By Tom Barry, Sociology
Two months ago the 53rd Grammy Awards took place. The best performance of the night, in my opinion, happened when Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers joined stage with Bob Dylan in a rendition of Dylan’s 1965 “Maggie’s Farm.” If you did not watch it live, watch this youtube clip compilation of some of the tunes these bands played that eventful night.
Bob Dylan will be 70 years old in May. Even though his vocal chords were shot and the sound system experienced some technical problems, I was delighted to watch Dylan passing the proverbial baton to these younger folk-rock musicians. I was also intrigued by how this reinvigoration of folk music reflected the political and economic climate we are currently experiencing but at the same time is turning it’s back to the legacy of the earlier 1960’s revival. Or is it?
The 1960s was a tumultuous time. Students were protesting against the war and fighting against the military-industrial machine. The Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and other freedom marchers were resisting a system of racial bigotry and advocating for racial justice. Activists mobilized to advocate for services for the poor. This included social justice-minded students and other organizers participating in sit-ins in urban welfare offices to bring attention to the lack of government response to addressing a limited and demeaning social support system. Women activists were raising gender consciousness, drawing attention to oppressive patriarchal forces. And by the close of the decade, the gay rights movement gathered momentum, especially after the tide turning Stonewall Inn riots. These movements were held together by charismatic leaders, concerned citizens, academics, and songs.
Coinciding with the 1960’s march for change was a folk-music revival. Youth and other politically-engaged citizens were drawn to music which both spoke to power and inspired group cohesion. And musicians were delivering. Working in the shadows of their populist predecessors, such as Woody Guthrie and Henry Ledbetter (a.k.a. Ledbelly), songwriters used their instruments to carry a message. Bob Dylan was one of these musicians.
Many Dylan songs of the 1960s were, depending on which side of the political aisle a person sat, confrontational or affirming. In his1962 “Oxford Town,” Dylan told the story of James Meredith, a young African American and Air Force veteran who was denied admission to the University of Mississippi. Dylan’s 1963 “Masters of War” forcefully critiqued the abuse of power of industrial, government, and military leaders. Because of the ability of Dylan and his songs to mobilize people, he was recruited to be a leader of the folk protest movement. Regardless of the reasons, or what people make of them, he rejected wearing this hat.
As with many songs, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible to know an artist’s original intent. And with many songs, they are various potential meanings, some more valid than others. This is the case for “Maggie’s Farm.” Some people interpreted, and there continues to be debate about the validity of this interpretation, “Maggie’s Farm” as the song where Dylan came out against the protest movement, stating that he would not be a pawn in the counter-culture’s game. Others have interpreted the song with a more activist frame. For these individuals, the song speaks to Dylan’s refusal to engage in oppressive institutions. Regardless of how people interpret this song, the folk music of the 1960s – at least until sell-out musicians and money hungry producers counterfeited it – was political.
Fast-forward to contemporary times. A folk-music revival is currently underway. The listening public is once again drawn to folk music for its more organic production and collectivist spirit. People are seeking engagement, understanding, and connection. But whereas the political spirit of folk music was a central part of the 1960s revival, it appears as if much, but not all, of the current revival provides little in terms of raising political consciousness and challenging power. But that’s why the Grammy’s were entertainment and not a message.