Dylan and Guthrie

I’ve just read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles volume 1 (Simon and Schuster 2004) and it took me straight to Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, a memoir that is in some ways a source for Chronicles.

1 Woody GuthrieWoody Guthrie

What seemed obvious at first with Chronicles was that it left out all the good bits, like the Scorsese film of the year after (2005) No Direction Home did, which covered the period 1961-66, with gaps. No mention in the book of the great albums Bringing it all back home or Highway 61 revisited of 1965, probably Dylan’s greatest achievement, nothing of the traumatic motorbike accident (well, one sentence) and what it meant, nothing of his marriages or divorces, nothing about his children (well, a sentence on how he loves them).

It took a moment to realise that Dylan has always been adulated for these achievements of songwriting of the mid 60s, and has suffered from that adulation. He has been misrepresented as a generational leader, called a ‘genius’ to his face, revered as a formative force in popular culture and so on. It says a lot for the man that he’s cringed at this attempt to institutionalise him, dodged and weaved and continued to create, even coping with the sad fact that his later work is not as good as his mid 60s achievement. To adapt Mae West’s cynical one liner, “Fame is a great institution, but I ain’t ready for no institution”.

What I think Dylan covers in volume 1 is the essentials, the important, foundational material of his life, from which the 10 years of inspiration and the 40 years of making music good bad and indifferent come.

Dylan’s parents and grandparents came from Russia and Turkey and they were refugees. They found a stable life in America and it seemed good to them. But not to their child Robert. This must happen in the families of refugees a lot. The parents survive the sinking of their ship and make their way ashore through some miracle: and for the children it seems not paradise but a desert.

The first event covered in the book, and the major part of it (and the most important part for Dylan) is his arrival in New York in the winter of 1960. It is a story of contrast, discovery, and intense stimulation, an experience that literally made him a different person. From the grim mining towns of Duluth and Hibbing Minnesota to New York is a heady, transformational change of scene.

2 Bob DylanBob Dylan

1-2, 5

Chapter one, ‘Markin’ up the score’, chapter two, ‘The Lost land’, and the fifth and final chapter, ‘River of Ice’, cover this culture clash. Dylan loved his parents. But he ran away from his environment. This must have set off a conflict in itself. What he found, discovered and absorbed he talks about in these three chapters, about 60% of the book. What Dylan does is stream of consciousness evocation of places, people, films, theatre, books, writers, music, musicians, and the events he lived through.

This impressionistic style has attracted criticisms as ‘derivative’, but the first thing to say about Dylan was, not that he was derivative, but that he was a thief. He stole. So did George Gershwin, James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Pablo Picasso, and any number of Blues and Folk musicians as well. Categories are for classifiers, tidy people who come along after genius and straighten things up. Creators just take what they need. They usually don’t know why. It usually turns out different.

What these three jumbled recollections of chapters convey is elation. Dylan, we can see, is where he wants to be, discovering what he can do. The three chapters are so enjoyable to read, even when you come across a mistake it doesn’t matter (there are two references to non-existent books by Pericles and Thucydides – though these could have been actually published and read by Dylan as he says, selections from Thucydides’ unfinished history. There is a typo somewhere too, a hoard of something spelt ‘horde’).

Lou Levy and Leeds Music, John Hammond and Columbia Records, Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, Roy Orbison, Joe Hill, Kerouac, Johnny Rivers, Cisco Houston, Mike Seegar, Harry Belefonte, Hank Williams, Joan Baez, Suze Rotolo, Robert Johnson, Albert Grossman. Dylan is so grateful. The films of Fellini, the theatre of Brecht, the coffee house folk music scene, the Beats and the transition in NY from beat to hippy culture. And the New York winter. Winter turning into Spring. The book at this point charts Dylan changing, from a man running from, to a man running to. Someone who could now remember the lyrics of hundreds of songs, recall the contents of dozens of books, and who was stimulated by almost everything he came across, and by the mix. Someone who ransacked public libraries to find old newspaper stories that lay at the heart of songs he knew, and ended up writing songs about what he read in current newspapers.

3 Dylan 1970 Len Siegler3

Chapter three is called ‘New Morning’, and ends with an account of the making of the album of that name in 1970.What it’s really about is Dylan’s rejection of his somewhat overblown fame. He lived in a world of needy promoters, journalists, broadcasters and music writers who badly needed product, and Dylan was fodder to their mills. He briefly chronicles how it ruined his life, invaded his privacy, landed him with unanswerable questions during interviews, and left him with an awareness of the tasteless incomprehension of those supposed to be his interpreters to his public. He even suggests it may have been a factor in the breakup of his first marriage.

What fame seems to have done to Dylan is dislocate him. Strangely, he wasn’t famous for what he had done. He was a fantasy figure that people invented in order to make famous. He was product to their fantasies. Even the older generation misjudged him, such as Archibald MacLeish, who wanted him to write songs for one of his plays. Dylan’s father died. He was at the crossroads again. What Dylan did then was unprecedented (it usually was). He attempted to demolish his fame. He turned out, not bad work, but ordinary work. I’m just a regular guy, he seemed to be saying, leave me alone. I just want to sing songs and be with my family.

Dylan doesn’t dwell much on this. It’s a short chapter. But it suggests the resilience of Dylan, the reason why he has carried on, hasn’t ended back at the folk clubs, or demolished himself in a drug haze. Dylan the Jew, the Christian, the bland country singer, is just as idiosyncratic as the protester, symbolist, confessional folk rock performer of earlier years. Just not as entertaining.

