The Legacy of a Folk Hero

As fate would have it, back in 1961, while at Columbia Records making my third folk music album, I invited my friend, Bob Dylan, to play harmonica on the LP. It was I who introduced Dylan to John Hammond. The influential Columbia Records executive produced albums for legendary jazz artists, among them Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman.

At this point, Hammond was turning the spotlight on folk music at Columbia, signing Pete Seeger and myself; the Clancy Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel were to come. Dylan has remained with Columbia for more than 40 years, certainly a remarkable partnership.

Bob and I had an unusual bond. We were both folk singers, but as friends, each knew the other had a weakness for the music of Buddy Holly. I was from Texas and knew Buddy, so Bob and I had lots to talk about. Our other passion was this new musical adventure.

Folk music came with lots of “structure,” both musical and moral. There was plenty of gospel music — which accounts for the early evidence of Christian musical influence noted by writer Andrew Muchin. Our heroes in folk were Woody Guthrie and Seeger. And, as Dylan’s autobiography, “Chronicles,” points out, we were armed with Woody and Pete’s “take no prisoners” ethic:

1 — Tell it like it is.

2 — Use few if any production frills.

3 — Be a “stand-up-on-your-own” artist.

“Artist” is the word. After interpreting traditional music and its connection to gospel, bluegrass and country music, Dylan and others of our acquaintance in New York City’s Greenwich Village began to create contemporary “new folk.” Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson, Phil Ochs, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell and the rest of us threw in our two cents, as well. The most successful of these was Dylan, acoustic or electric.

Dylan’s work was both spellbinding and consequential. He helped to inspire a generation to march into the South in the name of civil rights. Many young men listened to his words and then burned their draft cards, putting themselves at some risk.

The term “generation gap” was born, fueled by the rift within families. Draft-age males left home and fled to Canada to avoid going as soldiers to a foreign war that they believed our nation was fighting without provocation.

Dylan asked moral questions that had never before been asked in popular music, turning his smoldering gaze on congressmen, senators, warlords, lawmen, professors — in other words, the establishment.

With so direct a message and so revolutionary a reach, Dylan rattled cages. And, he laid down the gauntlet to these citizens of the future to dismiss the easy answers of the past.

“Don’t trust anyone over 30” not only entered the vernacular; it also became words to live by. Dylan was gifted with the courage and skill to ask profound questions and the ability, through his popular music, to get others to hear those questions.

And it seemed proper, even inevitable, to fans and admirers that Dylan the philosopher, the voice of a generation, also would become Dylan the leader. It seemed like the natural progression for those whose consciousness was so recently raised.

They wanted the questioner to answer the questions. They summoned Dylan to attend their marches, write articles and, verily, to run for president. Dylan did not see things that way. He envisioned no role for himself along those lines. Besides, Dylan had a young wife and a stepdaughter — and soon would add his own sons (and eventually another daughter) to a burgeoning family.

But what he preferred not to be doesn’t diminish what he was. Dylan’s great creativity, strength and resolve — his artistic powers — were never wasted; his opportunities never lost. He spoke to our souls with every bit as much depth as the ancient philosophers.

Nearly three generations after his celebrity burned so brightly, the essence of his ongoing musical contribution still shines strongly, though perhaps more sporadically, and sometimes more ironically, more wistfully. He’s still doing concert tours; he writes books; and he remains a subject of public fascination, as the spate of articles, biographies and documentaries demonstrate.

I don’t see him fading from musical prominence any more than Frank Sinatra became irrelevant after his own early glory period. And the ongoing Dylan legacy was never just about music, but also about social justice.

He has never ceased to be a spiritual and musical seeker. And thankfully, here in 5766 and 2005, Dylan and his muse are alive and well.

We can be proud that he was so well grounded in Judaism, as well as folk music tradition. Both have served him well. And (I believe) he has served both traditions faithfully in return.

Carolyn Hester, a leading performer in the ’60s folk-music scene, has, like Bob Dylan, continued to write, perform and record music. With her husband and musical collaborator, Dave Blume, the Los Angeles resident also has raised two daughters and managed Cafe Danssa, a longtime Israeli folk-dancing venue.