Dylan And After
From “The Rock Primer” edited by John Collins published by Penguin Handbooks in 1980
The ‘Dylan And After’ chapter was written by Dave Laing
Some years ago an American magazine featured a poster of Bob Dylan with his ‘roots and branches’; those musicians who had influenced him, and those whom he had influenced in his turn. The ‘roots’ were the great figures of blues, folk music and rock & roll, while among the ‘branches’ was a wide variety of singers and groups. They ranged from earnest protest singers like Donovan through rock bands like the Byrds to bizarrely clad pop stars, Sonny and Cher. But the most important effect Bob Dylan has had on the growth of rock music has been to provide a model for a new type of artist, often called the singer/song-writer.
Before Dylan and the Beatles, it was unusual for pop or rock singers to write their own material. And those who did came up with lyrics of a conventional nature, invariably about love. Dylan changed all that, at first through his protest songs and later in the dense, image-packed observations set to rock accompaniments. After Dylan it was possible to be more ambitious and more imaginative in writing songs.
Dylan’s own career, since he made his first album in 1961, has been varied and often unpredictable. Although there is only space for three of his records in this chapter, at least six more might easily have been chosen. His second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) included such famous early songs as ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, while Bringing It All Back Home (1965) was the first album made by Dylan with rock musicians on some tracks, including ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. Also essential is Blonde on Blonde (1966), a double album on which the surreal poetry of Highway 61 Revisited is taken to the extreme.
By this time, the pressures of success and stardom were beginning to tell, and a serious motorcycle crash led Dylan to spend nearly two years out of public view, during which time he recorded some songs known as ‘the Basement Tapes’, which were not officially released until 1975 (but surfaced as a bootleg called ‘Little White Wonder’ several years earlier). These tracks are a strange mixture of offbeat humour, surreal word-play and ideas and images from the common stock of folk and tradititional music. More of those ideas and images occur on John Wesley Harding (1968), but transformed by Dylan’s quizzical view of things. With a relaxed accompaniment from Nashville sessionmen, it is Dylan’s most mellow album.
During the 1970s, Dylan’s output became less prolific and somewhat erratic. While the many commentators on Dylan’s career have stressed the various changes in direction he has made, it is equally true that certain elements recur time and again in his music, most notably the forms and motifs of the blues and white folk traditions.
Bob Dylan was at first part of a group of young folk-singers living in New York’s Greenwich Village, composing their own love songs and topical songs on the political events of the day. They included Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Patrick Sky. But Dylan was the most adventurous of them and the first to influence the approach of new writers. In England, Donovan wore a corduroy cap like his hero, and wrote simple but pleasant tunes, while Paul Simon spent a long time touring clubs in Britain until he had his first folk-rock hit, ‘The Sound Of Silence’.
Twenty or thirty years earlier, both Paul Simon and Donovan would probably have turned to writing poetry as a form of artistic expression. But by the 1960s, mainly due to Dylan, songwriting and music was the most obvious medium for young people with the urge to express their thoughts and feelings. In fact, some of the singer/song-writers were actually poets as well. The most successful example was Leonard Cohen, a fashionable figure in the later 1960s and author of a few very good songs, notably ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’. There were many other poetic singers of the period, of whom the best were probably the young Californian Tim Buckley and Tim Hardin, a Greenwich Village song-writer who composed ‘If I Were A Carpenter" and ‘A Reason To Believe’.
Among the musicians who came after Dylan there were a significant number of women singers. In the pop music of the time, the roles allotted to women were very limited. They were expected to dress and perform according to a formula and most of the songs they were given to sing were uninspiring. In the folk scene, however, things were more easy-going. Women played instruments and sang alongside men in clubs and at concerts. Among those who became well-known were Carolyn Hester, Joan Baez and Judy Collins, who was particularly adept at finding new material by aspiring singer/song-writers. The outstanding women song-writers included the teenage Janis Ian, whose ‘Society’s Child’ was a precocious protest song, and Joni Mitchell, the most gifted of them all. Several songs from her early albums have become contemporary standards: ‘Both Sides Now’, ‘The Circle Game’, ‘Chelsea Morning’. By the time of Blue (1971), however, Joni had found a very individual singing style and on later records she found complex and unusual musical arrangements to match. Her most satisfying albums date from the early and mid 1970S (For the Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns); some of the later material tended to become over-elaborate and to lack the poise and directness of those three records.
Carly Simon was another singer/song-writer who started out in folk, although she did not start recording until after the arrival of a new breed of musicians, unconnected with the folk world. The first of them was another woman, Carole King. During the 1960s she had worked in the ‘song factory’ of the Brill Building in New York, writing hit songs like ‘Take Good Care Of My Baby’ and ‘The Locomotion’. In 1970, however, she released a solo album singing more personal songs, and her next album, Tapestry (1971), went on to sell over ten million copies, rivalling the success of Simon and Garfunkel‘s Bridge over Troubled Water. Paul Simon went on to join the new singer/songwriters as a solo artist, producing songs that were often more complex and enigmatic than Carole King’s.
