farm in Kentucky. Niles heard him sing the two lines “Go ’way from my window / Go ’way from my door” over and over again. They were the springboard for his song.

Secondly, Niles, like Dylan, was flamboyantly individualistic. He started singing in his own pleasant Kentucky drawl. But he discovered that he had an extraordinary falsetto range and that people paid more attention to its unearthly, high-pitched drama. Listen to him singing Go ’Way from My Window: the spine-tingling performance is as knowingly shaped for effect as any of Dylan’s many voices.

But there’s one enormous difference. Niles found it virtually impossible to establish the idea that he was a composer of folk songs rather than a mere collector. He wrote songs that have been sung by millions of people: Go ’Way from My Window, Venezuela, Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair,the carol I Wonder As I Wander.But, as he explained in an article for Atlantic Monthlyin 1948 called My Precarious Life in the Public Domain, they were just absorbed into the folk tradition. After a while no one believed he wrote them.

And Niles was ambivalent about all of this. On the one hand, he wrote, “I strongly object when the singer, either through ignorance or misinformation, mistakes my composed love songs and carols for public-domain folk material.” On the other, he acknowledged, “The only thing the composer has is what he has inherited, and no matter what modern garb he may employ to dress his ideas, underneath them are the inherited motifs of the past.”

This was very much the state of folk song when Dylan came on the scene. It occupied an ambivalent terrain between originality (and therefore private ownership) and collective tradition (and thus common possession). Dylan ruthlessly exploited this ambiguity. He treated everybody else’s folk songs as a common storehouse he could raid at will. He didn’t just filch songs from other people’s repertoires; he stole their arrangements. (As late as 1992, he lifted Nic Jones’s arrangement of Canadee-I-O, wholesale and without acknowledgment.) He did this on both sides of the Atlantic. The great Martin Carthy, who has also just turned 70, taught him Scarborough Fair, which Dylan then recycled as Girl from the North Country.

But he treated his own songs as private property: what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own. The assertion of his individualism involved in “going electric” was in part a way of defining Dylan entirely as an individual artist and therefore as the sole owner of his own songs.

We can say now that Dylan’s ruthlessness was that of any genius and that his exploitation of these ambiguities was justified by what he produced from them. But it’s hard to blame people for not seeing it quite that way at the time. Dylan was doing something significant in the history not just of modern culture but of modern capitalism. He was fencing in what had been common land, establishing property rights over a collective heritage. He wasn’t alone in this and it was part of a much bigger process. But those who yelped in pain were not entirely contemptible.