This article originally appeared in issue three of
Magazine in March 1966.
While you’re looking around for the wherefores and antecedents of the new folk-songwriting revival, you might ought to remember that there was still another Dylan and his last name was Thomas. He went down in 1953, part of his wordy nightmare inflection torn loose from an alcoholically liberated brain. And despite the polite picnic of typographically correct little academics at his colossal bedside, he hit the metaphoric ground with a thunder of trumpets. Sacrifice turned out to be the popularly evoked little word. Maniac Bard Offers Life to the Muse. American Whiskey Too Much for Fragile Poet. As if the distance between his expression and experience could have been measured with critical calipers; as if his audacious complex of syllables were the product of an aesthetic faucet to be turned on or off by a hungry demanding following.
Some of us knew better. Some of us saw him wolfing ale in mugs with the truckers at the White Horse and belching back a phrase as lilting as the tide he so invoked in Wales. Some saw him in the English professor’s living room that must have changed by slow fermenting degrees into a half-remembered lavatory in order to leave him urinating so peacefully against the wall. And the rest heard the ranting echo of his wild words, words which no matter how gentle or structured the shape of the poem that contained them, bellowed out at us with the overwhelming implication that art was life, enthusiasm, rage, and freedom. At a time when verse seemed channeled into the sour evening game of the universities, that implication was a breath of potent hope in the faint mouths of those babes who were about ready to capitulate, to offer an apology to parents and institutions before ever daring to use the forbidden word Writer in application to themselves. You could do no better, came his hoarse and beautiful whisper, than speak your own true name.
But this was America less than ten years after the end of World War ll, and part of that name was tangled in the patchwork tradition that was our haphazard heritage. We’d been born into the arbitrary confines of a United States, and lest we forget, we were good citizens first and ourselves later on. The years of well-planned and ever-more-diverse education had done a bang-up job of opening up the void behind us, explaining us into a supposedly logical system of patriotic history, and hopefully indicating that we were an animate extension of what had gone on before. “Each year,” boomed the voice in high school documentaries, “millions of tons of molten steel pour forth from our country’s giant Bessemer Converters.” And each year, came the silent chorus of bored asides, millions of tons of Grade-A bull pour forth from our country’s collectively twisted head.
Allen Ginsberg said as much just three years alter Thomas’s death. With a kind of revolutionary motorcyclist’s zeal and funny farm confidence, he made his move as surely as if he were the Messiah. And disciples and prophets fell into step (and out of step) as quickly as an inspired regiment of the Salvation Army, ready to give the long-awaited lie to a system which claimed responsibility for their production and demanded their allegiance in the insidious bargain. Ginsberg howled, appropriately enough, the way Thomas had bellowed, and the difference was only one of degree.
If either man could have played a portable instrument, he would have packed it in with his bow tie, sandals, or whatever, and sung his way across his own extraordinary landscape like the pied piper. As it turned out, that wasn’t really required just then. Their art had already returned to what students call an oral tradition and there was only passing attention given to paper and variorum editions. People were more willing to sit and hear the respective performances than [to] read them by the firesides which, except for the suburbs, had ceased existing anyway. And it became immediately clear that a larger audience could be gathered in a dozen readings than would ever have assembled for the entire conservative printing of a book of verse.
Around that same time a good many of us were getting into folk music. And folk music, through no active fault of its own, fooled us into certain sympathies and nostalgic alliances with the so-called traditional past. The Thirties. The Highways and Open Roads. The Big West. The Southern Mountains. The Blues. Labor Unions. Childe Ballads. All of which left their mark.
Almost as if Chuck Berry and Batman had really nothing to do with who we were and
Uncle Dave Macon or Horton Barker could do a better job of telling us. But the paradox was implicit: what the hell were rebels doing looking for roots? And how long would people with contemporary poetic sensibilities be content to sing archaic material for an immediate purpose? Especially when their government was in the habit of wrenching them away from their growth to train them as two-year technicians in a nuclear army.
The underground reaction, the reaction in the cellars of what you might call Everybody’s Own MacDougal Street, was topical and quick. A number of people began adding their own songs to otherwise derivative repertoires and finding astonishing response from their listeners. That the songs were intensely personal in their grievance or celebration was inevitable, but in nearly every case the audience was not only ready for the new compositions but anxious to have its own sensibilities strengthened through such an unaffected medium. The love songs, if they were good, were love songs of the times, implying a recognition of station wagons, thruways, and television sets instead of sketching a cop-out, idealized, pastoral picture. The protest songs lost their earlier occasional subject matter and were ambitious enough to take on concerns like the military-industrial complex which made its money by preparing for a war of blistering absurdity. The satire was quick and to the uneasy point, having gained the best from the psychiatrists and musician’s private vocabularies. And in keeping with the anxiety of societal surroundings, the overall production was prolific, frenetic, uneven, often brilliant, and at times appalling.
But at least it was being heard, and not buried in literary journals. The bystanding observers in any breed of renaissance had long learned to be tolerant and listen while the composers composed, no matter what the form. In the very beginning, of course, there was the usual begging and borrowing, maybe some stealing, and those many times you couldn’t tell the
Leadbelly from the Guthrie from the Dylan from the Seeger from the Paxton from the
MacColl from the maybe even me and Eric von Schmidt. But just about the time you were learning to draw the classifying lines, there began this shift away from open-road-protest-flatpick style into more Motown-Nashville-Thameside, with the strong implication that some of us had been listening to the AM radio for a number of years. And perhaps being so peculiarly irreverent as to carry a little Sony transistor model on the march to Selma in order to catch the Supremes and Solomon Burke before dealing with a sheriff called Clarke.
In this twelve-year connection between Thomas and Mose Allison, you might therefore say, there has been a whole lot going on, with still more to come. Matter of fact, one could argue very easily that if verse is never very far from song, that more people are listening to poetry at the moment than have in the history of mankind. And that more of them are probably turning over in the middle of their personal night, long after the poet has had his melodic say, wondering what they are doing, and more to the point, just why.