Commemorating the Folk Hero

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The folk tradition centers on the practice of commemoration. When we speak of folk tales, folk music, our “folks,” we’re talking in the language of shared memory, veneration and experience. Unlike jazz, which shifts and transmogrifies, or rock, which jars and progresses, folk music perfects the past.

Sixties folk musicians are now canonized for their ability to memorialize and eulogize experience and progress—to make them sound even better than they actually were. The same goes for the folk memoirs they’ve written or had written about them. Dylan commemorates Guthrie, now we commemorate Dylan. It’s an infinite regression and, as far as infinite regressions go, it’s about the best one we have.

First, a bit of recent history.

Eleven years ago saw the release of Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank the Cradle and shortly after came Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. From then on came Fleet Foxes, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons and plenty of other folk revivalists. The same comparisons pop up now as they did with Springsteen and early Tom Waits. If you write with wit and sing through your nose, you’re a “New Dylan.” Should you dare to beautifully harmonize, you’re a shoe-in for the “Brian-Wilson-meets-Simon-and-Garfunkel” award. The same things are said about Jake Bugg and Mutual Benefit’s 2013 debuts. Now, with the release of the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s fair to say “sixties folk singer” is a definable American archetype.

Which brings us up to now. And then.

The Coens made it known that their newest film was based on Dave Van Ronk’s acclaimed and enjoyable memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. It operates as a literary role call of folk icons making their way in and out of the Greenwich Village cafes Van Ronk used to frequent. Dylan shows up and so do Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs. It doesn’t really venerate or demonize, it just remembers. Where folk songs celebrate, polish, protest, demean and defy, this folk memoir reminds us of something equally important: our gods are human.

Comparing Dylan’s Chronicles, Vol. 1 to The Mayor of MacDougal Street shows both men possessed very different perspectives of what was going on in their early days as well as during the rest of their lives. Chronicles substantiates the mythos, becomes a sort of real-world tall tale. Dylan may not proclaim himself a Prometheus, but his storytelling always has a tinge of the epic to it.

Flash over to Van Ronk and you’ll see a folk singer with his feet planted firmly in reality. The Coens did well to base their Llewyn Davis on the latter. Inside Llewyn Davis is a much different film than the Dylan-inspired ode I’m Not There. The truth is in the titles. Van Ronk and, by extension, Llewyn Davis, is a person, a guy, a musician you could get coffee with. Dylan is and will always be a character, in I’m Not There, in his memoirs, in interviews across the board.

So Van Ronk seems to tell the truth and Dylan’s been known to tell quite a few lies in his time, but you need both to create an ethos and an archetype. The Mayor of MacDougal Street covers the time when revolutions, both domestic and worldwide, were beginning to be televised. The fifties and sixties were the first decades in which memory could be recorded just as our own minds would piece something together: that is to say visually, sonically and linguistically all at once. Dylan will always be commemorated because he wasn’t just the first “folk star,” he was the first “folk star” whose rise to fame was charted on talk shows and popular documentaries during one of the most innovative decades of the last hundred years.

The question arises: why do we remember all of these sixties innovators and not their influences? Perhaps it’s because of their ability to still craft larger-than-life personalities in the face of both uncensored cultural honesty and all-encompassing media. Those who came before them, the Beethovens and Guthries alike, are venerable and knowable through language, sound and biography. Still, their mystical, near godlike personas derive from their absence in our day-to-day lives. They are ghosts haunting the contents of libraries. You can hear Robert Johnson, but you can see Bob Dylan sing on YouTube or live on his Never-Ending Tour. And seeing, dear friends, is believing.

Sixties folk, rock and pop icons are still hugely influential over the music and styles of today. Why? Because they had the personalities of kings despite living during a time when even the President would eventually be exposed as a fraud. The Dylans and Van Ronks of the world may be filled with mysteries and plot holes, but you can’t really reveal them for “who they really are.” Their contradictions, and sometimes madness, make them all the more estimable, not vile. They are one of the more interesting links on the chain of infinite regression. Unlike those they celebrated, those lost to time and memory, they are still remarkably present.

A YouTube search for interviews, a cursory reading of The Mayor of MacDougal Street, a viewing of Inside Llewyn Davis, a listen of The Times They Are A-Changin’: all of these prove folk heroes are both human and beyond human. And, sometimes, they might be neither.