Bob Dylan and The Folk Tradition.

Originally Published: 5 August, 2012.

Many of Dylan’s songs are based upon traditional folk songs, both musically and lyrically. The most obvious examples are ‘Girl From The North Country’ and ‘With God On Our Side’. Listen to Rosanne Cash’s beautiful version of  ‘Girl From The North Country’, which is my favourite version, here. Listen to Joan Baez performing ‘With God On Our Side’ in 1966,  here.

Although in any other musical genre, it would be plagiarism, it’s part of the folk tradition. Dylan’s contempories Brian Wilson and George Harrison both got into trouble for plagiarism, for ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’, respectively, perhaps they should have ripped off folk songs, instead!

Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie often used the melody’s of old country songs to put his own words to, or took both the
words and lyrics of an old song, and updated it with his own message. Dylan and Guthrie were particularly effective at this, as often their versions were better than the originals. Case in point, Woody Guthrie’s, ‘This Train Is Bound For Glory’. The music and words are closely based on the gospel song, ‘This Train’, however Woody’s version has much better lyrics, a faster tempo and is more inspirational.[1]

June Carter Cash demonstrated in a concert performance how Woody Guthrie used the melody of The Carter Family song, ‘Little Darling, Pal of Mine’ to put his own words to when creating the greatest song ever written about America, ‘This Land Is Your Land’. Dylan, even uses a Carter Family melody to create his song, ‘Titanic’ on his latest album, ‘Tempest’.The Carter Family also adapted traditional folk songs to create their own work, with A.P. Carter appropriating traditional Appalachian folk songs for his own material and recordings.

Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Paul Stookey at the Lincoln Memorial.

‘Girl From The North Country’ is Dylan’s updating of the traditional folk song, and now popular standard, ‘Scarborough Fair’. ‘Scarborough Fair’ was, of course, popularised by Simon and Garfunkel a few years after Dylan wrote ‘Girl From The North Country’. Much has been written about who the Girl from the North Country is, with Dylan’s girlfriends Echo Helstrom and Bonnie Beecher (now Jaharana Romney) the most likely candidates. Arguably, the song is as much about a longing for your hometown and in Dylan’s case, the North Country, as for a particular person. The North Country’s bleak beauty is captured brilliantly in the song with ‘if you go when the snowflakes storm, When the rivers freeze and summer ends.’

Echo Helstrom.

Dylan is working within folk conventions to create an archetypal folk song with the stock characters of
a romantic heroine and a lonesome traveller narrator. Dylan was successful to this end in that he created a beautiful folk ballad, whose romance and poignancy holds up to the best work in the genre. This idea is reinforced by Rosanne Cash who described ‘Girl From The North Country’ as being like an Elizabethan folk song.

Bonnie Beecher.

‘With God On Our Side’ is a clever re-working of ‘The Patriot Game’, an Irish ballad written by Dominic Behan. Dylan lifts the melody from ‘The Patriot Game’ for his song. Listen to Judy Collins’ version here. ‘The Patriot Game’ tells the story of a young Irish man who got caught up in the ‘Patriot Game’, joining the IRA and ultimately and futility giving his life in the fight. The song poignantly states the futility of patriotism.

Echo Helstrom.

Dylan takes this message and changes the context of the song from Northern Ireland to America. Dylan deals with war in general as opposed to a specific conflict, listing several historical wars, thus reinforcing the timelessness and futility of war and patriotism. At the same time, Dylan brings the song bang up to date, capturing the fear of nuclear war, which seemed like a very real possibility at the time. In this respect, ‘With God On Our Side’ is one of the most successful reworkings of an earlier folk song. What is most striking about Dylan’s Protest material is that it is so of its time and yet timeless.

Bonnie Beecher.

Dylan is continuing in the folk tradition to this day. Regarding his new song ‘Titanic’ from his new album, ‘Tempest’, Dylan revealed he lifted the melody for the song from The Carter Family song, ‘The Titanic’. Dylan said, ‘I was just fooling with that one night. I liked that melody – I liked it a lot. Maybe I’m gonna appropriate this melody. But where would I go with it?’ Check out Dylan’s interview in Rolling Stone Magazine here.

UPDATE (16/09/12): Dylan comments on plagiarism charges, in the brilliant way that only he can, here.

Read Dylan’s comments in Rolling Stone Magazine here.

Bonnie Beecher, ’69.

[1] Michael Gray, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (Great Britain: Continuum, 2006), p. 656.


3 thoughts on “Bob Dylan and The Folk Tradition.

  1. Pingback: Bob Dylan Endorses Obama! | Marielle O'Neill Article Archive

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