WeeklyWorker

13.08.2015
Newport Folk Festival: electric

Dylan and the dead

Bob Dylan’s electric set at the Newport Folk Festival 50 years ago continues to bring out the worst Stalinist inclinations of today’s left, writes Howard Phillips

In July 1965 Bob Dylan played a controversial (for some) set with a band and electric instruments at the Newport Folk Festival that has subsequently been mythologised to the nth degree.

The broader story goes something like this: a young US folk singer becomes very famous in the early 1960s for singing and writing a set of so-called ‘protest’ songs that were deemed to be highly pert

In July 1965 Bob Dylan played a controversial (for some) set with a band and electric instruments at the Newport Folk Festival that has subsequently been mythologised to the nth degree.

The broader story goes something like this: a young US folk singer becomes very famous in the early 1960s for singing and writing a set of so-called ‘protest’ songs that were deemed to be highly pertinent to the US left and civil rights movement at that time. Said young singer quickly becomes tired of being labelled as a ‘protest’ singer and being treated as the spokesperson of this or that cause, or the ‘consciousness of the rebellious youth’. Singer begins to move away from acoustic-only guitar performances, incorporating electric instruments into his sound; his songs become more cruel, individual and self-opinionated. Singer discards his rough working men’s clothes and appropriates an image more appropriate to a rock star, while simultaneously narcotising himself up to the eyeballs.

Such behaviour proves to be suitably outrageous to a left that has been sustained by the watery pap of the ‘We shall overcome’ shtick of the US civil rights era. As a result, the singer’s electric set at Newport 1965 appears to have been booed by a section of the audience. This behaviour continues into his US and world tours: the electric segments are booed, while the acoustic parts are applauded. All this seems to have been broadly informed by a ‘left’ consensus.

Since 1965, there has been considerable debate as to exactly how many people booed Dylan’s electric set at Newport and for what reasons. (It has been suggested by some that people were doing so because the sound was bad and not because electric instruments were used.) Folk singer Pete Seeger is pictured in some accounts as wanting to chop through electric cables with an axe (!) due to his displeasure at the electric instrumentation; whereas in others (which use his own recollections) his objection was merely that Dylan’s words could not be heard due to the volume at which the music was being played, rather than to electric instrumentation per se.

Newport 1965 does seem to be a strange place at which to mark a definitive turning point in Dylan’s relationship with the folk music community, given that he had already made a chunk of recordings with an electric band (the Bringing it all back home album had been released in March 1965, with a side of electric cuts; while the ‘Like a rolling stone’ single had been released just prior to Newport).

As far back as November 1964, Irwin Silber (a former Communist Party member in the US) wrote an infamous ‘Open letter to Bob Dylan’, in which he criticised Dylan’s (all-acoustic) performances at the festival in 1964:

I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people. It seemed to me that some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way. You travel with an entourage now … buddies who are going to laugh when you need laughing, and drink wine with you … and never challenge you to face everyone else’s reality again.1

Nevertheless, whatever the historically factual rights and wrongs of the matter, Newport 1965 has become a symbolic parting of the ways between Dylan, the ‘protest singer’, and Dylan, the ‘rock star’.

Art for art’s sake?

While time certainly seems to have mellowed the intensity of the accusations of apostasy levelled at Dylan, it is still somewhat surprising to find people on the modern-day British left reanimating the strictures of Dylan’s 1965 left critics some 50 years later. True, those strictures are in a more modified, agnostic tone, suitable for a period in which the left sincerely doubts its self-worth, but this critique still rests on a set of assumptions formulated in the ‘official communist’ movement in the Stalin era.

A good example of this is a recent article in the Morning Star, by Steve Johnson, secretary of what passes for the London district of the Star’s Communist Party of Britain. Johnson writes:

… the attitudes of some of those who welcomed that moment [Dylan’s electric set] at Newport can be summed up by the words of 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.2

However, Johnson does presage all this nostalgia with a hearty dose of agnosticism: “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.” We will explore the implications of not taking a clear position on this issue below, but the above remarks illustrate that the arguments of the folk left on instrumentation now appear dated and silly - if they ever made sense in the first place.

The idea that the acoustic guitar was the only ‘authentic’ instrument upon which to make folk music was in fact a means by which certain practitioners sought to inflict their own (invented) preferences upon others. In any case, the oppressive jargon of ‘authenticity’ had been knocked into a cocked hat by folk singer and CPGB member AL (Bert) Lloyd in 1963. He said:

I was once present at a conference involving Romanian and Bulgarian folklorists. The Bulgarians reproached the Romanians for not doing enough to preserve the use of folk instruments in their villages. The Romanians explained that their viewpoint was: any instrument may be considered a folk instrument, depending on the way it’s handled. They illustrated their point thus: in a group of west Romanian villages 50 years ago, the dance music was provided by six-holed shepherd pipe. Gradually the peasants replaced this with the clarinet. Towards the end of the 1930s, the alto saxophone in turn replaced the clarinet.3

In other words, folk music recreated by such ‘traditional’ communities was subject to constant musical reinvention, even if its folkloric function remained essentially the same. Lloyd even suggested rather cheekily that those from the west often found any missing “handicraft charm … more seductive than peasants do”.4

In terms of Johnson’s argument that Dylan’s performance at Newport 1965 represented a “retrograde step in both political and musical terms”, it is worthwhile considering the consequences of such judgements for the left and its interaction with artists.

