Feature piece: The man who wrote the book on Dylan

The man who wrote the book on Dylan: Elijah Wald speaks to Jarek Zaba of the US100

Without the work of Elijah Wald, the US100 may never have existed: Jarek picked up a copy of his 2015 book – Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties – while travelling the States, its meticulous analysis and explanation of counterculture America one of several inspirations that led to US100 evolving from playlist to project. Thrilled to have secured an interview with someone who has won a Grammy Award for his writings on music, Jarek used 45 minutes on Skype to try and tap into this extensive fountain of knowledge. 

When you are an amateur hobbyist and you happen to find yourself engaging with something of a refined professionalised version of what you would like to be, you swiftly discover that you aren’t quite the expert you thought you were. In my instance, one of the first things that becomes apparent in my interview with genuine bona fine music historian – not to mention musician in his own right – Elijah Wald is that certain misconceptions and misinterpretations that I accuse others of being guilty of peddling might in fact be my own that I am merely projecting onto them.

“There exists this misconception,” I somewhat blindly begin. “That Bob Dylan had basically never seen an electric guitar before Newport [Folk Festival 1965], that it was all a completely new shock what he did there and then, that…”

“I think that’s unfair,” Wald interjects. “Anybody at all interested would know Bringing It All Back Home came before, that he had already done Like A Rolling Stone.”

This prompted me to ponder back and reconsider my own history with this history: was I ever even aware of a school of thought along these lines, or had I invented this myth specifically so it could be bust? Had I in fact come up with something of a historical straw man? Was I in fact the one who had once ignorantly believed that Dylan had never seen an electric guitar before Newport?

Thankfully a Skype interview does not allow too much time for introspective soul searching, and soon enough Wald was setting about confronting myths of his own.

“Rock historians tend to act like Dylan went on stage, he did this brilliant show, and then stupid folkies booed him,” he explains. “But in fact what Dylan did was walk on stage, stand around for two minutes without saying a word while his band tuned, played a song, stand around for another two minutes without saying a word, play one more song. It was a really contemptuous performance and honestly it was a show virtually anyone would have booed – that’s the part they tend to leave out.”

My eyes light up: me and Elijah are now on the same page. Perhaps in part because my own interpretation had been so heavily influenced by the account of Wald in his 2015 book, Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties, but our conclusions tally up: people booed not because it was electric but because Dylan’s set was just a bit rubbish.

I proudly read my US100 copy along these lines; Wald cautions: “But there were also plenty of people cheering. There were a lot of younger people there who felt like the old guard was hopelessly lost in the past, and who were wildly thrilled with what Dylan did. They didn’t really care about the fact the performance was the way it was, they were just absolutely thrilled to see Dylan stick it to the old guard.”

Within minutes we are already hitting the root of this topic’s contentious nature: there was no uniform reaction to Dylan’s performance and, while Wald and I may have reached our own conclusions, there is no definitively accepted reason for whatever reaction he did get.

And here’s the thing: you can’t even trust what you think is a primary source, whether talking about documentation or witness testimony. Over the course of our conversation, Elijah manages to emphasise this through three key examples.

Dylan on stage at Newport Folk Festival, 1965

Firstly, the footage: “If you’re watching the set on YouTube, what you’re watching is Martin Scorsese’s edit – which dubs the reaction from the crowd at the end of his set onto the end of the first song. There’s no question that when he left the stage after only three songs there was a lot of booing, but the way this is cut makes it appear that they are booing the nature of the performance – rather than expressing disappointment that Dylan was leaving the stage after only three songs. Many and maybe most of the audience were irate that they were getting so little of him.”

Well how about someone who was there in the crowd – surely they can be trusted to accurately say what happened? “The best story I have of how confused the reaction was comes from a friend of mine who was there at Newport, aged 15,” Elijah says. “He remembers absolutely clearly how exciting it was and how much he loved it. And yet – he also remembers absolutely clearly owning an acoustic guitar with Dylan’s picture inside the case, and crossing that picture out because he was so upset with the performance. That is to say he has memories both of absolutely loving and of hating it. And that’s just one person. Everyone kind of invented their own history around it all.”

So we can’t trust footage from the event and we can’t trust eyewitnesses. Can we at least trust the participants and protagonists themselves? “Al Kooper [Dylan’s organist for the set, perhaps most famed for providing the iconic organ riff of Like A Rolling Stone] is very upset with my book,” Wald goes on. “Because his memory of that night is extremely clear, and extremely wrong. He’s absolutely certain that Dylan was the last act of the night. He’s absolutely certain that everybody else played 40 minutes and Dylan was the shortest set of the night – a bunch of demonstrably incorrect things.”

Wald does offer a partial defence for Kooper’s position however: “But Al is a hell of a good musician. And I can tell you, as someone who spent a lot of time on stage, boy if there’s one person who doesn’t know how long they’ve been on stage, especially when they’re in a really weird exciting situation, it’s the people on stage. It felt to him like he was on and off in five minutes, and that doesn’t surprise me a bit. But you know, Al enjoys being cranky.”

The question of Dylan’s set length is an important one, and another topic that Wald puts me right on: I had assumed that the 20 minutes that Dylan and his band played for was an affront, internally comparing it to the 90 minute headline sets I’m used to at festivals, and concluding that that must have been an enormous factor behind the negative reaction.  