4 Bob Dylan 19654

Chapter four is called ‘Oh Mercy’, like his 1989 album, and ends with a much too long account of the making of that album. What it’s really about is performance. Dylan thinks he has been a poor performer always, but has now discovered a technique that revitalised his performance style. It’s pretty arcane reading. Along the way he starts writing songs again, meets Daniel Lanois, who produces Oh Mercy, and starts touring again. It’s another new morning. Dylan has said often how important performance is to him. He has nothing much to offer as a performer. Indifferent songs, voice and guitar. Maybe a good band from time to time. Yet he is unmistakably sincere in this claim. Performance is important to him. Since the late 80s he has toured constantly.

These are the three breakthroughs Dylan wants to get across in volume 1. The culture clash of 1960 that transformed him; his rejection of fatuous misjudgments of his achievements in 1970; and his discovery of the joy of performance in the 80s. These might not be what we want to hear, but who’s writing this book anyway?

Bound for Glory

Woody Guthrie was born in 1912, 30 years before Bob Dylan. But he had a similar career path. He was a charismatic folk poet who attracted controversy and fame, endured the Great Depression and the McCarthy era, was adulated by critics and intellectuals, and repudiated that celebrity because he wouldn’t or couldn’t be categorised. He spent the last dozen years of his life, from the early 50s, incapacitated by Huntington’s disease, an incurable degeneration of the cellular structure which leads to muscular disablement and dementia, probably inherited from his mother, and died in 1967. Worse than cancer, it attacked both mental and physical functions. He was a prolific writer, and songs and other works of his are still coming to light. Along the way he wrote an autobiography called Bound for Glory. It leaves a lot of the story out.

5 Cisco and WoodyWoody Guthrie singing with Cisco Houston

Bound for Glory was written in the early 40s, about the time Bob Dylan was born, published in 1943. It opens on a freight train rolling through Minnesota. Guthrie is a bum like 69 others, bums on a freight car, bound for glory. The war’s on, the bums on the freight car fight each other. Why fight when it makes things worse? Guthrie starts his book with the big questions.

Guthrie was a just man, and he always asked why honest people are so often afflicted with poverty, disease and deprivation. He asked these questions from an early age, because he saw a lot of tragedy within his own family while growing up. He saw his wealthy father impoverished, his beautiful, talented mother go insane, and his sister die tragically. Bound for Glory is about his childhood and early years, his life as a roamer, singer, and railroad bum, and his discovery he could write and sing his own songs. It ends in the early 40s, when he and his friend Cisco Houston joined the US Marines.

The chapters devoted to his childhood are told in a series of short stories, largely dialogue, in which Guthrie draws wonderful portraits of his parents, siblings and his gang of friends in a small Oklahoma mining town soon to turn into a ghost town. He switches to narrative to tell the tragic story of his father’s impoverishment, his mother’s descent into dementia, and his sister’s death in a house fire. As a child he was always asking ‘why?’, and he never really stopped.

From the age of 16 Guthrie was a roamer, a freight train hobo, an itinerant fruit picker, and, more and more, a singer. He learnt to play the guitar, and started to make up songs about what he came across as he crisscrossed America. “Then I got a little braver and made up songs telling what I thought was wrong and how to make it right, songs that said what everybody in that country was thinking. And this has held me ever since”. (p.92).

6 Woody Guthrie

Bound for Glory suffers a little from being of an indeterminate genre. The childhood years and the stories of hoboes on the freights make up most of the book, and they are pure story, not by any means a conventional autobiography. Guthrie explained and assimilated what he saw through story, and through song. He writes a little like William Faulkner, or Mark Twain, Oklahoma is his territory and the freight trains his highway as the Mississippi was for Huckleberry Finn. Yet he is also a campaigner for social justice, and his book a little like George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London of 1933, as well as being very reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath of 1939.

This undisciplined mix of social commentary, story, and autobiography, unmistakably sincere and whole hearted, might have prevented critics, notoriously tidy folk, from giving it due stature. I think it a classic of American literature, told by someone as idiosyncratic as Herman Melville (who took a long time to be discovered). And Woody muddies the water even further. He’s a folk singer. Folk? But he writes topical songs. And there we have the same problem that later faced Bob Dylan. Neither are easily classifiable, so commentators fall back on hyperbole.

We meet Guthrie in his book when he’s aged about two, and see him through to 16 with his tragically unlucky family. From there onwards the book tells of what he found in America, and how he came to sing about it. At the end, about to join the Marines, he finds at first success on radio and with a record label, but nobody knows what to make of him. He doesn’t fit into their categories. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to him had he possessed the hard headed will to succeed that drove Bob Dylan, who after all, had a much more privileged background. Dylan wasn’t going to take 10 years to work out what he wanted to do and how to do it: he didn’t have to, not after reading Bound for Glory. It kept him focused. Guthrie was really only able to exercise his talent from 1938, when he discovered what he could do, till 1954, when he had to be hospitalised. Dylan of course has been going for over 50 years.

What the two men do seem to have in common is that they have never lost the childhood habit of asking ‘why?’, even when they know no-one, least of all themselves, has the answer, and that there might not really be any answer. It’s unsettling, but keeps you listening.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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