Dylan has explained at some length his reasons for turning his back on the left. He has written:

… Ronnie Gilbert, one of The Weavers, had introduced me at one of the Newport folk festivals saying, “And here he is … take him, you know him, he’s yours”… What a crazy thing to say! Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now.5

Actually, Dylan is being somewhat idealistic here; the alternative to belonging to the left is usually to belong to something else - be that the music industry or the nebulous ground of ‘artistic’ consciousness (which usually leads back to the industry by a more circuitous route). However, we can empathise here in the sense that it is perfectly true that the left - then and now - does not have the intellectual means to go beyond the simple objectification and alienation of artists into a set of narrow concerns with ‘causes’ and ‘issues’ that only presage a studied form of ‘political’ narrowness. Artists who do dabble with the left usually end up feeling merely ‘used’ or ‘owned’ by this or that political group (Mark E Smith of The Fall made similar complaints of the British left in the late 1970s).

Dylan, despite his reputation for obliqueness in the face of reporters, explained in December 1965 as to what the writing of his earlier, sometimes more ‘political’, songs felt like as an artist:

I used to know what I wanted to say before I used to write the song … I couldn’t write like it any more; it was just too easy and it wasn’t really right ... It would never come out exactly the way I thought it would … but now I just write a song, like I just know it’s gonna be all right and I don’t know really what it’s all about …6

In other words, Dylan felt himself being written by the songs and was struggling to establish any sort of individual connection with them. He also has the residual intellectual honesty to suggest that such a connection with his newest songs is also problematic (“I don’t know really what it’s all about”). So to insist that the artist in this instance has taken the wrong choice and that he reverts to something he cannot personally connect with merely comes across as a form of oppression or, as with Ronnie Gilbert, a crude form of ownership.

What ‘politics’?

If Johnson sees Newport 1965 as a retrograde step in political terms, one is bound to ask: what ‘politics’ precisely are being discussed?

I say this because the electric music that Dylan released just before and after the infamous Newport concert was saturated with ‘politics’ in the broader sense of the word. Take ‘Subterranean homesick blues’ (1965):

Ah, get born, keep warm

Short pants, romance, learn to dance

Get dressed, get blessed

Try to be a success

Please her, please him, buy gifts

Don’t steal, don’t lift

Twenty years of schoolin’

And they put you on the day shift.

Now, if that is not a debunking of the social pressures that inhere in growing up (and if “Twenty years of schoolin’/And they put you on the day shift” is not a ‘political’ statement), then I’m a folk singer. Also consider ‘Desolation Row’ (1965):

Now at midnight all the agents

And the superhuman crew

Come out and round up everyone

That knows more than they do.

Then they bring them to the factory

Where the heart-attack machine

Is strapped across their shoulders

And then the kerosene

Is brought down from the castles

By insurance men who go

Check to see that nobody is escaping

To Desolation Row.

I do not claim to understand every nuance of these lines, but if this is not an oblique take on forms of social control, then I do not know what is.

‘Like a rolling stone’ is usually read as an example of one of Dylan’s cruel, finger-pointing songs - a snide, existential commentary on someone who has fallen from a great height, but the chorus - “How does it feel, how does it feel?/To be without a home/Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone” - is of a universalistic bent: to be sung along with, to be blasted from a radio. Most people know exactly how that feels and to suggest that such despair does not reside in ‘political’ relationships of one sort or another is itself a counsel of despair. It is not that Dylan has abandoned the world at large: merely that he has begun to excavate it and uncover some absurd social archaeology in the process.

Joan Baez once dismissed these kinds of songs: “I am afraid the message that comes through from Dylan in 1965 and 1966 is: Let’s all go home and smoke pot, because there’s nothing else to do… we might as well go down smoking.”7

However, despite that dismissal (which rested on her disappointment with him giving up on the formal ‘protest’ movement), she acknowledged that Dylan’s critique of society continued: “… he criticises society and I criticise it, but he ends up saying there is not a goddamned thing you can do about it, so screw it.”8

So, the ‘left’ complaint about Dylan in 1965 and 1966 cannot conceivably be that he turned away from ‘politics’ - given that this is palpably untrue - but rather that it is the wrong sort of ‘politics’; less linear, more oblique, less concerned with ‘the cause’ and lacking a simple morality tale of right and wrong.