“Well first of all he was not a headliner,” Wald corrects, prompting me to swiftly amend my copy on the US100 website that confidently declares that he was. “The whole point of Newport, being the good socialists they were, was they had no hierarchy. Everyone was supposed to do 15 minutes. Dylan did over 20 and it was the longest set of the evening. But there was a lot of dead space in there, and so it only ended up being three songs. People really did feel robbed.”

The conversation dwells on Dylan a little more, Wald emphasising that the hostile reception Dylan met with post-Newport, particularly in the UK, was borne out of disgust at his ‘selling out’, rather than the nature of his music: “There were a lot of people who felt – fairly or not – that he’d been a leader of a revolution, but had made the choice to just go for the money.”

Meanwhile he dismisses whatever notion I had of Dylan specifically targeting the folk ‘establishment’ with the lyrics of Maggie’s Farm: “No I don’t think so. It was a song against mainstream America, coming from the point of view of the counterculture, which at that point very much was the folk scene. If there was any song that people feel he intended to be interpreted that way at Newport, it was It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”   

Feeling somewhat humbled and more educated, I am at this stage keen to get an expert stuck into US100. I explain how in my second chapter, covering songs 2-4, I have threaded a narrative that connects the humble origins of Woody Guthrie with the folk rock success of Simon & Garfunkel, via the superstardom of Bob Dylan. I ask if these choices seem logical, seeking affirmation along the lines of: ‘yep, you’ve nailed it’.

Wald has not read my script. “No – to me those aren’t at all the people,” he says. “I would say as far as folk music went, Pete Seeger was bigger than Woody Guthrie ever dreamed of being. And Joan Baez was more important than Dylan. If you go to a folk club right now, most of the people will remind you more of Joan Baez than they do of Bob Dylan.”

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez: “If you go to a folk club right now, most of the people will remind you more of Joan Baez than they do of Bob Dylan.”

Perhaps this merely serves to highlight my folly. My 100 song choices were made primarily on the basis of my personal taste and affection, with threads and themes being moulded around them: Joan Baez does not feature in the US100 because Joan Baez has never featured in my CD collection, whereas Simon & Garfunkel – “as far as I’m concerned a pop act,” says Wald – very much do. Somewhat ironically Wald suggests that Simon & Garfunkel should be ‘filed exactly wherever you file The Mamas & the Papas’ – in reality, I ‘filed’ The Mamas & the Papas in the immediately preceding chapter, which sits next to – but not with – Simon & Garfunkel.

As the interview starts to evolve from a discussion of mutual interest towards one writer offering sage journalistic wisdom to another, Wald offers a pertinent thought. “Once you’ve said that the way you’ve selected your songs is just the songs you like, all we’re talking is your autobiography, right? That’s the connecting thread.” It’s a more than valid point – regardless of the links that can be drawn between music and movements, this project remains primarily personal.

The reason we have moved onto US100 in general is because I’m keen to tap into Wald’s expertise with regards to American popular music more broadly – as well as having penned Dylan Goes Electric!, Wald is also responsible for 2011’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, covering a period of time (1890-1970) that will ensure much crossover with US100 tracks. Explaining how this book has swiftly been added to my ‘to read’ list, I try and nail Wald down on the kind of themes that will continue to emerge over the course of my learning.

Citing the examples of Cab Calloway and segregation, hip hop in The Bronx, and the Guthrie-Dylan-Seeger involvement with the civil rights movement, all before we’ve even got to track 10, I posit that it is surely inevitable that race will be a theme that will punctuate this project, such is its enormous importance to American history and society. Wald again does not necessarily acquiesce to my expectations.

“It’s clear that the through thread here is things that interest you,” he says. “If you find that the songs you like keep touching on race, we’re talking about you right? There’s nothing wrong with that but that’s the connecting thread. Race to me is clearly one of the central issues in any aspect of American culture – but lots of people tell the story of the folk scene and virtually leave race out of it. I find it absolutely fascinating, but by God they do it.”

Katy Perry at a 2015 rally for Hillary Clinton in Des Moines, Iowa. Wald argues that Perry is one of the more active political voices in the music scene today

Before I leave Wald be, there is one more topic in which I feel compelled to tap into: Washington, D.C. is the next stop on the US100 tour, with one of its two chapters to explore American politics’ relationship with popular music and protest. Neither of us utter the President T word, but I am curious as to why today’s landscape seems devoid of Seeger or Dylan-like figures at the head of a counterculture-esque movement.

“Right now I just don’t think there is a movement [to represent],” he says, keen to emphasise that politically active musicians – Beyonce, Kanye West, Katy Perry – are very much still there. “When there is a movement, we’ll see whether it uses music and how. Keep in mind that the most political person on the 1960s folk scene, after Pete Seeger, was Joan Baez – and she didn’t sing political songs. She was just an extremely political person singing old folk songs. And today there’s still plenty of musicians who are showing up at rallies and speaking out about politics. But it’s a different moment – music isn’t unifying people in the same way, and quite honestly I don’t think it’s as important to people in quite the same way.”

I ponder whether the US100 and its Make America Enjoyable Again motto is exactly what’s missing in this regard. I don’t bring it up – this is one idea I don’t want shot down.  

Elijah Wald is sharing many of the songs from the very rich collection that exists in his head through his very own Songobiography. You can subscribe to his weekly updates here.

US100 Tracks 2-4
2. Woody Guthrie – This Land Is Your Land
3. Bob Dylan – Maggie’s Farm
4. Simon & Garfunkel – America

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