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Friday, October 28, 2016

"Whatever Follows the Age of the Dinosaurs": Lee Hays, Bob Dylan, and the Folk Revival

Given the theme for this month is transitions, it makes sense to note the ever-morphing artist, and the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob Dylan. In a career noted for transitions, Dylan has adeptly moved across musical genres, from protest singer, to rock and roller, and country crooner. With a career spanning 56 years, it’s easy to forget Dylan’s early shift from topical protest music to rock and roll reflected not only a shift in his own artistic expression, but a generational shift that rocked the folk revival scene of the mid-twentieth century.

The generation of artists before Dylan were closely connected with the leftist politics of the 1930s and ‘40s. Groups such as the Almanac Singers saw their work not only as a revival of old time music, but as an instrument for social change. [1] With an amorphous membership that at various times included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Bess Lomax, and Lee Hays, the Almanac Singers performed music that was unabashedly topical and political. Performing at union halls, and leftist meetings, their repertoire included such songs as “Talking Union,” “Which Side Are You On,” and “Union Maid.” While not officially connected to the Communist Party, most of the members were at the very least sympathetic to its concerns, and counted friends among the party. [2] Though Pete Seeger and Lee Hays moved into a more radio friendly direction in the 1950s, forming the Weavers with Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert, these connections would later come to haunt them. Seeger and Hays were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the group was blacklisted and harassed. While the Weavers work was tame in comparison to the Almanac Singers, with a stronger focus on timeless lyrics and tight harmonies, the political element never left. Songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Which Side are You On,” were still counter-cultural enough to provoke a reaction during the Red Scare.
The Weavers perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, January 13, 1968. Photograph by Robert C. Malone, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives.
One of the main intellectual forces behind the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, was the writer and singer, Lee Hays. The Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives is fortunate to house his works and papers, which have recently been digitized and are now available online. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1914 to a Methodist Minister, Hays rejected his father’s faith and politics after reading Upton Sinclair, and experiencing the hardships of the Great Depression. [3] In the 1930s, Hays joined Claude Williams, the leftist radical and preacher, and worked to help organize the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. While working for Williams, Hays discovered that art, and particularly music, could be enlisted in the struggle for social justice, and began to write what he called “zipper songs.” [4] Using hymns familiar to southern sharecroppers, Lee would “zip” in a few union phrases, transforming them into something subversive and powerful. For example, the refrain from “Old Ship of Zion,” a spiritual about the imminent Kingdom of God, was turned by Hays into a song of protest, replacing “old ship” with “union train”: “It’s that union train a-coming—coming—coming; It will carry us to freedom—freedom—.” [5] In the 1940s and ‘50s, Hays would find a home within a music scene which shared his political sensibilities, and his belief in the power of music to affect social change.
Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. Lee Hays Papers, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
As the folk revival exploded in popularity in 1958, with the hit single “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio, a new generation of revival artists had arrived. While some artists affected a “folk” aesthetic, hoping to profit on a new fad, others shared their forebears’ counter-cultural concerns, seeking an authenticity in a post-war boom that seemed only to offer a vacuous consumerism. In 1961, Bob Dylan arrived in New York looking every bit the part of a new Woody Guthrie, with a constructed biography mirroring his idol. Dylan’s first two albums were much a piece with the earlier generation, comprised of folk standards and protest songs. However, by 1965 Dylan was moving in another direction. Dubbed “the voice of a generation,” Dylan was restricted, and unnerved by such heightened expectations. [6] Feeling used and constrained, Dylan was increasingly suspicious of institutions, movements, and parties, with a growing sense of the naiveté surrounding protest music. At the height of the folk revival, in a perceived betrayal of its aims and sensibilities, Dylan debuted at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with an electric set, stunning the crowd into angry taunts and jeers. In a story that that is largely apocryphal, it was said that Pete Seeger was so incensed that he threatened to take an axe to the speaker cables, whether out of protest over the music’s volume or content, will forever be in dispute. [8] Regardless of what actually happened that day, what was clear was that what had been that generation’s best and brightest star, carrying the mantle of Guthrie and Seeger, had become a type of “Judas,” as one concert-goer famously shouted.

Shots of Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Photographs by Diana Davies, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.

Lee Hays’ correspondence offers a fascinating window into this transition, as the older artists attempted to get a handle on this new generation. In an open letter from February 1964, Hays writes:
The question of the day is, what do you think of Bob Dylan? I’d be more sure if I knew what he thinks of himself. There is a lot of cynicism in his songs; but if he contradicts himself, he is entitled to it. There’s a lot of desert ground in many a young artist before you get to the occasional mountain peak. In whatever follows the age of dinosaurs, the ones who give thought to meanings and origins and who sing with respect for the songs will do the most. I am impressed by the songs of Ian and Sylvia for those reasons.
Coming just on the heels of Dylan’s album, The Times They Are a-Changin’, Hays is likely reacting to the more introspective and darker material, though much of his songs remains topical and political. Even before Highway 61’, Dylan’s concerns were already departing from the parent generation, with more introspective and existential themes. [9]

While Dylan may have left the topical protest songs behind, it’s not clear that Hays and Dylan moved apart on a more fundamental level. While Hays hoped for “people’s songs” that would serve as “battle hymns” against “the powers of evil,” he also felt that above all it should be “true.” [10] Moreover, Hays was wary of those who would see folk music as a “static” genre, relegated to fiddles, banjos, and old country melodies:
Who am I, or who is anyone, to say that the music of the juke box, the beetle organ, which the millions of Americans listen to, and drink their beer to, and dance to, and argue by, and make love by, and relax by, and make up their minds who to vote for by, is trash? […] if the only real music were the pure ‘folk music,’ this would be a darn dead country, and I for one would have to leave it and go back to Arkansas […] I believe in creativeness and experiment, in Picasso as in Woody Guthrie, in Bach as in Pete Johnson, in Verdi as in Blitzstein. [11]
While Dylan’s career moved beyond the topical protests of Hay’s generation, there’s no denying that in drawing from “the jukebox” of American song, he has written songs that are true. It is Dylan’s “respect for the songs,” as Hays writes, that continues to bind him to the previous generation, and earned him the rightful place as one of America’s greatest songwriters.

Adrian Vaagenes, Intern

[1] Cohen, Ronald D., and Dave Samuelson. Songs For Political Action: Folkmusic, Topical Songs and the American Left 1926-1953. Bear Family Records, 1996. (pgs. 9-11);

[2]  Ibid. (pgs. 15-20).

[3] Willens, Doris. Lonesome Traveler: The Life of Lee Hays. W.W. Norton 7 Company, 1988, (pgs. 9; 20-21)

[4] Ibid, pgs. 56-59

[5] Hays, Lee. “Sing Out, Warning! Sing Out, Love!”: The Writings of Lee Hays. Edited by Robert S. Koppelman, University of Massachusetts Press, 2003, (pgs. 63-64).

[6] Petrus, Stephen and Ronald Cohen. Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival. Oxford University Press, 2015. (pgs. 286, 289). 

[7] Ibid. (pgs. 288-289); Dunaway, David King, and Molly Beer. Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals. Oxford University Press, 2010. (pg. 151).

[8] Dunaway, David King. How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad of Pete Seeger. Villard Books, 2008. (pgs. 306-308).

[9] Folk City. (pg. 288).

[10] “Sing Out, Warning! Sing Out, Love!” (pgs 89-90).

[11] Ibid. (pgs. 148-149).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for that succinct yet comprehensive and enlightening piece. "Whatever Follows the Age of the Dinosaurs": was a pleasure to read and gave me a new appreciation for both Bob Dylan and Lee Hays.