In the case of writers such as Johnson of the Morning Star’s CPB this stems from a clear, Stalinist-infused contempt for people - rather the masses have to be administered and patronised with simplistic messages. But to actually deny the ‘politics’ that inhere in Dylan’s 1965-66 output and state that they represent a “retrograde step” only reveals a hard truth about the ‘politics’ of Johnson and his co-thinkers. ‘Politics’ for them is precisely a very narrow sermon on certain partial ‘causes’, given that they long ago made peace with large bulwarks of our existing society in favour of a pale-pink Keynesian ‘economics’; large-scale social transformation is off the agenda, so any art that inches a millimetre beyond what they immediately see before them simply leaves them cold.

Product of Stalinism

It is important to understand that these pseudo-aesthetic judgements about Bob Dylan are actually the products of the ‘official communist’ movement in the Stalin era. Prior to World War II, the so-called theory and practice of ‘socialist realism’ was elaborated, which merely dumped an abstract equivalent of political utility on various works of art (those deemed to be amenable to the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were valued more; those thought to be less amenable were relegated to the margins). Any taint of subjectivity or individuation in the working out of an aesthetic (the sin of ‘formalism’) was eschewed.

After World War II and as the cold war opened, these practices were further codified by Stalin’s cultural commissar, Andrei Zhdanov, imposing a crude characterisation of cultural objects on the basis of class or of a progressive/reactionary binary code; a kind of self-enforced paranoia in regards to ‘bourgeois’ ideas. Also, in line with the conceptions of ‘national roads to socialism’ was a concentration on ‘national’ folk arts and traditions as the most appropriate form for the progressive movement, as against the ‘Americanisation’ of culture. Rather than being seen as sites of conflict and partial dissidence, commercial forms were immediately suspected of having been tainted by ‘mass’ ‘bourgeois’ culture.

It is easy to see how these various strands were manifested in the US left’s dismissal of Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s as a suddenly apolitical wayward son, playing a debased type of music in the form of a despised rock ’n’ roll. All of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s neurotic and conservative prejudices were reanimated in the confusion and emotive outpourings of ex-communists such as Irwin Silber and Pete Seeger (and their outliers, such as Joan Baez), looped as they were through the apparently neutral and hipper emphasis on embroidering and reinterpreting ‘national’ folk music traditions.

The irony here, of course, was, the more that such people embedded themselves in their native traditions and moved away from formal communist attachments, the more firmly they enmeshed themselves in older Soviet narratives. The conservatism that such a standpoint concealed in its radical clothing was clearly spelt out in British folk singer Ewan MacColl’s critique of Dylan in 1965:

… our traditional songs and ballads are the creations of extraordinarily talented artists, working inside disciplines formulated over … time … the present crop of contemporary American songs has been made by writers who are either unaware or incapable of working inside the disciplines, or are at pains to destroy them.9

But then Steve Johnson might object to this, given that he quite likes some of Dylan’s later electric output and does not “feel it necessary to take a political position on the authenticity or otherwise of anything other than acoustic”. So does that mean that the very obvious ‘official communist’ thrust of his main argument has been replaced with something much more endearing and fruitful? Well, not exactly. Rather, such agnosticism has a similar root in the fracturing of Zhdanovism in the 1950s and 1960s.

Johnson writes: “Another myth that has grown up in the aftermath is that on Dylan’s British tour 10 months later members of the Communist Party tried to disrupt his performances, culminating in the shout of ‘Judas’ at Manchester Free Trade Hall.”

It is perfectly correct to identify this idea as a myth, in the sense of it happening in an organisational manner. The story actually arose from CP Lee’s Like the night (revisited): Bob Dylan and the road to the Manchester Free Trade Hall (2004), where the author showed a group of Glasgow communists planning to disrupt Dylan’s UK electric concerts in 1966. However, while it is likely that the CPGB and its earlier association with British folk music had influenced some of the people booing at these events, this was scarcely related to the party’s policy in the arts by this point.

While the CPGB, and prominent members such as Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd, may have been involved in the stirrings of the post-World War II British folk revival, in line with the campaign to combat ‘Americanisation’ at the start of the cold war, by 1965 the party had stepped away from the folk movement (although individual CPGB members still played a part). Indeed, MacColl left the CPGB in the early 1960s, partly because he had detected the fact that the organisation was growing distinctly lukewarm about his music.

In 1965, party functionary Betty Reid argued against CPGB folk purists who had critiqued the US folk movement and its culture of protest, stating they were “the King Canutes of folk”, and implied they were evading the real world and a real protest movement in the cause of their own sheltered folk orthodoxies.10 While Reid’s critique was correct on the surface, its underlying ideologies were more complex, representing the CPGB wanting to step back from any leadership or judgemental role in relation to arts and culture. Actually, the tendency of the leadership and factions such as the Eurocommunists in the party’s latter years was merely to collapse itself into a blind acceptance of trends in popular culture, as it merely flipped into the opposite of the full-throttle Zhdanovism of the immediate post-war years.

