Bob Dylan at Broadside

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I’ve happily spent a good amount of time this week immersed in old issues of Broadside (the entire run can be found on the website of Sing Out!), reading about this history of topical songs in the United States and trying to come to terms with the development of Bob Dylan’s song-writing in 1962.

A word about Broadside. While topical songs had a long tradition in the United States (listen to anything by the Almanac Singers from the 1940s, for example), Pete Seeger was apparently of the idea by 1960 that the tradition had been allowed to die out. On tour in the UK in 1961, he was reportedly struck by the number of topical songs (many about the threat of nuclear war) that he was hearing, and he hopes to put some life into the movement in the US. Working with Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, Broadside was born as a mimeographed pamphlet collected contemporary topical songs by folksingers from Greenwich Village, including Phil Ochs, Malvina Reynolds, Tom Paxton, Len Chandler, Bonnie Dobson, Pete Seeger, and, of course, Bob Dylan. The musicians would gather in the apartment of Cunningham and Friesen where they would be recorded on a reel to reel provided by Seeger and then the songs would be transcribed and printed. Many of the songs, including those by Dylan (like “Emmett Till” and “Blowin’ In the Wind”) were based on the melodies of older songs, while others were entirely original.

About two years ago I decided that I no longer needed music CDs in my life, so I burned everything that I wanted to hard drives and sold them all to a used record store (for a truly pathetic sum). I kept only two CDs. One of them was the five disc collection The Best of Broadside (1962-1988), a truly remarkable collection of material with a tremendously informative book about the magazine, the singers, and the songs. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Dylan was involved with Broadside for its first two years, regularly contributing and recording songs for them (since he was exclusive to Columbia, and since Broadside’s records were released by Folkways, Dylan used the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt). He was initially listed as a contributor, and his song “Talking John Birch” was included in the first issue. In 1962, with which we are concerned here, he contributed seven songs to the magazine, including “Blowin’ in the Wind” (issue six), and he would place nine more there in 1963 (including “Masters of War” and “Fare Thee Well”, which is used at the end of Inside Llewyn Davis) before his increasing fame made his contributions more sporadic. In the January 1964 issue (#38) he contributed a letter to Sis and Gordon, and then gradually drifted away.

The topical song is not necessarily the same thing as the protest song. A song like “Oxford Town”, about James Meredith attempting to enrol at the University of Mississippi, is inspired by those events, but deals with the topic only indirectly and obliquely, while “Masters of War” is much more directly a scathing indictment of militarism and war-profiteering. Dylan’s earliest songwriting was almost all based on existing tunes and on the Talking Blues, and he continues that for a while in 1962, before segueing strongly towards writing his own tunes.

Dylan is commonly credited with making protest music – or topical music – mainstream, but when you read Broadside it is clear that he was only one (strong) voice of many. Certainly things broke for Dylan in a way that they never did for a more militant songwriter like Phil Ochs (who never had a top forty hit), but it would be simply wrong to suggest that others were following his lead. In topical songs, Dylan found a way to transition away from the Guthrie covers and traditional music, while still staying faithful to the Guthrie tradition (who was more topical than Woody? No one, that’s who). In retrospect, of course, the movement seems entirely natural and inevitable, but reading the history of Broadside makes it abundantly clear how much work was involved.

Dylan’s recordings for Broadside, which include more than a dozen songs done at the apartment, plus an appearance on WBAI-FM in May 1962, are a great record of the development of his songwriting over a very short, but extremely productive, period in 1962. While the Leeds and Witmark Demos include a wider range of material – including blues numbers – the Broadside tapes are much more socially engaged, such as the great anti-war song “John Brown”.

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