Scene of the Crime
Fort Adams is actually several miles from Freebody Park, where the Newport Folk Festival was originally held when George Wein--who founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, and his then-partner Albert Grossman, who later managed the biggest names of 1960s rock, including Dylan--started it in 1959. It died after two years. In 1962 Wein hooked up with Pete Seeger and Theo Bikel, and by 1965 the fest drew 71,000 people and sported a sixty-four-page program with forty ads. Folk music, the major record companies had realized, was big business. Still, each artist was paid a democratic $50 per day; profits funded the Newport Folk Foundation's promulgating of folk music and musicians. This is the model Wein's Festival Productions still follows for the immensely popular New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, as does Seeger, whose wonderful annual Clearwater Great Hudson River Revival Festival at Croton Point Park has floated the sloop and its miraculous river cleanup for thirty-eight years.
After 1965, Wein tried to realign the Newport Folk Festival with the erupting forces of the post-Dylan world via acts like Buffalo Springfield, but in 1971 it closed and wasn't revived for fifteen years. Even as Dylan walked off the Newport stage in 1965, he was reaching the first pinnacle of his forty-year career and had already transformed American popular culture. So many roads led to him and so many emerged from him that his main rivals as transformative agents in popular American music may be Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Elvis--and like all of them, he drew recurrent abuse or boredom from fans who saw him as betraying his talent, abandoning the purity of his early days. But for Dylan, purity is a pointless abstraction; like St. Paul, he believes virtue is manifest only in being tested. "To live outside the law," warns one of his most famous ruthless lines, "you must be honest."
Dylan incarnates the Great American Songbook, its worst as well as its best. Another Woody Guthrie manqué when he hit New York, he grew up on Buddy Holly and Little Richard. During the early 1960s he absorbed the totemic Anthology of American Folk Music, the last generations of true folk musicians, the folk revivalists who flocked to Greenwich Village and Cambridge to Travis-pick guitars behind traditional ballads and Guthrie tunes and whatever else they'd picked up. He was a deadly mimic, and learned to phrase inimitably from blues and soul, though his voice was often ridiculed; his guitar skills, like Guthrie's, varied from painfully rudimentary to quite accomplished. His creative outbursts, the nonstop writing, tumbled all he heard and read and did into his increasingly high-torqued personalized songs; tapped by the shades of Blake and Rimbaud, he'd become a seer or shaman, a seismic artist who quavered to the time's deep rhythmic structures whether he willed it or not.
The Beatles and Stones survived past the British Invasion largely because they jumped on Dylan's millennial bandwagon, adapting his Jeremiah's cry, his truthteller's story forms, his sly ironies and probing sarcasm and haunted, paradoxical loves; his far-reaching grasp of forms, his impossible phrasing, his poet's fecund sense of language in play for its beauties and possibilities. In the process, they morphed from talented cover bands of American roots music and r&b who wrote pop ditties and novelty tunes into singer-songwriters on Dylan's model, storytellers who strove to paint personal and social pictures that Tin Pan Alley couldn't. This self-contained model of artistry became the industry standard, aside from prefab acts. It happened almost immediately: No sooner was Dylan Dylan than the search was on for the Next Dylan, the New Dylan--a list that over the decades accumulated dozens, like Donovan, Paul Simon, Arlo Guthrie, Springsteen, even Dylan's son Jakob. If the British Invasion upended the complacent American record industry by demonstrating that "the kids" wanted something else and would pay big bucks for it, Dylan altered the fundamental nature of what "the kids" wanted. He had realized Woody Guthrie's dream--a true popular art.
It's a big stone to carry, but it's Dylan's--and in the roller-coaster course of claiming it this guarded, caustic person has left a trail of human and other wreckage. Still, he earned it with the three classic albums of his amphetamine-surreal-Beat period, the multifaceted Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. When he used his 1966 motorcycle accident as cover to withdraw from the circus his public and private life had become--although John Wesley Harding was released at the end of this period--he moved into Big Pink with The Band and explored the textures of old songs and his own unreleased tunes, in the process tutoring Robbie Robertson in how to write. Nashville Skyline, his 1969 silence-breaker, disappointed most fans--the newly lightened voice, the genially mild love songs, recalled why critics have always found Milton's Satan more fascinating than his God.