As early as the party’s national congress of 1954 and in line with shifts in Soviet ideology since the death of Stalin, Emile Burns said: “It is wrong … for any comrade in discussing such scientific and cultural questions to take a rigid line of trying to impose some particular views on his colleagues …”11 Actually, there was nothing wrong with this at all: the issue was the undemocratic and sectarian manner of that imposition, and the subsequent excommunication of those comrades with minority viewpoints. If an organisation stops imposing itself in the cultural sphere then it just becomes agnostic and accepting of what is - a recipe for invisibility, in other words.

In fact, this is exactly the path that the CPGB’s leadership went down, codifying such irrationality in the statement, ‘Questions of ideology and culture’ in 1967. The executive committee stated:

... the Communist Party, during the fight for and under socialism, does not see its task as being to direct what should be written, painted or composed - either in terms of subject or of style; it does not see its role as laying down laws governing literary and artistic creation.12

Again, the problem is not one of mere ‘direction’, but rather the context in which such direction is undertaken. The brutal truth of the CPGB’s then leadership - and its corrosive practice of bureaucratic centralism - is that it simply could not see itself being anything other than tyrannical in the sphere of arts if its theory posited it as having some kind of leadership role. As many contemporary observers noted, ‘Questions of ideology and culture’ was the CPGB leadership paying penance for a litany of past sins. (The party’s left opposition opposed this shift, of course, eventually grouping itself around cultural magazines such as Artery, which began in 1971. However, the solution was ultimately to propose a more sophisticated re-run of Zhdanovism, with a concomitant dead hand of pro-Soviet politics.)

In the guise of ‘Questions of ideology and culture’, “artistic creation” becomes effectively inviolate and gets metaphysically sprayed across a succession of different cultural products as a universal equivalent, in much the same manner as the Zhdanov-era theory of simple political utility.

This means one should be intensely suspicious when Johnson suddenly goes agnostic in his article on the issue of making judgements on Dylan’s electric output, alongside pontifical announcements on the abandonment of political song. As with all ‘official communist’ polemics on such subjects, agnosticism is being used to balance out more violent, sectarian conceptions.

This sense of agnosticism, stemming itself from the crisis of ‘official’ communism, has even infected such ‘pathological’ anti-Stalinists such as Hillel Ticktin, who argued a few years back, in all apparent seriousness, that “it would be absurd to argue that there is a Marxist physics, music, art or literature”.13 According to Ticktin, because Stalin and his toadies made oppressive and wrong statements in these areas, Marxist theory must abandon them, as it can only apply to the field of political economy (which, as it happens, is another area that ‘official communism’ made ridiculous, but Ticktin wants, naturally, to preserve his own specialism).

In his urge to avoid saying that “this or that poet or violinist is a capitalist poet or violinist” (this is a straw man - no serious Marxist would do this; rather they would attempt to work out on the basis of the specifics of a particular cultural production what tied a piece of work to its immediate surroundings, what contradicted that and what pointed beyond it), Ticktin starts prattling on in the manner of a cod-Marxist Brian Sewell: “Artists will transcend their background to reflect the real emotions and relations in the society, which in turn are determined by capitalism.” This is the worst sort of mystification. How are artists able to “transcend their background”, other than in the rarefied language of idealist metaphysics? Not having a conscious Marxist method in the cultural sphere, Ticktin floats off into the realms of idle speculation.

Similarly, on the writer, Honoré de Balzac, Ticktin says: “his work is profoundly humanist and is a genuine reflection of the emotional and generally human problems faced by humankind”. But what does this guff (which, ironically, sounds very ‘official communist’ in its lofty but empty tone) mean, if it means anything at all? What is a “profound humanist”? What are “human problems”? Setting works of art under the rubric of their contribution to ‘humanity’ merely means establishing yet another vague universal equivalent (a humanity index, if you will) and valuing works of art quantitatively, given that every cultural product has some kind of ‘humanity’ manifested in it at some level (Balzac gets a 10, Dan Brown gets a 2 and so on). Thus, despite, Ticktin’s argument in favour of engaging with the specificity of art, we merely end up going back to the logic of Stalinism - inflicting insensitive categories made up of components that are external to a work of art and its conditions of production and reception.

A method that is all too apparent in the still-running debate on Bob Dylan’s supposed ‘apostasy’ at Newport 1965 l

Notes

1. Cited in C Heylin Bob Dylan: behind the shades London 2011, p163.

2. S Johnson, ‘Laying old ghosts to rest’ Morning Star July 25 2015.

3. D Arthur Bert: the life and times of AL Lloyd London 2012, p331.

4. Ibid.

5. B Dylan Chronicles Vol 1, London 2004, p115.

6. San Francisco press conference, December 1965: www.youtube.com/watch?v=AitVYkznnTc.

7. Cited in R Shelton No direction home: the life and music of Bob Dylan London 1987, p187.

8. Ibid.

9. Cited in ibid p313.

10. Cited in J Callaghan Cold war, crisis and conflict: the CPGB 1951-68 London 2003, p115.

11. Cited in T Russell, ‘Soviet culture and criticism’ The Marxist Quarterly Vol 1, No 3, July 1954,

12. ‘Questions of ideology and culture: statement from the executive committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain’ Marxism Today May 1967.

