' I've lost the power I had to distinguish between what to ignite and what to extinguish' – Rowland S. Howard

Tag: Folk Process

Bob Dylan’s One-Sided Folk Process

In his rather unpleasant Rolling Stone interview in advance of the release of the musically mediocre and lyrically shoddy Tempest, Bob Dylan claimed that ‘in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me.’
Given his expression of that opinion, one would expect that he would be relaxed and forgiving in relation to other artists who quoted from his own work. Indeed, a one-sided ‘folk process’ would be an obvious contradiction in terms.
Yet, in reality, this seems to be the way in which Dylan operates- for example, this is what happened when Hootie and the Blowfish quoted from ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ (in this case after making it clear that the lines were ‘borrowed’):

Discovered this fact from this quite judicious article:


The details of the settlement between the two parties can be found here (Bob’s signature appears prominently on it, so he cannot put all of the responsibility on his lawyers):
There are also some rumours around that Bob threatened Rod Stewart with a plagiarism suit over the latter’s song, ‘Forever Young’:


Apparently, he was eventually given a songwriter credit on that rather abysmal song…

How Bob’s quotes from the Rolling Stone article fit in with his actions in both of these cases, I leave the readers of this piece to judge

7 Drunken Nights Gave Me The Blues

Had a strange experience yesterday – was listening to a Sonny Boy Williamson compilation cd I bought recently and heard a song which sounded remarkably familiar. It was one of those instances where you spend some time trying to remember exactly where you had heard that song (or one very similar to it) before – and then it hit me. The song I was thinking of was The Dubliners ‘Seven Drunken Nights’.

But to retrace our steps. Here is the Sonny Boy Williamson song, ‘Wake Up Baby’:

and here is The Dubliners:

The Dubliners’ song itself is based on an earlier Irish language song called ‘Peigín agus Peadar’, which they learned from the great Irish singer, Joe Heaney. Heaney’s version of it can be heard here:


The song probably made the journey from Connemara to the USA with the Irish emigrants who travelled there. How it ended up in Sonny Boy Williamson’s repertoire I can only guess, although Leadbelly’s version of ‘Stewball’ was also based on an Irish original:

Here is a great version of that original, ‘The Plains of Kildare’ by Andy Irvine and Paul Brady:

Bob Dylan and the ‘Folk Process’

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…