Monday, October 27, 2008

Down the Tracks: Dylan’s Ancestral Roots

Down the Tracks: the Music that Influenced Bob Dylan
Directed by Steve Gammond
Eagle Media

Bob Dylan didn’t come out of nowhere, but for some, Hibbing, Minnesota is probably close enough. His music did not come down from the pure blue sky either. His well established country, blues, and roots influences are now documented for a popular audience in the recent DVD release Down the Tracks: Music that Influenced Bob Dylan.

Diehard Dylan fans might have mixed emotions about Tracks, because its subject and inspiration is never heard from directly, only appearing in still photos and limited archival video (sans audio), presumably due to clearance difficulties. However, Tracks takes viewers on a brisk tour of the Americana music the Lomaxes, father John and son Alan, spent their careers recording and preserving. In fact, John Lomax appears with Dylan influence Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, in clips from the rather stilted and patronizing cinematic recreation of their initial meeting in the Angola State Prison Farm.

A number of early blues pioneers get their just due in Tracks, both as artists and formative influences on Dylan, including Leadbelly, Blind Willie McTell, Rev. Gary Davis, and Mississippi John Hurt, briefly shown in performance at the Newport Folk Festival. At times Tracks also mixes in contemporary performances of a classic song that Dylan surely would have heard, with the best being Po’ Girl’s rendition of Hurt’s “My Creole Belle.”

In addition to bluesmen, we see and hear some of Dylan’s country touchstones, most notably Hank Williams, and the original folkies like Woody Gutherie. One of the more intriguing aspects of Tracks is its relatively straight-forward description of the so-called “Popular Front, Communist-influenced folk tradition.” We hear Guthrie dissembling on the political intent of his music, but twenty minutes later another commentator seems to contradict him, explaining in the folkies’ voice their aim to “create a patriotic, American, wholesome feel for what we’re doing and that will help play down and placate and pacify those who feel we’re too close to the Communist Party.”

Though Dylan clearly idolized Guthrie, later discussions of the titular subject’s work create a picture of a more nuanced artist, like the1966 Playboy interview from which author Michael Gray paraphrases his belief in lasting power of traditional song, arguing the converse for protest music: “Traditional music won’t die—it can’t die . . . It’s political music—those are the songs that are going to die—they’re already dead.”

While Tracks might not leave fans feeling anymore intimately acquainted with Dylan, it offers several good jumping-off points for the artists who came before him. It would be very cool if some of Dylan’s sizable audience became intrigued by Rev. Gary Davis on learning from Folk Revival producer Joe Boyd a tidbit like: “[for] a lot of the New York folkies, to the degree that they had real skill on the guitar it was very often because they had taken lessons from Gary.” Though relatively brief (just over ninety minutes), Tracks shotguns in quite a bit of American roots music, for an interesting, if indirect tribute to the inscrutable singer-songwriter.