Bob Dylan + Folk = True!

Two old ladies left the London Palladium disappointed and annoyed in April, wondering what happened to the hero folk singer of their youth, Bob Dylan. In their eyes, he had nothing to do with the riverboat gambler standing and swaying on the stage in the beautiful old theater. Even if I respect their right to decide what they like or not like, when it comes to music and all other matters of life, but in this question they were wrong.
“In Scarlet Town, where I was born
There’s ivy leaf and silver thorn
The streets have names that you can’t pronounce
Gold is down to a quarter of an ounce
The music starts and the people sway
Everybody says, “Are you going my way?”
Uncle Tom still workin’ for Uncle Bill
Scarlet Town is under the hill
Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William Holme on his deathbed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissin’ his face, heapin’ prayers on his head
So brave and true, so gentle is he
I’ll weep for him as he’d weep for me
Little Boy Blue come blow your horn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born
Scarlet Town, in the hot noon hours
There’s palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers
Beggars crouching at the gate
Help comes, but it comes too late
By marble slabs and in fields of stone
You make your humble wishes known
I touched the garment, but the hem was torn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born
In Scarlet Town, the end is near
The Seven Wonders of the World are here
The evil and the good, livin’ side by side
All human forms seem glorified
Put your heart on a platter and see who’ll bite
See who’ll hold you and kiss you good night
There’s walnut groves and maplewood
In Scarlet Town cryin’, won’t do no good
In Scarlet Town, you fight your father’s foes
Up on the hill, a chilly wind blows
You fight ’em on high and you fight ’em down in
You fight ’em with whiskey, morphine and gin
You’ve got legs that can drive men mad
A lot of things we didn’t do, that I wish we had
In Scarlet Town, the sky is clear
You’ll wish to God that you stayed right here
Set ’em up, Joe, play “Walkin’ the Floor”
Play it for my flat-chested junkie whore
I’m staying up late, I’m making amends
While we smile, our heaven descends
If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful, in their time
The black and the white, the yellow and the brown
It’s all right there in front of you in Scarlet Town”
(Bob Dylan, Scarlet Town, from Tempest, 2012)
Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota, then moved to Hibbing.
But – Bob Dylan was born in Scarlet Town, inside of a folk song called “Barbara Allen”, where lovers knots were twined between the rose that grew from William´s grave and the green briar that grew from Barbara Allen´s.

“These songs of mine, I think of as mystery plays, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been traveling on hard ground.” (Bob Dylan, Musicares Person of the Year Speech, 2015)

Shakespeare died about four hundred years ago, and was born in 1564, four hundred years before Bob Dylan wrote the immortal words of “My Back Pages”, at an age of 23 years old he already had made giant steps both in wisdom and poetry: “Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth, “rip down all hate, ” I screamed / Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull, I dreamed / Romantic facts of musketeers foundationed deep, somehow / Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”  

When Dylan, both in this speech in 2015, and in his Nobel Prize speech in december 2016, reaches back to Shakespeare, it´s not a coincidence. Partly, of course, because Shakespeare always is the mountain a wordsmith must climb, but also because there is an important point to make – that even little Willy one time was inspired by what came before him, the religious mystery plays, the folk ballads and the spoken rhymes, even he was extending the lines and connecting the polka dots of his time, certainly better than any one else – and in the same hard ground you can trace the tracks where Bob Dylan´s songs originated from. The third reason might be the way Bob Dylan always seem to connect easily to every period of time, time out of mind, every artist he feels related, too, if it´s an Amy Winehouse or John Mellencamp in our time, if it´s the old artists he met in his younger years, a Woody Guthrie, a Mississippi John Hurt or Son House, the one that were gone before he could meet them, as Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton, Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers, or the unsung and unnamed heroes of older times, writing and rewriting the magical and mystical folk songs that made young Robert listen with eyes and ears wide open to the Anthology of American Music or to the Clancy Brothers – in some unique way he talks of them and seemingly sees them all as his contemporaries, alive and breathing the same air as he. Like when he in the eighties was asked about his favorite album of that year, his first thought was the latest Hank Williams album, a beautiful set of demos released in 1985, “Just Me And My Guitar”. It was also Hank Williams, asked if he was a folk singer, answered that he surely didn´t make music for the horses!

In the Playboy Interview in 1966 Dylan gave us all a complete lecture of folk music and traditional music, just in a few lines. He was both talking of the “folk music” movement of the sixties, and of the old traditional songs, clarifying the difference between the two, and between him and the “folk music”:

“Folk music is a bunch of fat people. I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die. ….. Obviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery – just plain simple mystery – is a fact, a traditional fact. I listen to the old ballads; but I wouldn’t go to a party and listen to the old ballads. I could give you descriptive detail of what they do to me, but some people would probably think my imagination had gone mad. It strikes me funny that people actually have the gall to think that I have some kind of fantastic imagination. It gets very lonesome. But anyway, traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected. Nobody’s going to hurt it. In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player. But like anything else in great demand, people try to own it. It has to do with a purity thing. I think its meaninglessness is holy. Everybody knows that I’m not a folk singer.” (Bob Dylan in Nat Hentoff Interview, Playboy, 1966)

Of course he wasn´t. And of course he is.

