Dylan Goes Electric
Saturday, 16 December 2017 12:56

Dylan Goes Electric

Published in Music

50 years after Dylan went electric, controversy still rages about Bob Dylan's politics. Steve Johnson reviews the debates.

On 25th July 1965 Bob Dylan went on stage at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. It was not his first time at the festival. In 1963 he was greeted as a voice of the young generation performing “Blowing in the Wind” in a glorious finale with fellow musicians which united Dylan’s contemporaries like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary with an older generation of folk singers like Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert from The Weavers. Followed by “We Shall Overcome” it seemed a perfect link between the new wave of folk singers and the burgeoning civil rights movement as well as paying homage to the earlier generation of folk musicians who had campaigned for peace and equality and against McCarthyism.

The response in 1965 however was different. Backed by multi- instrumentalist Al Kooper and the Paul Butterfields Blues Band Dylan went electric on a performance of “Maggie’s Farm”, and controversy still rages as to what happened next and what the significance was. It was not the first time Dylan had experimented with electric having brought out the album “Bringing it All Back Home” earlier in the year. Nor was he the only act at the festival to have played electric. Yet it is this set that is cited as a definitive moment when a break occurred between the old left folk tradition represented by Seeger, and the new younger followers of Dylan.

A number of myths have grown up around this particular narrative. The most enduring one is that Pete Seeger tried to cut through the cable wires with an axe. Anybody who has ever been to a music festival will know that an axe is not high on the list of items to pack but the narrative suits those who want to portray Seeger as representative of a dogmatic old left that wanted to dictate what form music should take.

There were however legitimate concerns from left musicians about commercialisation, and how capitalism could easily absorb protest music and thereby render it harmless. Opinions also still differ as to why some members of the audience jeered while others cheered. Singer Maria Muldaur has said it wasn’t so much Dylan going electric that caused some people to boo but the fact that the arrangements weren’t quite right. It didn’t actually sound very good!

Another myth that has grown up in the aftermath is that on Dylan’s British tour ten months later, members of the Communist Party tried to disrupt his performances culminating in the shout of “Judas” at Manchester Free Trade Hall. Various right-wing or liberal commentators have claimed that this was instigated by the Communist Party of Great Britain, led by its folk overlord Ewan MacColl. This conveniently ignores the fact that MacColl had long left the party by 1965 but bourgeois journalists rarely check their facts when they need to state a particular narrative.

Whilst there may have been some Communist Party members who were strong folk fans and who did perhaps take a purist line on what folk music should be, there were also Communist Party members who liked rock and roll, some who liked jazz and some who liked classical or a combination of genres. There was never a party line on what members should like nor was Dylan going electric ever the subject of a congress resolution. It may be some party members did heckle the electric Dylan because they thought he sounded crap, but the thought of Communists having emotions like other people and reacting accordingly is lost on commentators with a particular agenda.

It’s not however Dylan going electric in itself that should concern us, but how that moment was used by other people and how it coincided with Dylan’s own disengagement from political protest. Dylan had claimed inspiration from Woody Guthrie and some of his early songs like “Masters of War” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol” were masterpieces of angry political commentary against the ruling establishment.

Like other young folk singers in the 1960s such as Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Judy Collins Dylan became identified as a protest singer, performing at Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963. “Blowing in the Wind” having become a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan became identified with both the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement. It was quite clear however that by 1965 Dylan was becoming weary of being identified as a protest singer and did not appear at any more public protests. In an interview with folk magazine “Sing Out” in 1968 when asked about the Vietnam War he replied “how do you know, I’m not as you say for the war?” It seems unlikely he was for the war but he was making a clear statement that he was now only interested in playing music.

Although he was persuaded by his old friend Phil Ochs to appear at a Concert for Allende following the coup in Chile in 1973 his drunken performance and the fact some members of the audience were there just to see Dylan upset the organisers, especially Ochs, who had befriended murdered Chilean singer Victor Jara. Sadly Ochs was to take his own life not long after, having never achieved the fame Dylan had, due to his more overt political stand.

Dylan did venture back into political song writing in 1975 with his song “Hurricane” about the unjust imprisonment of black boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. But not all his political concerns were progressive ones. In the 1970s he had developed contact with Rabbi Meir Kahane of the ultra-right-wing Jewish Defence League promising to finance the group’s activities although Kahane was to complain the money never materialised. This caused his fellow artist Mimi Farina (sister of Joan Baez) to write an open letter to him in the San Francisco Chronicle, seeking a reassurance that money from his concerts would not be helping to finance the Israeli military. Dylan still performs in Israel. But does he ever think of the Palestinians when he sings “How many years must a people exist before they’re allowed to be free?

