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A Conversation with Tudor Jones, author of “Bob Dylan and the British Sixties: A Cultural History”

Tudor Jones, “political historian and historian of modern political thought,” recently penned a new study on Bob Dylan’s early work: Bob Dylan and the British Sixties: A Cultural History. He is Hon. Research Fellow in History of Political Thought at Coventry University, UK and a Tutor in Political History, Oxford University Dept. of Continuing Education, UK. Aside from his work on Dylan, his other publications include The Revival of British Liberalism: From Grimond to Clegg (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), Modern Political Thinkers and Ideas: An Historical Introduction (Routledge, 2002), and Remaking the Labour Party: From Gaitskell to Blair (Routledge, 1996). His next book, The Uneven Path of British Liberalism: From Jo Grimond to Brexit will be published by Manchester University Press in September 2019. We here at the Dylan Institute recently had the opportunity to discuss the exciting new work, as we’re gearing up for the World of Bob Dylan conference this Summer.

 

Dylan Institute: First, can you tell us a little about yourself and what led you to write a book on Dylan?  How, in particular, does your work as a political historian help open up new pathways into the singer-songwriter’s music and legacy?

I have been an admirer of Bob Dylan ever since I heard his first, eponymous studio album in 1962 in a small record shop in Harrow, north-west London, and even more so a year later when I heard and bought, I believe in the same place, Dylan’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. As an undergraduate at the University of Oxford in the mid-to-late 1960s, my friends and I spent many hours listening to the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan, often quoting and dissecting at length the latter.

I believe that my work as a political historian, two of whose previous books focused in part on British politics in the 1960s, helped me to open up a new cultural-historical pathway into Dylan’s influence on British popular music during that decade.

DI: Early on in Bob Dylan and the British Sixties, you remark on the difficulty of “categorizing” Dylan and the “overdue emphasis” on the sixties in the work done on Dylan thus far. Even so, you position this work as a “cultural-historical study of the impact of Bob Dylan” in 1960’s Britain. What is it about this particular time and place that continually draws “Dylanologists,” even to the chagrin of Dylan himself?

At the outset I note in my book that Bob Dylan himself might well be irritated by my book’s historical focus on the 1960s, in view of the overdue emphasis upon that era of many other studies of his own work, which has, after all, spanned with distinction six decades. But I chose nonetheless to present an historical study of a specific well-defined, yet transient, period in which Dylan developed a remarkable body of work in the form of songs, studio albums, and concert performances, all of which had a deep-running impact on British popular music and culture during that time of significant change in British society.

In support of my focus on the 1960s, I would endorse, too, the view of John Hughes in his perceptive work Invisible Now: Bob Dylan in the 1960s (2013), namely that that particular decade ‘… offers such an obvious narrative arc and display’s Dylan’s gifts so forcibly’. I also concur with Hughes’ view, as well as that of Mike Marqusee in his Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art (2003), that there is a clearly discernible special relationship between the 1960s, as a decade of social and cultural change and even turmoil, on the one hand, and the distinctive quality and force of the music produced by Dylan within its brief span. Indeed, in musical terms I also agree with Sean Wilentz’s view in his historical study Bob Dylan in America (2011) that the 1960s were clearly among ‘Dylan’s most concentrated periods of powerful creativity, including the most powerful of all, between 1964 and 1966.’

DI: Though Dylan influenced The Beatles extensively, it appears from this account that the influence extended the most towards John Lennon and George Harrison. Why do you think Dylan was so important to this “half” of the group?

The historical evidence clearly indicates, I believe, that it was John Lennon and George Harrison of The Beatles who were influenced most distinctly by Bob Dylan in their songwriting. Paul McCartney, one of the most distinguished co-songwriters and solo songwriters in the history of modern popular music, was, it seems, less influenced so directly by Dylan. Lennon was initially attracted to Dylan’s mood and attitude of what a writer I quote described as one of ‘solid self-possession’. Later Lennon was drawn to Dylan’s highly personal and emotionally direct mode of lyrical expression. He confirmed that point in the last major interview he gave before his death in New York City in 1980, citing in particular one of The Beatles’ finest songs ‘In My Life’. In George Harrison’s case, he himself, later in the 1960s, developed into a fine songwriter, and, as Ian MacDonald in his excellent book, Revolution in the Head, later maintained, probably accurately, I think, that of The Beatles it was Harrison who in his songwriting had the most coherent philosophical world-view. He was thus in turn drawn to Dylan’s highly reflective lyrics, a point that his widow Olivia, whom I quote in my book, has subsequently confirmed.

DI: There seem to be differing accounts of the nature of the vitriol Dylan and the Hawks faced during their English tour. Some describe the audience reaction more as a sort of love/hate fascination, and I think it was in Scorsese’s film where it was remarked that they would all cheer for “Like A Rolling Stone” and then go right back to “booing.” In your volume, you really emphasize the sort of soul-sucking slog of the tour, with Dylan and the Hawks physically being worn down by the negative reactions. Why do you think this is the most accurate way to look at these events? And what are some of the political ramifications of this negativity?

