#2: Song to Woody, Bob Dylan (1962)
Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind
My selection for the second song in this series is the beautiful Song to Woody from the 1962 debut album, the eponymous Bob Dylan.
As an album Bob Dylan doesn’t tend to get too much recognition as part of the Dylan discography. It is seen as the work of a still emerging artist, honing his skills and craft. It consists of 13 tracks in total, only two of which are Dylan originals. Even those originals “Song to Woody” and “Talkin’ New York Blues” have a heavy reliance on the style and structures of folk and the talking-blues.
At the time of its release the Bob Dylan album became known in record company circles as “Hammond’s folly”, a reference to the fact that many saw it as a rare slip in the legendary Columbia Record producer, John Hammond Snr’s otherwise innate ability to talent spot. While that phrase reflected the low album sales, the release still proceeded to turn a profit due to its low production costs.
“Song to Woody” is a short song, but it is symbolic of a brief and distinct moment in time. It conjures up an evocative period in 20th Century American history. Anyone who has seen the Coen Brothers film Inside Llwelyn Davies will probably point to that as a good proxy for imagining the Greenwich village folk-scene where the song was formed and took its shape. That film also deliberately drops the viewer off at its close by marking the entrance of Bob Dylan onto the Greenwich Village folk scene.
Song to Woody is rooted in a period of coffee houses, open mikes, hootenannies, denim, intellectual debate and social protest (“revolution in the air”). There is a romance and a perceived purity associated with the period; seemingly a by-product of common opposition to the American position in the emerging Cold War. Looking through the lens of hindsight we can see the emerging seeds of social dissonance that would manifest itself later in the decade, which ironically Dylan would take very clear steps to distance himself from.
The song itself employs archetypes, Dylan sees Guthrie’s “world of people and things” and hears, “paupers and peasants and princes and kings”. The lyrics set society’s ‘have nots’ alongside the ‘haves’ to provoke comparison, a key theme in Guthrie’s music. It was also a key theme of the folk scene in Greenwich Village at the time where radical and egalitarian ideas were keenly exchanged and developed. The song encapsulates a point in history where the hopes and dreams of the folk scene were of a brighter and more equal society. At a minimum there was a strong belief that society could be changed, and that they could help change it. It was a period that saw the emergence of women’s liberation, greater social mobility, civil rights and freedom of expression breaking through in a generation liberated from the strictures of martial activity and bolstered by the US economic success in the aftermath of World War Two.
The song makes allusions to Dylan’s folk-blues heroes of that time. Its title reference to Woody Guthrie is supplemented by references to his other heroes “Sisco and Sonny, and Leadbelly too”. Dylan, in writing his own songs in the Guthrie-idiom, moved beyond “Rambling Jack Elliot-mode” i.e. a contented high-quality Guthrie copyist. In alluding to his heroes, and by adopting the style and structure of Guthrie’s work under his own pen name Dylan made a bid to be included in the pantheon of musicians referred to within his song. One would say this was extraordinary bravado, but with hindsight he has since done as much as those artists, if not more, throughout his career to keep the folk idiom alive. In turn folk music continues to be a pivotal influence on his work 51 years after he dared to “go electric” at Newport.
Even though the song is a work by rock’s poet laureate, ironically as a piece of music it is much more than the sum of its lyrics. I love the song as a whole entity, with its harmony and melody lifted from Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre.
Anyone familiar with Dylan’s work will now know, from the myriad of biographical works, how much he idolised the itinerant folk musician Woody Guthrie in the run up to the album’s release. Dylan educated himself in Guthrie’s music in his Minnesota days. He is widely documented as having been a Guthrie obsessive during that period, steeping himself in the man’s music, a copy of Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory in his hand at all times.
Guthrie’s influence on Dylan’s dress, behaviour, singing style and humour is evident at the time of Bob Dylan’s release. While most of those affectations would be jettisoned within a few years, notably it was only with the album Nashville Skyline in 1969 that Dylan made a firm departure from his “Guthrie-style” singing and intonation. That’s how deep the Guthrie influence ran in Dylan’s artistry. In the interim period he had fused Guthrie’s attributes with those of the poet Rimbaud, the beat literature from Kerouac and Ginsberg, and the rock and roll music of his youth; in doing so creating an original mould for the rock singer songwriter.
What made me appreciate the strength of Song to Woody was actually hearing Dylan play it live in Dublin in 2000. It was the second track in his set list that evening, and came hot on the heels of a stately rendition of the Stanley Brothers song “I am the man, Thomas”. As opposed to the faux gravitas of the original recording of Song to Woody where Dylan assumes the mantle of travelling hobo musician, the gravel-hued tones of Dylan’s voice in 2000 allowed the song rest comfortably alongside his contemporaneous lifestyle of itinerant musician.
Anyone interested in listening to a similar rendition to that version in Dublin should check out the rendition from the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, on 16 March 2000 which was released on the “Things Have Changed” CD single in 2000. I have a bootleg copy of the Dublin show and they are similar in style. It is a nice experience to compare Dylan the veteran with the confident young fledging on the debut album.
As His Bobness is still, “walkin’ the road many men have gone down”, who knows, maybe we’ll see him reinvent the song a few more times before it is, “gone with the dust and blown away with the wind”.
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See also: #1 Glory Days, Bruce Springsteen (1984)