13. H Ticktin, ‘For realism, for humanity’ Weekly Worker November 8 2007.

inent to the US left and civil rights movement at that time. Said young singer quickly becomes tired of being labelled as a ‘protest’ singer and being treated as the spokesperson of this or that cause, or the ‘consciousness of the rebellious youth’. Singer begins to move away from acoustic-only guitar performances, incorporating electric instruments into his sound; his songs become more cruel, individual and self-opinionated. Singer discards his rough working men’s clothes and appropriates an image more appropriate to a rock star, while simultaneously narcotising himself up to the eyeballs.

Such behaviour proves to be suitably outrageous to a left that has been sustained by the watery pap of the ‘We shall overcome’ shtick of the US civil rights era. As a result, the singer’s electric set at Newport 1965 appears to have been booed by a section of the audience. This behaviour continues into his US and world tours: the electric segments are booed, while the acoustic parts are applauded. All this seems to have been broadly informed by a ‘left’ consensus.

Since 1965, there has been considerable debate as to exactly how many people booed Dylan’s electric set at Newport and for what reasons. (It has been suggested by some that people were doing so because the sound was bad and not because electric instruments were used.) Folk singer Pete Seeger is pictured in some accounts as wanting to chop through electric cables with an axe (!) due to his displeasure at the electric instrumentation; whereas in others (which use his own recollections) his objection was merely that Dylan’s words could not be heard due to the volume at which the music was being played, rather than to electric instrumentation per se.

Newport 1965 does seem to be a strange place at which to mark a definitive turning point in Dylan’s relationship with the folk music community, given that he had already made a chunk of recordings with an electric band (the Bringing it all back home album had been released in March 1965, with a side of electric cuts; while the ‘Like a rolling stone’ single had been released just prior to Newport).

As far back as November 1964, Irwin Silber (a former Communist Party member in the US) wrote an infamous ‘Open letter to Bob Dylan’, in which he criticised Dylan’s (all-acoustic) performances at the festival in 1964:

I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people. It seemed to me that some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way. You travel with an entourage now … buddies who are going to laugh when you need laughing, and drink wine with you … and never challenge you to face everyone else’s reality again.1

Nevertheless, whatever the historically factual rights and wrongs of the matter, Newport 1965 has become a symbolic parting of the ways between Dylan, the ‘protest singer’, and Dylan, the ‘rock star’.

Art for art’s sake?

While time certainly seems to have mellowed the intensity of the accusations of apostasy levelled at Dylan, it is still somewhat surprising to find people on the modern-day British left reanimating the strictures of Dylan’s 1965 left critics some 50 years later. True, those strictures are in a more modified, agnostic tone, suitable for a period in which the left sincerely doubts its self-worth, but this critique still rests on a set of assumptions formulated in the ‘official communist’ movement in the Stalin era.

A good example of this is a recent article in the Morning Star, by Steve Johnson, secretary of what passes for the London district of the Star’s Communist Party of Britain. Johnson writes:

… the attitudes of some of those who welcomed that moment [Dylan’s electric set] at Newport can be summed up by the words of 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.2

However, Johnson does presage all this nostalgia with a hearty dose of agnosticism: “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.” We will explore the implications of not taking a clear position on this issue below, but the above remarks illustrate that the arguments of the folk left on instrumentation now appear dated and silly - if they ever made sense in the first place.

The idea that the acoustic guitar was the only ‘authentic’ instrument upon which to make folk music was in fact a means by which certain practitioners sought to inflict their own (invented) preferences upon others. In any case, the oppressive jargon of ‘authenticity’ had been knocked into a cocked hat by folk singer and CPGB member AL (Bert) Lloyd in 1963. He said:

I was once present at a conference involving Romanian and Bulgarian folklorists. The Bulgarians reproached the Romanians for not doing enough to preserve the use of folk instruments in their villages. The Romanians explained that their viewpoint was: any instrument may be considered a folk instrument, depending on the way it’s handled. They illustrated their point thus: in a group of west Romanian villages 50 years ago, the dance music was provided by six-holed shepherd pipe. Gradually the peasants replaced this with the clarinet. Towards the end of the 1930s, the alto saxophone in turn replaced the clarinet.3

In other words, folk music recreated by such ‘traditional’ communities was subject to constant musical reinvention, even if its folkloric function remained essentially the same. Lloyd even suggested rather cheekily that those from the west often found any missing “handicraft charm … more seductive than peasants do”.4

In terms of Johnson’s argument that Dylan’s performance at Newport 1965 represented a “retrograde step in both political and musical terms”, it is worthwhile considering the consequences of such judgements for the left and its interaction with artists.