Personally I quite like some of Dylan’s later electric output and don’t feel it necessary to take a political position on the authenticity or otherwise of anything other than acoustic. However the attitudes of some of those who welcomed that moment at Newport can be summed up by the critic Paul Nelson in “Sing Out” shortly afterwards.

Comparing Dylan and Seeger, he criticised the latter as someone who “subjugated his art through his continued insistence on a world that never was and never can be… I choose Dylan. I choose art.” In other words art is solely for art’s sake. Music should never be about the struggle for a better life and campaigning is a waste of time. It certainly suits the capitalist class to encourage young people to have that approach to the music they listen to. For that reason alone, this particular cataclysmic moment at Newport in 1965 should be viewed by the left as a retrograde step in both political and musical terms.

This article was first published in the Morning Star.

Billy Bragg on tour 2015
Saturday, 16 December 2017 12:56

Socialism of the Heart: an interview with Billy Bragg

Published in Music

 How did the last tour go, did you enjoy it? You had to put on extra dates, what were the audiences like? Do you think you're tapping into a new radical mood among young people, the same mood that got Corbyn elected?

The tour's just finished, it was great. I started with a couple of London shows at the Union Chapel, a non-conformist church in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency of Islington North. Built in 1877, it’s a wonderful gig to perform, but backstage isn’t really designed for rock and roll gigs. It’s a more of a Victorian warren. One of my crew asked if I’d seen the mural of Jeremy in one of the rooms? I went to investigate and found that, while it did depict a kindly looking fellow with a beard, this chap was carrying a lamb and his head was suspiciously backlit.

Following the London shows, I headed up to Scotland to do my first gigs there since the independence referendum. I was very encouraged to find that the energy of the Yes campaign had not dissipated, despite their defeat last September. I also found that Corbyn’s election means something different in Scotland. Progressively-minded people are happy that someone who opposes the neo-liberal consensus has been elected leader of the Labour Party, but they do wonder why it’s taken us so long to catch on to the idea that the Westminster system is broken.

It was an interesting time to be on the road up there. The Syria vote fired everyone up – even the doorman at my Glasgow hotel said it was outrageous that parliament had voted in favour of bombing. The Oldham by-election added some edge to things and the new left wing grouping, RISE, were holding their first conference on the coming weekend. As a result, the Scottish gigs were highly politicised.

We finished off with a gig at Butlins Skegness holiday camp. Sounds strange, I know, but it’s the best way to hold a festival in December and Butlins host music events most weekends through the winter. This one was the Great British Folk Festival and although I’m not really part of the tradition, the folk audience has always been very supportive. In a music business where most artists would rather not say anything politically controversial, the folk fans deserve respect as people who have helped keep the topical song alive.

I wasn’t too sure how my songs would go down at Butlins, but I gave them the same politicised set that I’d been doing in London and Scotland and it went down a storm. Every mention of Corbyn was cheered and when I finished with ‘There is Power in A Union’, they stood and sang along.

You're also one of the people that have kept the protest music tradition alive in this country, and helped make sure socialist values are kept alive and celebrated musically. Can you tell us something about your background, how you got into the protest music tradition, and why you've stuck with it when others have fallen away? Can musicians influence politics, do you think?

I got into politics through music. My earliest heroes were the singer-songwriters of the 1960s – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Jackson Browne all wrote topical songs. My other love was American soul music. Listening to the likes of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and the Impressions I heard the songs of struggle that were inspired by the civil rights movement.

Although people believed that music could change the world in the 60s, that has not been my experience. Ultimately, the responsibility for changing the world rests not with the artist but with the audience. To pretend otherwise is to fail to understand history. Having said that, I do believe that music has a role to play in inspiring the audience to take up that challenge.

Attending the Rock Against Racism Carnival in May 1978 was my first political activism. That event made me realise that I was not the only person who was troubled by the casual racism, sexism and homophobia I saw everyday at the office where I worked. However, it wasn’t the bands that gave me the courage of my convictions, it was being in that audience – 100,000 kids just like me. That day I realised that my generation were going to define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds, just as the previous generation had been defined by their opposition to the Vietnam War.

The bands that played that day did a great service to me by creating an atmosphere in which my perceptions were challenged, which in turn led me to take a different view of things. That is the role that music can play in the struggle. I know, because it happened to me and so I try to challenge perceptions every time I do a gig.

Can you tell us more about the phenomenon that was Red Wedge, in the eighties, which you fronted? And the obvious next question, any chance of something similar happening in the next few years?

Taking its name from a poster by Russian constructivist El Lizzitsky, Red Wedge was an artist-led initiative that sought to encourage young people to support the Labour party at the 1987 election. When the miners' strike ended in defeat, those of us who had done gigs in support of the strikers and their families didn’t just want to go back to normal. Red Wedge was our way of continuing the struggle, taking the fight to the Tories at the next possible opportunity – the 1987 election.

