Bob Dylan and the ‘Folk Process’ 2

by elmergantry

Further to my post yesterday, what I am arguing for here is that a degree of rigour be used when employing terms like the ‘folk process’. In this regard, it is important to remember here that it was coined by Charles Seeger specifically in relation to folk music and that it was a contribution to a broader debate about the existence of variant forms of individual ballads in different countries. It was also primarily designed to refer to the oral transmission of such ballads and their subsequent adaptation to local circumstances when they reached new areas.

In recent debates, this concept is often linked in a loose way with vague references to ‘postmodernism’ etc, but this is a dangerous conflation (in my view) of two distinct ideas…

By definition, most folk songs can hardly be ‘postmodern’ since they pre-date ‘modernity’ and the author can hardly die when one does not exist or at least can never be traced…

However, it does seem to me that some of Dylan’s early songs can fit well within the definition of the ‘folk process’, loosely defined, as, for example, with the re-working of ‘Lord Randal’ into ‘A Hard Rain’…

But this type of definition becomes far slippier if we move to a song like ‘When the deal goes down’, which is a re-working of a conveniently out-of-copyright Bing Crosby song ‘Where the Blue of the Night’ which also includes (again) conveniently out of copyright lines from the poet, Henry Timrod:

It seems to me that if I were, say, to record a version of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ set to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’, this would hardly be an example of the ‘Folk Process’..

Indeed, Dylan’s recent writing methods have struck me as being much closer to unacknowledged borrowing than it is to any version of that ‘process’. It also strikes me as being more related to a dearth of genuine inspiration than to the creative adaptation which lay at the heart of the transmission of the old ballads.