As I point out in Ch. 7 of my book, there were really two broad groups among the audiences of Dylan’s 1966 British tour who responded negatively to the electric half of his performances. The first was drawn from the British folk-music movement, which at that time was generally more politicised than the folk-music movement in the United States. In Britain those people were politically on the left, or, in the case of some of the movement’s leading figures such as Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd, on the far left, being members or sympathisers of the Communist Party of Great Britain or other far left groups. That section of Dylan’s audiences thus regarded Dylan’s new electric music as a manifestation of American capitalist mass culture, consisting of rock’n’roll music, Hollywood films, pulp fiction, etc. His ‘going electric’ was thus considered a betrayal, an abandonment or even degradation of the purity of folk music, viewed from their perspective as the collective expression of the industrial and agricultural working classes. The hostile reaction of that section of the 1966 audiences was thus essentially ideological in nature.

A second section, however, of Dylan’s British audiences in 1966 were young people who were less politically engaged or ideologically driven, although broadly liberal or progressive on the social and political issues of the day. Such people, generally well-educated, idealistic, gentler, often intellectually or artistically inclined, had cherished Dylan’s early topical songs of 1962-63, and also appreciated his more personally reflective songs, such as ‘One Too Many Mornings’ on The Times They Are A-Changin. They resented the fact that on his 1966 tour the often poor sound quality in British concert halls, as at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, prevented them from hearing the outstanding lyrics of those songs. In some cases they resented, too, the new heavily amplified rearrangements of Dylan’s previously acoustic song material.

I believe that the debilitating effect of such hostile British audience reaction upon both Dylan and The Hawks (later to be The Band) in 1966 is clearly corroborated by the source material that I cite in my book, particularly by primary sources such as the memoir of Robbie Robertson.

DI: You mention two challenges that any scholar of the recent past must face when “looking back;” the pitfall of “mythologizing or idealizing” which comes from nostalgia, and also the pitfall of “de-mythologising or debunking,” often by younger historians who did not personally experience the time period themselves. It seems then, that both the lenses of “being there” and “not being there” have the capacity to throw off any sort of objectivity concerning those years. How does your book balance these challenges?

In my book’s Introduction I point out that I try to avoid either mythologising or idealising the era of the British Sixties, whilst steering clear of the opposite approach of de-mythologising or debunking that era. For an historian such as myself, the early part of whose youth was shaped by that period, I recognise the fact that that is not a straightforward task. I do cite varied historical sources and interpretations in that Introduction, as well as later in Ch. 6, in, for instance, a discussion of ‘Swinging London’ as the epicentre of the new order of popular music and culture in Britain in the second half  of the 1960s. My own view, based partly, too, on personal recollection, generally concurs with that of Jonathon Green in his commendable cultural history of the 1960s, All Dressed Up: The Sixties and the Counterculture, who maintained that ‘Something, as Bob Dylan admonished his “straight” everyman “Mr Jones” was definitely happening, …’, particularly in British popular music and culture.

DI: You consistently stress the importance of songwriters working within a living tradition (like Dylan drawing from Guthrie as a living source, rather than more traditional material). What kind of ramifications does this idea of a living tradition have on popular music today? (I’m thinking particularly of the explosion of Hip-Hop as opposed to genres such as traditional singer/songwriter, etc).

The reality of Dylan drawing on a living musical tradition, in his case on the work of Woody Guthrie, country blues singers, and indeed the melodies of traditional English, Scottish and Irish ballads that he learned in London from Martin Carthy, was, I think, reproduced not only in his own far-reaching influence on British popular musicians during the 1960s, but also in the way that they themselves, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Who, Manfred Mann, and many others, drew in the 1960s on living black American electric blues, and rhythm and blues in the broader sense, traditions. That process continued within British rock music into the 1970s and more recent decades.

I’m not sure whether that same process has been as evident in other genres of contemporary popular music, though I concede that I don’t have the same detailed knowledge of that area.

DI: If this model of cultural-historical study were to be utilized in another “Dylan period,” which do you think would be the next logical step to take? In other words, in what other Dylan period is this sort of cultural history under-represented?

As I’ve observed above, I have focused on Bob Dylan’s influence on British popular music and culture during the 1960s for mainly two reasons, first, because that decade, in John Hughes’ words, ‘… offers such an obvious narrative arc’, and, second, because during that decade there is a clearly discernible relationship between the quality of Dylan’s remarkable body of work and the significant social and cultural changes and turmoil of that time.

In focusing on the British Sixties for such reasons, I in no way seek to undervalue or overlook the quality of Dylan’s musical work over the following five decades, evident in such studio albums, for instance, as Blood on the Tracks, Oh Mercy, or Time out of Mind. But in my view those subsequent decades probably don’t offer the cultural historian such a clear narrative arc or such a close musical and social interaction, or indeed Anglo-American musical cross-fertilisation, as do the 1960s. I may, of course, turn out to be wrong on that score with regard to future historical work, though I doubt it.

DI: Finally, a question we put to many of those we interview: what Dylan album do you consider indispensable? Which one do you think we can most easily set aside?

If I had to single out one particular studio album of Dylan’s during the 1960s, I think I would choose as the most outstanding, among so many other rivals, Highway 61 Revisited. The least distinguished, in my view, would probably be Nashville Skyline, although I like and value some of its tracks, notably “I Threw It All Away

Be sure to pick up of Bob Dylan and the British Sixties: A Cultural History at a local bookstore near you!