We chose to work with (not for) the Labour Party because we felt they represented the best vehicle for getting rid of the Tories. The miners' strike had been a genuinely revolutionary moment, but it had failed. Now we had to take the next best option. We didn’t see the fight against the Tories as an either/or choice: our message to revolutionary colleagues was that we would come on to the street with them when it was time, if they would come into the ballot box with us.

The core artists involved were myself, the Style Council, Junior Giscombe, Jerry Dammers and the Communards. In the lead up to the election, we were joined by Madness, the Smiths, Prefab Sprout, the Kane Gang, The The, Gary Kemp, The Beat, Tom Robinson and many others. What defined us was our opposition to Margaret Thatcher, rather than an avid support for the Labour Party.

Could Red Wedge happen again? I think that’s a question for someone under 30.

How has the music industry changed over the years? Could someone with your background and your openly political approach still make it, do you think?

The music industry has changed massively in the 33 years since my first record. When I started out, there were three weekly music papers that sold big – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, as well as many smaller publications. There were only two pop radio stations, BBC Radio One and it’s regional commercial equivalent – Capital in London. And there was a weekly pop show on national tv that broadcast all the latest music and styles into your living room – Top of the Pops. All of that has either disappeared or had its voice drowned out by digital competition.

More significantly for someone who wants to make political pop, music has lost its vanguard role as the primary identifying medium of youth culture. When I was 19 years old, the only avenue of expression open to me was pop music. If I wanted to broadcast my thoughts about the world, I had to learn to play an instrument, write songs and do gigs. Now any 19-year-old can express their views by blogging or making a film on their phone or using the ready-made platforms of the social media.

Although we didn’t realise it at the time, back in the latter years of the 20th century, music was our social medium – we used it to speak to one another and to our parent’s generation. Now if 19-year-olds want to know what their peers are thinking, they don’t buy an album or look at the charts or in the NME, they simply check their Instagram account.

I also wonder if I’d have been able to overcome the amount of scorn and abuse directed at anyone who expresses a progressive opinion on social media these days. If I’d had to endure the slings and arrows of Twitter and Facebook while forming my political opinions, would I have thought better of it and just stuck to writing love songs?

Your latest book of lyrics, A Lover Sings, is published by Faber and Faber, the august publishing house for top class poetry. That's quite an achievement in itself, isn't it? What do you think about the difference between poems and songs?

The main difference is that you generally experience poetry in solitude, reading quietly somewhere. Songs tend to be more of a communal experience. To hear a favourite song sung by the artists who wrote it and to sing along with them and hundreds, maybe thousands of others, has the effect of validating whatever emotions you’ve invested in the song. It’s a kind of solidarity. The left know the powerful unity that can come from singing together but it doesn’t have to be a political song to make you feel that you’re not alone. You can’t get that sense of communion on the internet, which is why I think gigs are becoming more popular, particularly festivals where you can feel part of something bigger.

What's your thinking about current political issues, the new Labour leadership, and the sudden and unexpected resurgence of the political left?

Unexpected is the word! I think Jeremy Corbyn himself may have been the most surprised by his elevation. It’s clearly not just about him. There is something bigger at work. My hunch is that he has become a lightning rod for a different way of doing politics. His sudden popularity is less to do with his own position and more to do with an urge on the left to be part of a genuinely transformative movement.

That’s the feeling that I got in Scotland last year, when doing gigs with supporters of the Yes campaign during the referendum. People were energised not by nationalism but by a sense that another world was possible. That’s why the turn out was unprecedented – people knew that their vote would really mean something. I think the same urge is behind Corbyn’s landslide. At a time when globalisation has allowed corporations to set the agenda, our democracy has become less about change and more about rewarding the status quo. Corbyn challenges that cosy arrangement.

Whether he can survive until the general election is anybody's guess, but, again, I take heart from what happened in Scotland: the Yessers lost the referendum, but they didn’t go home and give up. They maintained the connections they’d made and kept the momentum going. My hope is that, now we Corbynites have been engaged in the process of changing our politics for the better, we won’t simply melt away if the Great Helmsman is brought down by Blairite revanchists within the PLP. They can oust him, but they will still have us to deal with in the ensuing leadership contest.

Finally, Billy, what do you mean by your phrase 'socialism of the heart'?

It’s a term I came up with after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when ideology was being swiftly abandoned and the language that we’d used to debate our politics no longer meant anything to the public we hoped to engage. I’ve always believed that if socialism is not, at heart, a form of organised compassion, then it is not really worthy of the name. So I began trying to find ways of expressing the compassionate politics that I felt had to form the bedrock of our attempts to forge a new ideology that connected with people’s everyday experiences and ‘socialism of the heart’ was the first term I came up with.

Billy Bragg has just finished an intensive year's tour round Britain. A Lover Sings, The Selected Lyrics of Billy Bragg, is published by Faber and Faber.