In our perpetual quest for what americana is, one name stands out above all the rest. Measured by the number of pieces on Americana UK and how well read they are Bob Dylan is americana. Over a career that is now in its seventh decade he has reshaped his own music more than once and pointed the way for many artists who are now revered names themselves.
Dylan absorbed his own influences of course, notably Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. In Joan Baez, with whom he played the Greenwich Village folk clubs, he found someone who introduced him to the scene and adopted some of his songs. His Guthrie influenced first album was the catalyst for a new generation of acoustic folk musicians. This same generation felt betrayed by his adoption of the electric guitar in 1965, but more were inspired to strap one on themselves, and folk-rock was born. The next step towards americana came with his work in Nashville on the “agrarian themed and slightly reactionary” ‘John Wesley Harding’ and the country-rock of ‘Nashville Skyline.’
By the turn of the 70s there were plenty of Dylan inspired artists coming through. Lou Reed’s singing style was heavily influenced by Dylan. Then there was Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and many others, often saddled with the label ‘the new Dylan’. But the abiding influence of Dylan was felt in the adoption of a more serious tone to lyrics. The influence of ‘Hurricane’ which made the case for boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s innocence, and the narrative style of the album ‘Desire’ can still be felt in many current americana artists’ work. In 2016, Dylan was the first musician to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Eight years earlier the citation on his Pulitzer Prize award read “for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power” These are prizes for words not music and taking the lyrics of pop, rock and country based tunes away from cars and girls and into the more serious domain that folk music has often occupied, is a big part of the legacy Dylan has left for americana. He has always made music that needs to be taken seriously. In a previous piece on Dylan I quoted a colleague who suggested that Dylan’s songs are best when someone else sings them. It might be more accurate to say that Dylan’s words and tunes are strong enough to be taken and dropped into almost any context. Neil Young’s incendiary, if not overly subtle, version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ on the ‘Weld’ live album, released in 1991 at the time of the first Gulf War, took the original message and transferred it to the age of Cruise Missile attacks being shown live on CNN.
Despite the negativity it generated at the time, his ‘Christian period’ made it acceptable to talk god in mainstream music. A casual mention at Live Aid of the plight of Mid-West Farmers, led to Farm Aid, proving his influence had not dimmed 25 years into his career, and that his focus was on his backyard, another bequest to many of the artists we feature at AUK. His tours with Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead were some of the earliest of the big event gigs that have dominated live music since the ’80s.
Bruce Springsteen’s introduction to his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction declared: “Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body. He showed us that just because music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual”. The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Miles Davis have all reshaped music in their own image, but to largely single handedly mould something that has the breadth of the americana we feature here, running from acoustic folk, to country, rock and roll, and more there is only one name that counts. Bob Dylan.