Dylan has explained at some length his reasons for turning his back on the left. He has written:

… Ronnie Gilbert, one of The Weavers, had introduced me at one of the Newport folk festivals saying, “And here he is … take him, you know him, he’s yours”… What a crazy thing to say! Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now.5

Actually, Dylan is being somewhat idealistic here; the alternative to belonging to the left is usually to belong to something else - be that the music industry or the nebulous ground of ‘artistic’ consciousness (which usually leads back to the industry by a more circuitous route). However, we can empathise here in the sense that it is perfectly true that the left - then and now - does not have the intellectual means to go beyond the simple objectification and alienation of artists into a set of narrow concerns with ‘causes’ and ‘issues’ that only presage a studied form of ‘political’ narrowness. Artists who do dabble with the left usually end up feeling merely ‘used’ or ‘owned’ by this or that political group (Mark E Smith of The Fall made similar complaints of the British left in the late 1970s).

Dylan, despite his reputation for obliqueness in the face of reporters, explained in December 1965 as to what the writing of his earlier, sometimes more ‘political’, songs felt like as an artist:

I used to know what I wanted to say before I used to write the song … I couldn’t write like it any more; it was just too easy and it wasn’t really right ... It would never come out exactly the way I thought it would … but now I just write a song, like I just know it’s gonna be all right and I don’t know really what it’s all about …6

In other words, Dylan felt himself being written by the songs and was struggling to establish any sort of individual connection with them. He also has the residual intellectual honesty to suggest that such a connection with his newest songs is also problematic (“I don’t know really what it’s all about”). So to insist that the artist in this instance has taken the wrong choice and that he reverts to something he cannot personally connect with merely comes across as a form of oppression or, as with Ronnie Gilbert, a crude form of ownership.

What ‘politics’?

If Johnson sees Newport 1965 as a retrograde step in political terms, one is bound to ask: what ‘politics’ precisely are being discussed?

I say this because the electric music that Dylan released just before and after the infamous Newport concert was saturated with ‘politics’ in the broader sense of the word. Take ‘Subterranean homesick blues’ (1965):

Ah, get born, keep warm

Short pants, romance, learn to dance

Get dressed, get blessed

Try to be a success

Please her, please him, buy gifts

Don’t steal, don’t lift

Twenty years of schoolin’

And they put you on the day shift.

Now, if that is not a debunking of the social pressures that inhere in growing up (and if “Twenty years of schoolin’/And they put you on the day shift” is not a ‘political’ statement), then I’m a folk singer. Also consider ‘Desolation Row’ (1965):

Now at midnight all the agents

And the superhuman crew

Come out and round up everyone

That knows more than they do.

Then they bring them to the factory

Where the heart-attack machine

Is strapped across their shoulders

And then the kerosene

Is brought down from the castles

By insurance men who go

Check to see that nobody is escaping

To Desolation Row.

I do not claim to understand every nuance of these lines, but if this is not an oblique take on forms of social control, then I do not know what is.

‘Like a rolling stone’ is usually read as an example of one of Dylan’s cruel, finger-pointing songs - a snide, existential commentary on someone who has fallen from a great height, but the chorus - “How does it feel, how does it feel?/To be without a home/Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone” - is of a universalistic bent: to be sung along with, to be blasted from a radio. Most people know exactly how that feels and to suggest that such despair does not reside in ‘political’ relationships of one sort or another is itself a counsel of despair. It is not that Dylan has abandoned the world at large: merely that he has begun to excavate it and uncover some absurd social archaeology in the process.

Joan Baez once dismissed these kinds of songs: “I am afraid the message that comes through from Dylan in 1965 and 1966 is: Let’s all go home and smoke pot, because there’s nothing else to do… we might as well go down smoking.”7

However, despite that dismissal (which rested on her disappointment with him giving up on the formal ‘protest’ movement), she acknowledged that Dylan’s critique of society continued: “… he criticises society and I criticise it, but he ends up saying there is not a goddamned thing you can do about it, so screw it.”8

So, the ‘left’ complaint about Dylan in 1965 and 1966 cannot conceivably be that he turned away from ‘politics’ - given that this is palpably untrue - but rather that it is the wrong sort of ‘politics’; less linear, more oblique, less concerned with ‘the cause’ and lacking a simple morality tale of right and wrong.

In the case of writers such as Johnson of the Morning Star’s CPB this stems from a clear, Stalinist-infused contempt for people - rather the masses have to be administered and patronised with simplistic messages. But to actually deny the ‘politics’ that inhere in Dylan’s 1965-66 output and state that they represent a “retrograde step” only reveals a hard truth about the ‘politics’ of Johnson and his co-thinkers. ‘Politics’ for them is precisely a very narrow sermon on certain partial ‘causes’, given that they long ago made peace with large bulwarks of our existing society in favour of a pale-pink Keynesian ‘economics’; large-scale social transformation is off the agenda, so any art that inches a millimetre beyond what they immediately see before them simply leaves them cold.

