Sunday, July 13, 2008

the rural turn

The Basement Tapes * John Wesley Harding * Music From Big Pink * The Band * Sweetheart of the Rodeo * Workingman’s Dead * American Beauty

The late 60s migration ‘back to the land’ was a reaction to the Great Collapse. In making an exodus to a more elemental and organic way of life, communally minded hippies hoped to escape the race riots, drug freak outs and bloody assassinations. The musical corollary was the transition from psychedelia to a simpler, more rootsy vibe, resulting in a return to the mid 60s fusion of folk and pop, but giving it a more rustic inflection. I don’t know if it can be said definitively that this shift originates with Bob Dylan, but for me the songs he recorded during the summer of 1967 with The Band, which later became known as The Basement Tapes, are a good place to start the conversation.

Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited was the most emphatic expression of the increasingly cosmopolitan point of view he developed between The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963 and Blonde on Blonde in 1966. The year 1967 marks the start of Dylan’s ‘rural turn’. Although some songs from The Basement Tapes still express the modern anxieties of city dwellers (“Tears of Rage”, “This Wheel’s on Fire”, “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere’, “Nothing was Delivered”), a number of other songs evince a shift to the perspective of forgotten people living in small towns (“Tiny Montgomery”, “Crash on the Levee”, “Yeah Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, “Please Mrs. Henry”). More to the point, The Band helps Dylan cultivate a more rag-tag sound, with slapdash piano, twangy guitar and rough, imperfect harmonies, calling to mind whiskey drenched poker games at the old saloon. The music travels back to pre-urban America at precisely the moment when the social fermentation in America’s cities is at a tipping point.

John Wesley Harding, recorded immediately after the songs comprising The Basement Tapes, is that rare work of art that communicates enormously complicated ideas with deceptive simplicity, often speaking from the point of view of drifters, hobos, and simple country folk, again as if to insist that the cosmopolitan vantage point has become irretrievably corrupted. The album is a billion light years away from "Like a Rolling Stone.” Interpreting Dylan’s intentions can be treacherous, but I read his use of biblical and mythic metaphor (“The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”, “The Wicked Messenger”, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augistine), along with the opacity of the personae he adopts, as a way of expressing ambivalence towards the counterculture and of insisting that the social and cultural fissures of the period are more ambiguous than they seem. The richest instance of this is “I Pity the Poor Immigrant”, which some reviewers and commentators have seen as a shocking lapse and example of small-minded bigotry, but is in reality a portrait of the heart that beats beneath the reviled perspective of a backwoodsman.

The Band continued the rural turn they started with Bob Dylan and made it more direct and accessible on Music from Big Pink and The Band. The underlying idiom on these albums is undeniably late 60s rock, but the songs derive their distinctness from heavy dosages of traditional music and an idealization of agrarian America that’s even more explicit than anything found on the songs comprising The Basement Tapes. Tracks like “Across the Great Divide”, “Kingdom Come”, “Rag Mama Rag” and “King Harvest” conjure up images of plain folk in frontier towns, living off the land but also faced with a growing threat of encroachment from the modern industrial world. But the nostalgic nature of The Band’s entire enterprise on these two albums – mirroring the sentimentality of those who would escape the growing chaos of urban life – is at its most striking on “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down”, where the fall of the Old South is lamented in all-too-human terms, from the standpoint of a vanquished confederate soldier.

Next time: The Byrds and The Grateful Dead… What could be better than that?


Molly Stevens said...

I'm guessing that Neil Young made the rural turn and never came back?

Max Stevens said...

You're a few steps ahead of me. I've been thinking about how Neil fits into all of this. He made the rural turn for sure, but veered back and forth.