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(Credit: Library of Congress/Douglas Gilbert)


Exploring Bob Dylan's roots in folk music

Bob Dylan has been described to have had a mind like a sponge in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, he would soak up all he could from as many live gigs as he could attend and as many records as he could borrow from his friends. All the while, a filing cabinet with the chord patterns and lyrics of his beloved folk forebears would begin to manifest itself in the hardwiring of his marvellous brain.

Dylan’s particular interest in Woody Guthrie would draw him to New York in the early 1960s, a city in which he managed to meet and befriend his idol in the final years of his life. He would sit at Guthrie’s bedside, where he was tragically dying from Huntington’s disease, and play some of his songs to him. It was around this time that Dylan would write one of his first folk songs entitled ‘Song to Woody’ which based its structure on Guthrie’s own song, ‘1939 Massacre’.

While most of Dylan’s music that we now familiarise him with came from his own pen, he did have a helping hand in the early days from some of the oldest names in the folk tradition. Early on, his small coffee house gigs would often be laden with Guthrie covers and a spattering of other folk classics, including ‘Dink’s Song’, an archaic classic. The origin of ‘Dink’s Song’ isn’t entirely known, but the earliest historical record of the song came from ethnomusicologist John Lomax in 1909. He explained that the song had originated in the 1800s and was sung by an African American woman called Dink, who told the story of washing her husband’s clothes in a camp of migratory levee-builders on the bank of the Brazos River, near Houston, Texas.

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As with many of Dylan’s early recorded tracks, the lyrics were taken from ancient folk tradition. On his first album, he released his cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’, a classic folk tale of a life lost to sin in New Orleans. On Dylan’s 1963 second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, he had shown a marked improvement in songwriting skill showing all the best elements of the folk tradition that he had learned and innovated to produce some of his greatest early original material. The album features Dylan’s song ‘Girl from the North Country’ which he developed from the traditional English folk ballad ‘Scarborough Fair’ which he learned while visiting London in 1962. The song contains the lyrics “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme/Then she’ll be a true love of mine.” The song was since popularised by Simon and Garfunkel who released their version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ in 1966; famously used in their soundtrack for the 1968 film The Graduate.

Also featuring on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is one of the most cherished and regularly covered Dylan compositions, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, a song that shows one of the finest examples of Dylan’s erudite grasp of songwriting that many at the time would note as unprecedented of for a 21-year-old folkie. The material has remained open to interpretation with Dylan remaining vague as ever when asked about the songs meaning over the years following its release. However, the imagery ostensibly reflects a bleak dystopia and the hard rain could plausibly relate to nuclear fallout. The lyrics of “I met a young woman, her body was burning” appear to concur with this interpretation as well. 

Even this song, which saw Dylan at his best as a songwriter, bore its roots in a traditional Anglo-Scottish ballad called ‘Lord Randal’ which uses the same question and answer pattern: “O where ha you been, Lord Randall my son?/ And where ha you been my handsome young man?”. Dylan’s aforementioned astonishing ability to soak up ideas wherever his freewheelin’ boots took him paid dividends with this innovative classic.

By 1964, Dylan was recording his third studio album The Times They Are a-Changin’; he had decided that after soaking up as much of the giant’s genius on whose shoulders he stood, he was now ready to release his first album consisting entirely of original material. 

The album showed the artist take a turn from the more light-hearted and jocular manner of his previous albums toward something a little more morose; it seemed the world was eating on Bobby a little more at this stage of his young life. Where the album had lost all signs of direct covers, traces of his folk influences can still be heard.

For ‘With God On Our Side’, Dylan wrote lyrics chronicling a number of historical events including the World Wars, the Holocaust and the Cold War. For the instrumental section, he used the structure of the traditional Irish folk song ‘The Merry Month of May’ which was also replicated by Dominic Behan in ‘The Patriot Game’. 

Over the rest of Dylan’s career, he would continue to make his name as the most celebrated songwriter of the 20th century. He detached himself from his traditional folk roots in the mid to late 1960s around the time that he famously “went electric”; like a space shuttle on the edge of the atmosphere, he dropped the rocket that for him had been folk. However, on occasions throughout his subsequent six decades, those roots could still be heard from time to time. 

Stream Bob Dylan’s 1961 recording of the fantastic ‘Dink’s Song’ below.