Hey Hey, Woody Guthrie, I Wrote You a Song

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Bob Dylan, the singer’s self-titled debut album, was released on 19 March 1962. Of the thirteen songs on the album, only two were written by Dylan, with the rest being traditional folk and blues songs. Some of those covers are really great (Highway 51; Baby, Let Me Follow You Down) and some seem like bizarrely inappropriate choices for a twenty year old to be singing (In My Time of Dyin’; Fixin’ to Die; See That My Grave is Kept Clean). The album has a certain death drive to it that makes me think that the young Dylan thought all these dark songs about dying would lend the album a gravitas that it might otherwise lack. He sings them that way – trying to sound as old and as world-weary as he possibly can. Listening to this album again today, too much of it seems forced to me. There’s a self-mythologizing going on that will become central to the Dylan persona, but which doesn’t serve the album that well. Some of these songs were ones that Dylan hadn’t included in his set lists prior to recording them here, and he didn’t add them afterward – they seem like trial balloons for a different singer that he might have become had things worked out differently.

The one song about death and dying on the album that sounds the most genuine is the one that he wrote: Song to Woody.

In Chronicles, his 2004 autobiography, Dylan writes: “The first song I’d wind up writing of any substantial importance was written for Woody Guthrie”. The legend is that Dylan came to New York to meet Guthrie, who was hospitalized at the time and would remain so until his death in 1967. He would visit his idol numerous times, building a relationship with him, while at the same time he was gradually reducing his reliance on Guthrie material and moving towards writing his own songs.

In one of the better passages in Chronicles (which is a simply superlative autobiography), Dylan writes about meeting the great Mike Seeger, and how Seeger just seemed to know the entire history of folk music in the core of his being. He realizes that to be the best, he’d have to know the material even more thoroughly than Seeger did, which seemed impossible, or he’d have to write folk songs that Seeger didn’t know yet. Obviously, he went in the latter direction.

From Chronicles again:

“Greenwich Village was full of folk cubs, bars and coffeehouses, and those of us who played them all played the old-timer folk songs, rural blues and dance tunes. There were a few who wrote their own songs, like Tom Paxton and Len Chandler, and because they used old melodies with new words they were pretty much accepted.”

I found this one of the most important passages in the first part of that book, because it provides a glimpse of how fixed the folk revival was in its earliest form. Dylan is writing about the period immediately before the formation of Peter, Paul and Mary. The Kingston Trio were already a commercial success, and Joan Baez was emerging as one. At another point he talks about all the young women with gut-strung guitars singing Pastures of Plenty. It was a scene ripe for change, even if it didn’t know it yet.

Dylan’s earliest songs – the Talking songs or I Was Young When I Left Home – are ones that put new lyrics on top of well-established tunes, in just the way Paxton and Chandler did it. Not songwriting so much as re-writing or adaptation. Over-writing. It’s the half-step towards writing something like Blowin’ In the Wind (which he would do in 1962), where you craft lyrics that are your own long before you craft a tune that is your own.

I wasn’t really conscious of this development in the early Dylan until this week, but it makes a ton of sense. Using established traditions as a template is one of the ways that we teach creativity, and it is fascinating to listen to him pass through this phase – something that he does incredibly quickly. Rebecca and I have been talking about this blogging project, and she has noted that I don’t yet have a clear sense of what it entails. Part of me now thinks I should just overwrite a successful one, changing Julia Child and cooking every time to Bob Dylan and singing. It’s how we learn.

Recorded in just two takes, Song to Woody sounds like a Guthrie song, but is a Dylan song. Maybe the first “real” Dylan song. Musically based on Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre, Song to Woody is a lament for an idol laid low in a hospital bed. It is a song that acknowledges a tremendous debt that can never be paid, and a song that is fundamentally humble and hopeful about the future. Dylan sings it beautifully, and it seems like the most genuine thing on the album. It sounds like the birth of a new talent, one who has shed the cocoon of his influences, the very men he is now celebrating as he embarks on his own path.

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