Dissonant Notes

Thursday, February 6, 2014

An Axe for Judas: Bob Dylan and the Obsolescence of Pete Seeger



The recent passing of folk singer Pete Seeger provoked a sizable amount of reaction on the internet and beyond. The general consensus was that Pete Seeger was a man of substance, a man of integrity, a man willing to take a stand and to fight for what he believed in. What nobody wanted to mention was that, by the time he died, Pete Seeger was almost completely irrelevant. The reasons for his irrelevance can be traced back to the schism which erupted in 1965 when Bob Dylan abandoned folk music. Dylan’s decision to embrace rock music left folk looking like a puritan cult for the morally self-righteous. Folk music meant rules, rock music meant freedom. Pete Seeger remained on the side of folk and in doing so he was left behind by the emerging counter-culture and left looking like the spokesman for an age whose time had come and gone.

When Pete Seeger began his long career, American folk music was very much connected with political radicalism and civil rights. Seeger himself was a pacifist, a socialist, and a union supporter. All the strands of American political activism came together under the banner of folk music. Folk songs were the songs of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalised. Folk music had a strong moral voice which questioned and harried the American establishment while pushing for change and equality. By the early 1960s the folk music revival was in full swing and Seeger was an active voice in the movement. It was into this arena that Bob Dylan stepped. Initially, Dylan’s songwriting was in tune with folk music’s moral voice. Soon enough, however, Dylan began to tire of folk music and in 1965 he performed at the Newport Folk Festival with a full electric band. The legend states that Seeger, who was present for Dylan’s performance, made a quip about wanting to take an axe to the electric cables. Dylan was stung by Seeger’s criticisms. To make matters worse Dylan was called Judas by an angry fan when playing a show in England. The jibe was generally interpreted as an angry response from a folk purist who was frustrated by Dylan’s choice to play with a full electric band.



Dylan’s decision to go electric, and the angry response from some folk fans, rendered the folk protest movement obsolete. Suddenly folk purists were seen as behind the times and overtly traditional. Pete Seeger was almost overnight viewed as a dinosaur, a leftover from some unenlightened era where people were hung up about politics and race. The new individual that Dylan represented viewed such political shenanigans as a drag. It would be wrong to say that all political radicalism immediately disappeared. Clearly there were massive protests against Vietnam and it was not unusual for counter-culture figures to have run-ins with the police. Yet Dylan’s individualism gradually replaced political agitation. Suddenly it was about being yourself, finding yourself, and not being caged by any ideologies or societal constructs. While the blues was created as a result of white supremacy and manufactured exclusion and poverty, the new individual said that it wasn’t about race, that anyone could play the blues. The end result was blues music being dominated by middle-class white males. While country and folk was the product of poverty and was mostly played by the white working class, the new individual said that class didn’t matter, as long as you had soul. The end result was country and folk being dominated by middle-class white males. Staggeringly privileged individuals like Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt became legendary as America’s middle-class took on the mannerisms of the poor while liberating the music from any buzz kill associations with politics. The new individual sang about heartbreak, sadness, and problems with alcohol. The universalism of the topics showed that these individuals had transcended race and class and were singing songs for the ages. The fact that modern Americana music is dominated by white middle-class males should give us all pause for thought about what has actually been transcended.

Dylan stripped folk music of its radical roots and made it safe for the bourgeois by turning art into a Rorschach test. People could take whatever they wanted from Dylan songs. In this new world of art, politics had no place. Other than vague protestations about the whole damn system being corrupt, politics was too spiky, too defined, and too bothersome for the new individual. Falling back on American libertarian traditions, the new individual just wanted to be left alone to take whatever they wanted from the music they listened to. Pete Seeger had no place in the world of the new individual unless he was viewed as a big cuddly grandad who sang ‘Kumbaya’ beside the campfire. He could be admired from a certain distance, but if you got too close and you would start to notice that he was a committed socialist, and that kind of thinking gets people uncomfortable. The moment Dylan went electric and abandoned social protest for cryptic and absurd lyricism the world moved with him, leaving Pete Seeger on the sidelines looking like a remnant from some bygone age. Seeger carried on regardless and stayed productive and political up to his last days while Dylan’s newfound approach soon floundered. It became apparent that after the initial rush of freedom that Dylan felt after abandoning folk and going electric he really had nothing to say. Despite occasional flickers, Dylan’s lyricism has never scaled the heights of his early 1960’s work and nobody seems to mind. He is still treated like a genius and, worse still, his music is approached as if the lyrics have moral substance. Dylan and his fans see no problem with lamenting the pitfalls of modern life one minute and then appearing in an underwear commercial the next. His actions are shrugged off as if to question them is foolish. This is Bob Dylan. He can do whatever he wants. The new individual is answerable to no one.

Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger represented two very different approaches to life and art. When we chose Dylan over Seeger we opted for an eternal adolescence free from constraints, responsibilities, or commitments. We grounded our idea of individuality on bourgeois notions of self that demanded we forget any aspect of ourselves that might lead to tension or engagement. Race, class, gender, and sexuality were just labels, man, and if we wanted to be free we had to forget those things (of course the unspoken part was that affluent straight white males were already free and everyone else needed to catch up and evolve). We chose Dylan over Seeger and as such we got the neutered, depoliticised art that we deserved. The more obsolete Pete Seeger became, the safer it was to praise him. He came across as a warm and fuzzy grandparent, not a firebrand political radical. With the advent of his death, he can now be lionized for possessing qualities which are almost completely absent from folk, country, or bluegrass. Post 1965 Dylan gave us the vague, politically blank music that was demanded by middle-class suburbanites hell bent on defining individuality as something which lacked, rather than possessed, notable characteristics. The fact that many see Dylan as some kind of heir to Seeger rather than a break from the folk tradition that Seeger stayed loyal to shows how confused our understanding of folk music really is. Dylan used the moral force (and the melodies) of folk music to create his reputation only to abandon it when the movement he hitched a ride on demanded more from him than he was willing to give. Pete Seeger ended his days relatively obscure but defiantly unchanged. Dylan has become a highly paid car salesman. Seeger lost his relevance but kept his dignity. Dylan betrayed everything his early work stood for, yet in doing so he helped create the conditions which allowed him to escape censure. The new individual lives free from repercussions and we do Pete Seeger a disservice to imagine that what he believed in was in any way similar to what Dylan believes in.




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