Product of Stalinism

It is important to understand that these pseudo-aesthetic judgements about Bob Dylan are actually the products of the ‘official communist’ movement in the Stalin era. Prior to World War II, the so-called theory and practice of ‘socialist realism’ was elaborated, which merely dumped an abstract equivalent of political utility on various works of art (those deemed to be amenable to the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were valued more; those thought to be less amenable were relegated to the margins). Any taint of subjectivity or individuation in the working out of an aesthetic (the sin of ‘formalism’) was eschewed.

After World War II and as the cold war opened, these practices were further codified by Stalin’s cultural commissar, Andrei Zhdanov, imposing a crude characterisation of cultural objects on the basis of class or of a progressive/reactionary binary code; a kind of self-enforced paranoia in regards to ‘bourgeois’ ideas. Also, in line with the conceptions of ‘national roads to socialism’ was a concentration on ‘national’ folk arts and traditions as the most appropriate form for the progressive movement, as against the ‘Americanisation’ of culture. Rather than being seen as sites of conflict and partial dissidence, commercial forms were immediately suspected of having been tainted by ‘mass’ ‘bourgeois’ culture.

It is easy to see how these various strands were manifested in the US left’s dismissal of Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s as a suddenly apolitical wayward son, playing a debased type of music in the form of a despised rock ’n’ roll. All of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s neurotic and conservative prejudices were reanimated in the confusion and emotive outpourings of ex-communists such as Irwin Silber and Pete Seeger (and their outliers, such as Joan Baez), looped as they were through the apparently neutral and hipper emphasis on embroidering and reinterpreting ‘national’ folk music traditions.

The irony here, of course, was, the more that such people embedded themselves in their native traditions and moved away from formal communist attachments, the more firmly they enmeshed themselves in older Soviet narratives. The conservatism that such a standpoint concealed in its radical clothing was clearly spelt out in British folk singer Ewan MacColl’s critique of Dylan in 1965:

… our traditional songs and ballads are the creations of extraordinarily talented artists, working inside disciplines formulated over … time … the present crop of contemporary American songs has been made by writers who are either unaware or incapable of working inside the disciplines, or are at pains to destroy them.9

But then Steve Johnson might object to this, given that he quite likes some of Dylan’s later electric output and does not “feel it necessary to take a political position on the authenticity or otherwise of anything other than acoustic”. So does that mean that the very obvious ‘official communist’ thrust of his main argument has been replaced with something much more endearing and fruitful? Well, not exactly. Rather, such agnosticism has a similar root in the fracturing of Zhdanovism in the 1950s and 1960s.

Johnson writes: “Another myth that has grown up in the aftermath is that on Dylan’s British tour 10 months later members of the Communist Party tried to disrupt his performances, culminating in the shout of ‘Judas’ at Manchester Free Trade Hall.”

It is perfectly correct to identify this idea as a myth, in the sense of it happening in an organisational manner. The story actually arose from CP Lee’s Like the night (revisited): Bob Dylan and the road to the Manchester Free Trade Hall (2004), where the author showed a group of Glasgow communists planning to disrupt Dylan’s UK electric concerts in 1966. However, while it is likely that the CPGB and its earlier association with British folk music had influenced some of the people booing at these events, this was scarcely related to the party’s policy in the arts by this point.

While the CPGB, and prominent members such as Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd, may have been involved in the stirrings of the post-World War II British folk revival, in line with the campaign to combat ‘Americanisation’ at the start of the cold war, by 1965 the party had stepped away from the folk movement (although individual CPGB members still played a part). Indeed, MacColl left the CPGB in the early 1960s, partly because he had detected the fact that the organisation was growing distinctly lukewarm about his music.

In 1965, party functionary Betty Reid argued against CPGB folk purists who had critiqued the US folk movement and its culture of protest, stating they were “the King Canutes of folk”, and implied they were evading the real world and a real protest movement in the cause of their own sheltered folk orthodoxies.10 While Reid’s critique was correct on the surface, its underlying ideologies were more complex, representing the CPGB wanting to step back from any leadership or judgemental role in relation to arts and culture. Actually, the tendency of the leadership and factions such as the Eurocommunists in the party’s latter years was merely to collapse itself into a blind acceptance of trends in popular culture, as it merely flipped into the opposite of the full-throttle Zhdanovism of the immediate post-war years.

As early as the party’s national congress of 1954 and in line with shifts in Soviet ideology since the death of Stalin, Emile Burns said: “It is wrong … for any comrade in discussing such scientific and cultural questions to take a rigid line of trying to impose some particular views on his colleagues …”11 Actually, there was nothing wrong with this at all: the issue was the undemocratic and sectarian manner of that imposition, and the subsequent excommunication of those comrades with minority viewpoints. If an organisation stops imposing itself in the cultural sphere then it just becomes agnostic and accepting of what is - a recipe for invisibility, in other words.