Always steeped in the folk tradition, Dylan has been working like a blacksmith with words, hammering them with his glowing iron tools to make them fit into the stories he would tell. Even if the 19th century term of folk music, describing the oral tradition and the songs and ballads with no known origin, other than maybe land or place, might not be the right way to describe what happened when songwriters with a name started to write their own songs, extending the lines from all the different traditions and genres they were spoonfed from their birth. In the times of recording, releasing, archiving and surviving songs and litterature, things have changed.

Bob Dylan told us this about listening to “Odetta Sings Ballads And Blues” for the first time – about 1958: “Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson.”

Odetta had a stunning presence and a strong and beautiful voice, with all the power, rage, sorrow and blues in it, that one could wish for, learning what a song and singer could do.

Later down the line the great Odetta would make a complete album of Bob Dylan´s songs. What a treat!

The next definitive moment was probably getting across the Woody Guthrie autobiography “Bound For Glory”. The young Robert read it in college, about 1960, and got to know both the story of Woody and his songs by heart. But it was more than the songs. It was also the Guthrie persona that Bob could identify with: “The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them… [Woody Guthrie] was the true voice of the American spirit. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple.”

Even if Woody Guthrie was as much a singer/songwriter as a singer of folk songs, his roots were in the rich tradition of folk ballads.

“This Land Is Your Land” was one of the songs that Dylan loved the most, and he made his own very touching version of the song, first released on Bootleg Series, Volume 7. In my opinion one of the best versions of the songs ever, because of the deep sadness in Dylan´s delivery.

Both Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash and Dave Van Ronk, all heroes of Bob Dylan, as different as they might be, had albums called “Folk Singer” or “The Folk Singer”. The term is used in many ways, often also to suggest the down-to-earth perspective of songs and music close to real life. When Dylan in his Musicares speech describes himself as one of many “non-commercial” artists, one would guess he is speaking about the same fact.

Van Ronk was the one that met Dylan at the gates of Greenwich Village, a great singer and storyteller, and humorously called the Mayor of McDougall Street, taking care of the young people and sharing his knowledge of both old and new music. Even if Dave stayed in Greenwich and Bob moved on, it seems like they always had mutual respect for each other. As Dylan said it in Chronicles: “In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme.” “Van Ronk’s voice was like rusted shrapnel and he could get a lot of subtle ramifications out of it-delicate, gentle, rough, explosive, sometimes all within the same song. He could conjure up anything-expressions of terror, expressions of despair. He also was an expert guitar player. All that, and he had a sardonic humorous side, too. I felt different towards Van Ronk than anyone else on the scene because it was him who brought me into the fold and I was happy to be playing alongside him night after night at the Gaslight.”

Bob Dylan learnt a lot of songs from Dave, among them was “He Was A Friend of Mine”.

The story of Dylan snatching, recording and releasing Van Ronk´s arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” before Dave got to the studio himself, is well known. Love and theft was part of the game. In time Dave forgave Bob, and laughed when he told the story about he had to stop singing the song, because everybody thought he grabbed it from Dylan.

Dylan included one of Dave Van Ronk´s signature songs, the traditional “Duncan And Brady” in his set in the period from 1999 – 2002, and played the song 81 times. Dave Van Ronk died in 2002. The song was also included in Dylan´s Bootleg Series, on the deluxe version of Tell Tale Signs.

The first original Dylan song that made an impression was of course, and very fittingly, “Song To Woody”. It´s a tribute to Woody Guthrie, but also a poetics and credo for Bob Dylan:

“I’m a-leaving’ tomorrow, but I could leave today
Somewhere down the road someday
The very last thing that I’d want to do
Is to say I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin´ too”

55 years after the song was released I don´t really know what Mr Dylan himself would say, but most of us would agree that he has reached the target. By far.

Even if the words were Bob´s, the melody was Woody´s, or maybe older. Woody used the melody in “1913 Massacre”.

From time to time Bob has been including “Song To Woody” in his live set, always greatly welcomed by the audience. Like here.

In the song Bob says hello to Cisco and Sonny, and Leadbelly, too. Here is one of the songs they all appeared in – if you think you´ve heard it before, it has a strong resemblance to Bob´s “own” “I Shall Be Free”. The Folk Method.

