Last post I rapidly traced poetry from the era of Homer and Sappho and the Confucian Odes, jumped to English language poetry and finally ended with early 20th century Americans. I traveled fast, and simplified much, but it wouldn’t be out of line to say this is a progression from poetry that was expected to be performed with music to a poetry that wasn’t. Widespread literacy and the printing press, and by the Modernist era, a desire to include complex allusions and layers of ambiguity all helped this progression along.
Today let’s start in the 20th Century in America and follow the songwriter’s side of things. Popular songwriting had become industrialized. Composers and lyricists churned out uncountable numbers—and first by sheet music and then by recordings, film, and broadcasts, these productions could be distributed widely. Barriers to entry were low in this business, but rewards for popular success were high. Lyricists came from a wide range of backgrounds—some were middle class, even college educated, but many were immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants for whom English was a fresh language.
As with any mass art or market, much of what they produced was forgettable, a job of work, their ears may have sometimes bent to the muse, but their hands were looking for a paycheck.
Poets and literary critics occasionally paid a little bit of attention to that work in their time. Lively arts and all, some notice was taken.* With the music inspired by Jazz, the cultural force of the music could not be denied, even if the words that came along with it might be condescended to.
Then, in the mid-1930s, a decision was made, outside of music and poetry—a political decision—that eventually changed the course of popular music lyrics. For political reasons both international and U. S. national, the Soviet Union-dominated international Comintern and the U. S. Communist Party decided to switch tactics from a more purist “only the Communist Party is the solution” stance to a popular front position, where anyone to the left of the then rising Fascist forces were considered valid allies.**
In the U. S. this led to such slogans as “Communism is the Americanism of the 20th Century.” On a political level this meant that the Roosevelt New Deal wouldn’t be portrayed as capitalists pushing insufficient reforms to stave off the inevitable revolution, and that actual “card-carrying Communists” would be mixing more generally with socialists, liberals and centrists. But for our purposes, we need to look at how this played out in the cultural sector.
Popular arts, which could have been perceived as hopelessly compromised tools of the capitalist system, became more acceptable; but a more pure, folk expression that was seen as coming directly from and for the workers and the exploited, a music existing outside of the commercial infrastructure of entertainment, was even more ideal.
So here, twenty years before the “Great Folk Scare” of the 1950s were the roots of the folk revival.*** It’s in this pre-WWII period that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie came of age and shaped their songwriting. Seeger was a Harvard drop-out and son of two musicologists.**** Guthrie was none of those things. The Popular Front meant that the likes of those two, and many others with high to low culture backgrounds, would mix it up.
My apologies to my Christian readers for posting this example of extraordinary Popular Front songwriting on Easter when it’s more a Good Friday kind of thing. Billie Holiday sings the harrowing “Strange Fruit.”
As songwriters this could have meant dour issue-of-the-month songs cleared by some central committee. And to be honest, each of them sang and wrote some of those, but both of them had Emersonian Individualist streaks.*****
And they listened too, had big ears. Afro-American music and musicians, isolated southern U. S. musicians who songs and styles were time-capsules of old British Isles tunes. Blues and “Hillbilly” music benefited somewhat from being a source and occasional fellow-traveler with this movement.
The Afro-American Harlem Renaissance is shaped by the gravitational pull of this political decision too. Civil Rights before the ‘30s was often aspirational, and though the folk traditions were honored before, this new emphasis on embracing popular and folk arts increased the interest and respect for them among an emerging new Afro-American cultural consensus.
Now we jump ahead again, it’s that un-named but important straddle decade of the late ‘50s to early 60s. Communist connections are poison. Illness had made Guthrie bedridden. Seeger is persevering outside of any first-tier commercial structure as a road-dog performer. “Folk Music” is now a commercial genre with a still bohemian/left-wing underground. Into this we inject the man who will expand the idea of what song lyrics will be allowed to do: Bob Dylan.