In fact, this is exactly the path that the CPGB’s leadership went down, codifying such irrationality in the statement, ‘Questions of ideology and culture’ in 1967. The executive committee stated:

... the Communist Party, during the fight for and under socialism, does not see its task as being to direct what should be written, painted or composed - either in terms of subject or of style; it does not see its role as laying down laws governing literary and artistic creation.12

Again, the problem is not one of mere ‘direction’, but rather the context in which such direction is undertaken. The brutal truth of the CPGB’s then leadership - and its corrosive practice of bureaucratic centralism - is that it simply could not see itself being anything other than tyrannical in the sphere of arts if its theory posited it as having some kind of leadership role. As many contemporary observers noted, ‘Questions of ideology and culture’ was the CPGB leadership paying penance for a litany of past sins. (The party’s left opposition opposed this shift, of course, eventually grouping itself around cultural magazines such as Artery, which began in 1971. However, the solution was ultimately to propose a more sophisticated re-run of Zhdanovism, with a concomitant dead hand of pro-Soviet politics.)

In the guise of ‘Questions of ideology and culture’, “artistic creation” becomes effectively inviolate and gets metaphysically sprayed across a succession of different cultural products as a universal equivalent, in much the same manner as the Zhdanov-era theory of simple political utility.

This means one should be intensely suspicious when Johnson suddenly goes agnostic in his article on the issue of making judgements on Dylan’s electric output, alongside pontifical announcements on the abandonment of political song. As with all ‘official communist’ polemics on such subjects, agnosticism is being used to balance out more violent, sectarian conceptions.

This sense of agnosticism, stemming itself from the crisis of ‘official’ communism, has even infected such ‘pathological’ anti-Stalinists such as Hillel Ticktin, who argued a few years back, in all apparent seriousness, that “it would be absurd to argue that there is a Marxist physics, music, art or literature”.13 According to Ticktin, because Stalin and his toadies made oppressive and wrong statements in these areas, Marxist theory must abandon them, as it can only apply to the field of political economy (which, as it happens, is another area that ‘official communism’ made ridiculous, but Ticktin wants, naturally, to preserve his own specialism).

In his urge to avoid saying that “this or that poet or violinist is a capitalist poet or violinist” (this is a straw man - no serious Marxist would do this; rather they would attempt to work out on the basis of the specifics of a particular cultural production what tied a piece of work to its immediate surroundings, what contradicted that and what pointed beyond it), Ticktin starts prattling on in the manner of a cod-Marxist Brian Sewell: “Artists will transcend their background to reflect the real emotions and relations in the society, which in turn are determined by capitalism.” This is the worst sort of mystification. How are artists able to “transcend their background”, other than in the rarefied language of idealist metaphysics? Not having a conscious Marxist method in the cultural sphere, Ticktin floats off into the realms of idle speculation.

Similarly, on the writer, Honoré de Balzac, Ticktin says: “his work is profoundly humanist and is a genuine reflection of the emotional and generally human problems faced by humankind”. But what does this guff (which, ironically, sounds very ‘official communist’ in its lofty but empty tone) mean, if it means anything at all? What is a “profound humanist”? What are “human problems”? Setting works of art under the rubric of their contribution to ‘humanity’ merely means establishing yet another vague universal equivalent (a humanity index, if you will) and valuing works of art quantitatively, given that every cultural product has some kind of ‘humanity’ manifested in it at some level (Balzac gets a 10, Dan Brown gets a 2 and so on). Thus, despite, Ticktin’s argument in favour of engaging with the specificity of art, we merely end up going back to the logic of Stalinism - inflicting insensitive categories made up of components that are external to a work of art and its conditions of production and reception.

A method that is all too apparent in the still-running debate on Bob Dylan’s supposed ‘apostasy’ at Newport 1965 l

Notes

1. Cited in C Heylin Bob Dylan: behind the shades London 2011, p163.

2. S Johnson, ‘Laying old ghosts to rest’ Morning Star July 25 2015.

3. D Arthur Bert: the life and times of AL Lloyd London 2012, p331.

4. Ibid.

5. B Dylan Chronicles Vol 1, London 2004, p115.

6. San Francisco press conference, December 1965: www.youtube.com/watch?v=AitVYkznnTc.

7. Cited in R Shelton No direction home: the life and music of Bob Dylan London 1987, p187.

8. Ibid.

9. Cited in ibid p313.

10. Cited in J Callaghan Cold war, crisis and conflict: the CPGB 1951-68 London 2003, p115.

11. Cited in T Russell, ‘Soviet culture and criticism’ The Marxist Quarterly Vol 1, No 3, July 1954,

12. ‘Questions of ideology and culture: statement from the executive committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain’ Marxism Today May 1967.

13. H Ticktin, ‘For realism, for humanity’ Weekly Worker November 8 2007.