Bob Dylan’s scene-shattering electric set at the 1965 Newport folk festival has become something of an icon for iconoclasts. Like many major cultural changes, one of its primary effects may be hip revisionism, with fans, historians and the popular music press falling over themselves to make sure we know they were part of the group that ‘got it’.
On the other side, not ‘getting it’, was Pete Seeger, or so we’re usually told. Accounts vary from Seeger being generally unimpressed with the electric sound, to being worried about his father’s hearing aid, to being so incensed with the affront of electric music at a folk festival that he charged around waving an axe looking for a cable to cut. Seeger claims he was mostly just pissed off that Dylan’s vocals were being drowned out by a poor sound system (‘If I had an axe…’ Seeger apparently uttered, presumably not paraphrasing his own ‘If I Had a Hammer’, launching a thousand exaggerations of an axe-wielding, knitted-jumper-wearing folkie).
Maybe that telling is just Seeger’s revisionism, too. Who knows? In any case, it’s a great story; Seeger had been something of a father figure to Dylan (sheesh, Seeger’s something of a father figure to just about everyone), which lends the event the same kind of primal quasi-Oedipal resonance that makes everything from Greek tragedy to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man work (that’s a symbolic prohibition against a total unrestricted embodiment of the self, not just a sexual kink, psychoanalysis fans!)
Seeger, always openly political and radical, went from being a whipping-post for anti-communist hysteria (along with his popular and important band The Weavers) to being a whipping-post for a new culture of music. The radical Seeger went from being evil to being quaint. It seemed that everything Dylan was, Seeger was not.
However, where many followed Dylan’s move from ‘topical’ music to artistic self-expression—the intriguing Phil Ochs made an odd but interesting shift to Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde style with his Pleasures of the Harbor in 1967 (its highpoint ‘I’ve Had Her’ features the same blisteringly self-aware mix of romanticism and misogyny that also makes Eminem’s ‘Kim’ so troublingly honest)—Seeger remained gloriously unhip. He was on the wrong side of the cultural movement (not for the first time) and seemingly happy to be there.
While Dylan’s defection from ‘folk’ may have led to one of the greatest careers in modern music history, there’s always a duality (at least) in truth, and for all Dylan’s embodiment of artistic vision and individuality, there’s also a reality to what Greil Marcus presents as going through the minds of angry folkies that day in Newport:
“For when Dylan turned away from the equation of life and art, when he followed where his music led him, he turned away not just from a philosophical proposition but from an entire complex of beliefs and maxims that to so many defined what was good and what was bad ... he signified no mere apostasy, but the destruction of hope. As he stood on stage he was seen to affirm the claims of the city over the country, and capital over labor—and also the claims of the white artist over the black Folk, selfishness over compassion, rapacity over need, the thrill of the moment over the trials of endurance, the hustler over the worker, the thief over the orphan” (Invisible Republic p. 30).
Marcus doesn’t really have much time for this point of view, suggesting that the real problem was that fans felt they had been ‘tricked’ by Dylan all along, and ultimately dismissing the folk movement as conformist, demanding and individually frustrating. Fair enough; but that’s also the fundamental problem of just about any point of view which attempts to deviate from the norm and establish organised action. As Slavoj Zizek points out, the accusation of ‘totalitarianism’ is one of the handier ways to disarm any political movement, unanalysed, whether it be right or left:
“The moment one shows the slightest inclination to engage in political projects that aim seriously to challenge the existing order, the answer is immediately: ‘Benevolent as it is, this will necessarily end in a new Gulag!’ ... blackmailing us into renouncing all serious radical engagement. In this way, conformist liberal scoundrels can find hypocritical satisfaction in their defence of the existing order: they know there is corruption, exploitation and so on, but every attempt to change things is denounced as ethically dangerous and unacceptable, resuscitating the ghost of ‘totalitarianism’” (Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, pp. 3-4).
Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists
(US DVD: 31 Dec 1969)
Besides, most of what Marcus summarises as the folkies’ concerns still seems pretty apt. Perhaps not about Dylan, but about about the broader cultures that always gather about the individual or the ideal. The fact that Dylan achieved an undeniable state of artistic greatness doesn’t mean we can ignore everything else that may have come along with it; popular culture is hardly defined by authentic non-conformity, and is it really a good thing that the mere idea of ‘selling out’ doesn’t seem to exist anymore? (Seeger’s belief that music isn’t about being a ‘pop star’ is another belief that seems to be on shaky ground.) That’s a different problem, however (and anyway, Marcus’ Invisible Republic is a great read).
Seeger’s status as an outsider was nothing new, of course. ‘Be good and you will be lonesome,’ wrote Mark Twain. Seeger was too respected to be ‘lonesome’, but his open and continued dedication to his sense of right led to media isolation and cultural exclusion. Seeger took a tough stand against the HUAC investigations in the ‘50s and was blacklisted. With that in mind, perhaps a quote from Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is more appropriate than Twain: ‘The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone’. Seeger seemed to have no need for those parts of society that tried to block him out. He played where he was wanted and could speak freely, demonstrating his unwavering pursuit of his principles, unbeholden to the mainstream media. Still, as Seeger later said in Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists (1983): ‘It’s not easy on friends and family, but I really believe it’s better to put your cards on the table’.
Dylan may have declared ‘political’ songs like ‘Which Side Are You On?’ to be ‘already dead’ in a 1966 Playboy interview, but folk (whatever that means, exactly) lives on, as do its songs and many of the ideas it stands for. Maybe it’ll be a good thing when a union anthem like ‘Which Side Are You On?’ is dead, but with the usual divide between rich and poor, and with society seeming to revolve around capitalist-monarchies, that doesn’t seem like it will (or should) happen any time soon. It’s a shame if such dedication in the face of marginalisation and individual-focus is seen as simply a quaint remnant of what music was briefly, and foolishly, about. Thankfully Seeger never confused media disinterest with real lack of interest. Kris Kristofferson’s ‘To Beat the Devil’ makes a suitable summary for Seeger (apparently actually about Johnny Cash):
“And you still can hear me singing to
The people who won’t listen to
The things that I am saying hoping
Someone’s gonna hear.
And I guess I’ll die explaining how
The things that they complain about
Are things they could be changing,
Hoping someone’s gonna care”
With Seeger’s official blacklist having come to an end, but its ‘unofficial’ effects still lingering, Seeger turned to TV with his own musical showcase, Rainbow Quest in 1965. Perhaps TV offered the same threat of monoculture that he had always been fighting, but Seeger returned to TV still indifferent to its perceived needs:
“This is one of the big worries of most people who like folk music. That television is going to obliterate region after region… Curiously enough, in spite of TV and everything ... I can see all around the country people doing things which are never heard of on TV, and it doesn’t make that much difference to them” (Reading Eagle, 26 December 1978).
Rainbow Quest, perhaps not surprisingly, comes across as something like anti-TV TV, more about sitting back and letting Seeger and the visiting musicians take their own time to sing what they’ve got to sing and say what they’ve got to say than working too hard to maintain viewer interest, its awkwardly unplanned atmosphere both clunky and charming. Seeger seems to trust the viewers, in the same way he recognises that TV’s priorities don’t represent the priorities of the people he meets in his travels.
He speaks to the camera in that same natural, some might say dull, conversational tone that he uses in his concerts, simultaneously mundane and insightful. There’s something of ‘Mr Rogers’ in the experience: an attempt at a personal warmth through the cold screen; Rainbow Quest can seem like watching a children’s show that somehow bypasses all the boundaries between child and adult. Seeger is still one of the few great artists who seems more concerned about involving the audience in a sing-along than giving a distanced untouchable performance: a sharing of the music, in the best folk tradition.