When I'd written about how artists often end up as a mishmash of the styles of their heroes, I should've made another, equally salient point: more often than not, our own personal way of life is modeled on those of our heroes. Whether it's your mother and father, your eighth-grade algebra teacher, Superman, John F. Kennedy, or somebody you had a conversation with on the subway 5 years ago, it is inevitable (and perfectly understandable) to absorb some of their traits through osmosis and adopt them as your own. Take me, for example; my natural walk has a slight strut to it I got from my brother (which is funny, because anybody that knows me knows I'm not the strutting type), I like to throw in phrases I've heard from TV and the radio during everyday conversation, and I play around with my cousins the same way my mother and aunts played with me when I was 3 years old. Of course, my natural personality always comes to the forefront, but all the extraneous traits help magnify and amplify it; sort of like icing on a cake.
So, with the knowledge that you've adopted some of the characteristics of your heroes, how to properly pay tribute to them? With your parents, it's easy; with other people, not as much. Plenty of famous people express their admiration and admission of debt in various ways - essays, novels, movies, and songs. David Bowie and Cat Power have even written songs about our man in question. There's no real reason to do this, of course; with the knowledge that everybody owes some small debt to someone, in the end you're answering only to yourself and not to anybody else. But that's the way many of us work: we take, so we must giveth back. It only seems right, doesn't it?
The question, then, is why Dylan would choose to give back to one man and one man alone, especially when it's already been established that other people helped Young Bob shape his musical style. Is it just because of the name recognition? Would Young Bob really have been shrewd enough to understand that "Song for Van Ronk" wouldn't have the same charge amongst the folk community, or command the same respect and awe? Maybe Bob just felt Woody deeper in his bones, knew that he'd taken more from him, not just musically but in attitude, in the way that Woody knew what music meant, how it could affect people, how it could change the world, even just a little bit. Either way, that's the song we've got, and we have it forever - Dylan's ode to his hero of heroes, the man whose shadow fell over everything he did.
In Eric Weisbard's fantastic 33 1/3 series book on Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I & II, he discusses how Soundscan changed the face of the music industry by pinpointing the exact number of albums sold through bar codes. At one point, he slips in a very interesting remark - the old way of compiling album sales numbers was to poll record store clerks and managers and have them try to remember how many albums were sold. I mean, think about that! Imagine figuring box office grosses by having ushers guess how many people went to go see Iron Man, or polling ticket takers to see the total attendance for an Orioles/Red Sox game. That would be insane. Yet, for many years, album and single sales were compiled that very way.
I bring this up to underscore just how different things used to be. I'm not old, by any stretch of the imagination, so I'm not prone to any "in my day" fogeyism; honestly, I find it really educational to think about what it must have been like for a musician way back in the day. Imagine not having Myspace or Facebook to draw fans, or being able to kit out a van and tour your ass off to build a following, or having the might of Capitol Records backing up your debut, or being able to pass around mp3s of your demo in the hopes that somebody with influence might think you sound like the next U2. Then go back even farther, and imagine what it was like before The Beatles changed everything, before Chuck Berry changed everything, before rock and roll was a commercial commodity, before musicians could actually book venues to perform shows, before there was such a thing as Billboard, before AM and FM radio existed in the ways they do now, or even then.
That, right there, is the world where Woody Guthrie became a star. It's insane to think about how big, popular, and influential he became, in an era where a staggeringly small number of musicians could become big, popular, and influential. He couldn't burn "Grand Coulee Dam" onto CD to be passed around - he recorded with Moe Asch and tapes were painstakingly duplicated, pressed to vinyl, and slowly passed from person to person like the Holy Grail. "This Land Is Your Land" never got him on "Top of the Pops" or spins on Hot 99.5 - the song ended up getting exposure many years later through sheet music form. Woody never sold out Madison Square Garden or made an appearance on VH1 - he canvassed the country, played on the radio when he could, and wrote for a Communist newspaper to spread his name. And he didn't have an e-mail address or a publicist where he could be reached - when a young goofus from Minnesota wanted to find him, he had to hitchhike his way to the Brooklyn hospital where his hero lay, slowly wasting away.
Woody Guthrie never went platinum, never brought intensity in ten cities, and never had to deal with paparrazzi. He did the best he could, with what the world had to offer him, and in the end he became as beloved an icon as any genre of music has ever produced. He had it harder than any of us ever will, and in the end he almost made it look easy.
Sidebar - I'm guessing most of you have seen No Direction Home (Martin Scorcese's comprehensive and brilliant documentary on Dylan up to the motorcycle crash), and a number of you have heard the accompanying soundtrack/Bootleg Series entry. It's pretty remarkable - a collection of outtakes, live performances, stuff even Dylanologists have never heard, all in fantastic audio quality, and much of it essential. However, the compilers managed to throw in two previously released tracks - the infamous "Judas!" performance of "Like A Rolling Stone", and "Song to Woody".
In a symbolic way (at least, as half-assedly thought up by me), this makes perfect sense. "Song to Woody", in so many ways, is an embracing of the folk lifestyle, in its out-and-out hero worship and pining for the singing hobo lifestyle Guthrie so embodied. The Manchester performance of "Like A Rolling Stone", on the other hand, is the ultimate repudiation of the folk lifestyle - Dylan clearly stoned, blasting a song that was played on Top 40 radio, his gang of hoodlums letting loose behind him, amplifiers assaulting the crowd. And he's not even singing about the issues of the day!
The released soundtrack could've done without both songs - surely there were other outtakes that could've made it there, like "Long Distance Operator" from Berkeley, or one of the songs from the legendary Bob Dylan in Concert, that were left out from those two spots. But leaving those songs in gives the soundtrack continuity, even beyond its chronological order, and helps it tell a story as well as the documentary does. Nice how that worked out.
Don't worry, I was getting to the song at some point. Some people might complain about how Dylan ripped off one of Guthrie's tunes for his tribute, but I think that makes sense - not only is it a strong melody, but Dylan probably wanted every possible bit of mojo he could squeeze out of his idol. In a way, it sets up the unabashed hero worship of the lyrics, while sort of subtly setting up the listener to remember the person singing the song, not just the person it's being sung about. After all, this is the other original on the album, by far the superior one, and probably what Tom Hammond figured was the real showcase for this debut. It damn well BETTER be good, right?
It is, of course. Dylan's performance reverberates with respect and deference, walking a fine line between nervousness at setting his tribute onto tape and confidence that this song is worth it. The lyrics are evocative in the way "Talking New York" isn't - he invokes Guthrie's musical tropes, legendary bluesmen, and even mentions that his fears for a world that "looks like it's dying and it's hardly been born" match the master's. But he also takes pains to note that he's traveling down well-worn roads, standing on the shoulders of giants, and that he still has a lot left to learn. There's something kind of sweet about the sentiment, actually. even if it's not entirely certain how much of it is genuine.
I'm still surprised this wasn't the album closer. It should have been, honestly - this whole album, full of traditionals and blues songs and spirituals and such, would never have existed without Guthrie, and it's hard to argue that everything shouldn't have built to the final word, the last thoughts on Woody Guthrie and the legacy Dylan was attempting to harness for himself. At the very least, it would've felt better from a karmic standpoint. Ah, well.