Dylan himself mentioned John Jacob Niles as an early inspiration. Niles was a lexicon of folk music, but also a songwriter himself, and an extraordinary performer and singer. Maybe this is one of the inspirations for “It Ain´t Me, Babe”? Who knows?

Even when Dylan wrote his radically new form of rock lyrics, like in “Highway 61 Revisited”, both the blues and the folk stayed part of it: “Now the Rovin´Gambler he was very bored / He was tryin´to create the next world war”. “Roving Gambler” was of course an old folk traditional, also included in Dylan´s live set in the nineties and 00´s.



Even if Dylan for a period of time played many, many folk ballads, in the early sixties, there has been countless folk ballads included in Bob Dylan´s concerts throught the years, some of them many times, others just one time.

In 1989, on “Oh Mercy”, “Man In The Long Black Coat” sticks out as a modern folk ballad, strongly related to folk songs like “Gypsy Davy” and “The Daemon Lover”. Dylan says this about the song: “In some kind of weird way, I thought of it as my ‘I Walk the Line,’ a song I’d always considered to be up there at the top, one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time, a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots, sharp words from a master”. Sharp words from a master.

Of course there was also the albums “Good As I Been To You” and “World Gone Wrong”, where also the folk dimension is well represented. Maybe most of all in “Froggie Went A-Courtin´”, a british folk ballad for children with roots back to the sixteenth century.

“Time Out Of Mind” is like a website in itself, with links to all kinds of musical and literary sources, also to folk music. The most folklike ballad still wasn´t a part of the release. Luckily it was released as one of many highlights on “Tell Tale Signs” of “Bootleg Series”. A wonderful song, a modern folk ballad as good as anyone.

So far, the last of Bob Dylan´s albums with his own written songs, delves into tradition as it´s predecessors since “Time Out Of Mind”, but none of them so directly into folk tradition as the songs “Tin Angel” and “Scarlet Town”. The first is a perfect murder ballad where all three in the dramatic triangle dies in the end, it´s like watching a movie, and a great song in all ways, not least as a phenomenal performance from Mr. Dylan. The song is related to folk in many ways, even a cousin of “Man In The Long Black Coat”. I still haven´t stopped hoping to get this performed in concert.

“Scarlet Town” is strongly related to “Barbara Allen”, and to all what´s interesting and beautiful in the folk ballads, the mystery and the magic, the paradoxes, love and faith and meaninglessness. The song is about us and our times and a song of human existence in general. It´s great on the album, even greater live – a highlight in most of the shows the last few years, with it´s great arrangement and a touch of both eastern music, tango and all of it in the shadows of the great folk ballads and folk tunes. Brilliant!

Of course it all started in Dylan´s first years as an artist. The human sponge drank folk ballads and blues for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and sang it himself in the coffee shops and private homes at nights. Many of his first songs lent its tunes from old folk ballads, notably “Masters of War” from the old british ballad “Nottamun Town”.

But listen to this extremely powerful version, who shows his masterful talent of timing and phrasing one more time, lifting the folk tune to new heights, indeed.

One of his greatest songs is “A Hard Rain´s A-Gonna Fall”, Dylan´s “Guernica”, with it´s great repetitions, complex and visual lyrics, like each line is the start of a new song, as Dylan himself told us of this one. Its melodic origins is the Child ballad “Lord Randall”, an anglo-scottish border ballad dialogue between a mother and her son.

Once again, Dylan uses a folk ballad as a framework for his own creation, but never stops searching for new versions and arrangements within the framework. New tours or legs of tours, and we are introduced to new ways to get a song across, new timing and new phrasing, new depths to the feelings and thoughts the song wants to explore.

One of the greatest versions ever was Dylan´s version in Japan i 1994, the concert, “The Great Music Experience”, in front of the buddhist temple in Nara. Dylan opens up his heart and lungs and gives us a majestic performance that you´ll never forget after seeing it, as also pointed out by Q Magazine. Maybe one of his greatest performances ever, made extremely unique by the backing from the The Tokyo New Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Michael Kamen.

Bob Dylan is on this never ending road on his way home. He´s been to coffe houses and arenas, he has played all over the world, but it all comes together in this performance. The lonesome troubadour with his guitar, a free spirit, but held in the hands of this great orchestra and arrangement of the song. If you listen closely you´ll see that Dylan don´t repeat himself, neither in this situation, he varies, and his timing and phrasing makes the words and the lines fit perfectly to the magnificent environment of this evening.

Bob Dylan is a folk singer. Bob Dylan is not a folk singer. Nevertheless – Bob Dylan extended the lines also for the folk songs and for the folk singers of the world.

Bob Dylan + Folk = True!



Johnny Borgan


One thought on “Bob Dylan + Folk = True!

  1. Pingback: “Alias Anything You Please!” – Bob Dylan at 80. | Johnny B.

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