At the other end of the spectrum from Paul Simon was James Taylor, the simplicity of whose songs brought much criticism from commentators committed to the dynamism of 1960s rock. Like Carole King he made one very good album followed by a series of less interesting ones, but he also opened the way for a string of ‘sensitive’ singer/song-writers of whom Jackson Browne is one of the most successful.
Many of these newer singer/song-writers occupy a middle ground between rock music itself and middle-of-the-road music (M 0 R). Two very popular singers who come into this category are Neil Diamond and John Denver, both of whom have written some fine songs, although too much of their output is marred by a tendency towards pop cliches (in the case of Diamond) or sentimentality (Denver).
One final strand which deserves a mention in any survey of singer/song-writers in America is made up of those musicians who, like Bob Dylan, have attached themselves to some aspect of their American musical heritage. Don Maclean, whose record ‘American Pie’ was one of the best singles of the 1970s, plays banjo and learned a great deal from Pete Seeger. Arlo Guthrie is Woody’s son, and his best albums, Hobo’s Lullabye and Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys, show him carrying on the family tradition by combining modem themes with folk and country music.
Singer/song-writers have played a much less important part in British rock over the last ten years, mainly because there has been a far smaller audience for this kind of music than exists in America. The first to make their mark came out of the folk clubs and onto the concert platform: Donovan, Ralph McTell, Roy Harper and Al Stewart all took that route. Others, like Harvey Andrews and the much underrated Pete Atkin, had difficulty finding an audience, since their music could be categorized neither as ‘folk’ nor ‘rock’, something which counted in their favour artistically, but not commercially. The richest source of new song-writing has turned out to be the electric folk movement, with Richard Thompson as the major figure. The late Sandy Denny also contributed some good songs, of which ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ is the best known, and Maddy Prior, formerly of Steeleye Span, began a promising solo career singing only her own compositions. Two other women, with contrasting styles, are among the best of the newer singer/song-writers in Britain: Joan Armatrading and Kate Bush. Armatrading leans on the soul balladry of Nina Simone while Kate Bush owes a debt to Joni Mitchell, to which she adds her own very theatrical approach to song-writing and performing.
Essential ‘Dylan And After’ Singles
Like A Rolling Stone
A record which shifted the centre of gravity of the hit single, with its swirling organ sounds and hustling, vehement lyrics.
Simon and Garfunkel
The Sounds Of Silence
Originally an acoustic track, but dubbed with electric backing to turn it into folk rock. The lyrics are a perfect summation of teenage alienation.
Eve Of Destruction
The identikit protest song, written to order by P. F. Sloan, with outrageous rhymes and curious, growling vocals.
Reason To Believe
Rod Stewart did a memorable version of this classic love song, but the original recording is more restrained and more moving.
There is no name yet for the places he and his voice can go … always managing to be wildly passionate and pure at the same time.’ (Lillian Roxon)
Don’t Stop The Carnival
Showing the positive influence of Randy Newman, the record combines Caribbean rhythms with a sketch of West Indian life in Britain.
Pedal-steel guitar pervades one of the finest songs by an intriguing but overlooked writer who was once a Monkee.
I am – I Said
The most personal song of a talented pop hit writer, pinpointing the feeling of isolation in being ‘lost between two shores’, New York and Los Angeles.
The Lady With The Braid
A perfectly controlled performance which subtly unfolds to show the need and the loneliness masked by the sophistication of the ‘swinging singles’ era.
The theme song from a movie whose power in portraying the genocide of the American Indians matched the passion of Buffy’s singing.
One of her early hits, lacking the hard-bitten quality of the records of a few years later.
City Of New Orleans
An evocative Steve Goodman song, using a train journey as a metaphor for a reflection on the character of America.
The brilliant, lengthy tour-de-force, in which Maclean presents the history of rock music and of a generation.
A neat and enjoyable song about the fans who won’t free a singer/song-writer from his past as a rock & roll star.
Goodtime Charlie’s Got The Blues
A deceptively simple lyric, using traditional images, which also captures the confused mood as the Vietnam War drew to its close.
Heart Of Gold
His only Number I hit, a stark love song uniting Young’s mournful voice with unexpected images.
I Got A Name
Croce had several hits based on a melodic approach to acoustic music and reflecting a blue-collar street-level attitude, as in this song.
Rocky Mountain High
A clear, unsentimental picture of life in the Rockies and the threats to it. By far his best song.
A tale of an ageing disc-jockey told with compassion by a very popular American artist.
A beautifully performed, low-key song of experience – a contrast to her earlier precocious protest material.
A fine comeback single from one of Britain’s best, charting the common city emotion of wanting to ‘get away from it all’ with accuracy and sympathy.