Bob Dylan and the ‘Folk Process’

by elmergantry

In recent times, there has been an interesting debate around the question of Bob Dylan’s song writing methods and its relationship to the ‘folk process.’ It seems to me, however, that much of this debate fails to address the ambivalence of Dylan’s position in this respect.

In a sense he has walked both sides of the street in this debate, from his early days as a ‘folksinger’ to his later role as the progenitor of the idea of the individual singer-songwriter and the heir to the “Romantic’ tradition of the ‘lone’ genius on the lines of a Shelley, a Byron or a Rimbaud…

In the Scorsese documentary, Dylan again walk this fine line: at one point, stating that nothing he had dome was really all that new, while at another describing himself as a ‘musical expeditionary’, tracing a new path…

It is, however, important to note here that the ‘folk process’ in its true form, really belonged to a period before ‘copyright’, when music was seen more as the property of a particular community than of any one individual. Indeed, one definition of a folk song that I have seen was that it is ‘a song which no one has written’. Folksongs then were an organic part of everyday life, with music being used while working, to spread news, to celebrate community occasions, etc etc. In a sense, especially before recorded music, singers expressed their individuality through their way of singing melodies which were part of a common stock and did not, as we have seen, belong to any single individual.

For example, it has been argued that before recording came along every performance of a particular song was different and idiosyncrasies were then an essential element in distinguishing a performer’s style. As a result, even when new songs or melodies were introduced into a community, they were then adapted to the local style, so, in Ireland, for example, there was a distinctive type of fiddle playing associated with County Sligo.

However, once the idea of the ‘individual genius’ emerges, and, with it, the idea of music as a ‘commodity’ which can be copyrighted and commercialised in a way that had not previously been done, then the ‘folk process’, as it had previously existed comes under a great deal of strain. In one sense, Dylan himself was an important figure in this process, as his success led many others to pursue careers as ‘singer -songwriters’, a development which Dave Van Ronk argues was a key part in the decline of folk music in the USA. This fact created an ambivalence which Dylan has never really resolved and which continues to be a source of controversy ever since…

Will return to this subject soon…

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