You don’t have to like Bob Dylan as a person, performer or songwriter to accept this truth: there are song lyrics before Dylan’s 1963-66 period and there are song lyrics afterward, but song lyrics are a completely different field after the change he proved was possible. This is why an artist as strong in his own right as Leonard Cohen can say in one of his last public statements: “Giving a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.”
But a Bob Dylan has causes, has a context in which he can happen. That choice Communist bureaucrats made for pragmatic political reasons in the mid-1930s led to a folk music scene 20 years later in which Afro-American blues and weird old folk music mixes with poetic Modernism inside the mind of one songwriter, and what comes out is strange and compelling.
Song lyrics don’t have to be a piece of work aiming for an established commercial target. Song lyrics don’t have to make clear front-to-back sense the first or the fifteenth time you hear them, they can mystify you and still have listeners. Songs with narrative elements don’t have to progress in a linear manner. Song lyrics can be about anything, can use any kind of imagery. Love songs can be ambiguous. Political points can be made metaphorically. You can combine different kinds of diction, even sample and reference various existing sources, and it doesn’t have to seem out of place or from the lack of original things to say.
One can point to song lyrics that did one or two of these things before Dylan, but after Dylan used many of them together and repeated that demonstration often, many songwriters wanted to try using any and all of these things, and their attempts caused other songwriters to do the same. A chain-reaction occurred.
Modernist poetry had done all these things already, and often—but Modernist poets didn’t write songs, and for the most part they didn’t read and perform their poetry charismatically. Some Beat poets, that faction of the Modernist movement that had vowed to remain resolutely bohemian, who had read their poems in front of jazz combos, recognized this was a different level of music combined with words. Allen Ginsberg heard a copy of Bob Dylan’s second LP in 1963. As the first side of that record moved inward toward the ouroboros groove in its middle, as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” played, he says he wept. Did he weep, feeling he was now displaced? Did he weep because this not yet 40-year-old poet might be replaced by this just over 20 singer-songwriter? No.
He wept, with an outlook of gratitude, because “There’s a saying among the Buddhists. If the student is not greater than the teacher, then the teacher is a failure.”
A long excerpt from “A Hard Rain Is a-Gonna Fall” with Ginsberg’s statement cut in.
Good story. But this was far from the end of the matter. A great many important poets and critics didn’t feel Ginsberg, or any of his Beat cohort, were very good poets. Therefore, Ginsberg’s say-so didn’t make Dylan a “real poet.”
You can’t say songwriting accepted or didn’t accept Bob Dylan, because acceptance is too meager a word for what happened—he changed how songwriting worked. The question of poetry “accepting” Bob Dylan, or songwriters in general, is still open.
Will I ever answer the question in the title? I beg your patience. This is by far the longest piece ever published here, even though I’m skimming over a lot of things. In Part Three I’ll finally get down to the answer that makes the most sense to me.
For an audio piece today I’ll suggest this one, one of the rare times here that I perform my own writing, a live version of “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde” by the LYL Band. The audio player is below. Thank you for reading and listening! Part Three, that should be the conclusion, comes soon.
*Decades after this era in 1990 literature professor Phillip Furia published his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley which helped convince this fan of more “authentic” songwriters that these commercial lyricists were not without considerable art.
**As in the case I’ll make later regarding Dylan, please don’t let any personal feelings or judgements you may have regarding Communism or the Comintern blind you to the historical connections here.
***I can’t not mention one poet and musician who jumped the gun on this, Carl Sandburg, who published his important folk song collection American Songbag in 1927. And for length reasons, I’ve largely left out the 20th century development of Afro-American blues and jazz. Charlie Patton didn’t wait for the Comintern to get in touch with him to forge his new alloy of styles.
****One of his father’s prize students was Modernist composer Henry Cowell. His step-mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger was in some opinions the most significant female American Modernist composer of the first half of the 20th century.
*****We can think of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Bells of Rhymey,” “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” or “This Land is Your Land” as exceeding requirements for that kind of song. Abel Meerpool’s “Strange Fruit” is an excellent example of a lyric, written as a song, that would stand alongside poetry intended for the page.