I've been watching the Bob

by francine Hardaway on October 6, 2005

I’ve been watching the Bob Dylan documentary “No Direction Home” on PBS. In case you missed it, it’s part of the American Masters Series and I’m sure it will come out on DVD if it hasn’t already, because Martin Scorsese, always one of my favorite directors, is the director of record. I�ve heard many people worked on the film before he was brought in.

I was never a fan of Dylan, whose early lyrics I couldn’t understand over the screeching of his harmonica– an instrument I always hated– but I grew to admire him as I watched Scorsese reconstruct the environment from which Dylan created his music. The amazing part about Bob Dylan is that he ever found the traditions that later formed his musical influences. For him, discovering folk music was as serendipitous as, say, George Harrison discovering the sitar, or a rapper being influenced by Tibetan chants. Dylan�s influences, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and the legendary John Jacob Niles, didn�t easily swim into his sphere of vision. He had to work hard to find them.

Watching that documentary, I was struck by the changes in the music scene that have occurred since I was a child. Music from all over the world is accessible now, to almost anyone. It�s easy to forget that it wasn�t always like that.

Bob Dylan is almost precisely my age, but he didn’t grow up in New York City as I did. He, poor guy, grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota during a time without television. He had to listen to 50,000watt radio stations from far away places at night to hear anything besides Patti Page singing “How Much is that Doggie in the Window.” Hard to believe, but there was actually a hit song by that name in the �50s.

The entire lyric, which I remember because it played endlessly even on the New York radio stations, was “How much is that doggie in the window, arf arf/The one with the raggedly ta-a-a-il/How much is that doggie in the window, arf arf/I do hope that doggie’s for sale.”

And yet, he found them. The day after high school, he left Hibbing for New York. New York at the time was the epicenter of the music scene. In Harlem, it was the blues scene. On 52nd Street, it was the jazz scene. and in Greenwich Village, it was the folk music scene. People actually gathered in Washington Square Park on Sunday afternoons and played music for each other. Good music. Live music.

At night, the scene moved inside, to places like Cafe Wah and Gerde’s Folk City. These were the places we went in high school and college. There were very few concerts; most music was played in intimate venues like night clubs, for a few hundred people who were just as busy smoking and drinking as listening. If you weren�t one of them (I was, because my dad was in the entertainment biz), you might never have heard the great names of jazz, folk or blues.

I’d say there is no true epicenter of the music scene now; there’s the Austin scene, the London scene, the Seattle scene–you get the point. I hear great jazz in Half Moon Bay. You can hear good live music almost anywhere, because the young musicians can hear truly good recorded music on which to base their ideas. If you’re a fifteen-year-old and you want to be in a band, or start one, your IPOD can show you the way.

Now I’m not sure such increased access to music from all over the world will spur people to creativity like Bob Dylan’s. Maybe it will just spawn generation after generation of imitators. (Which I think is happening right now in hip-hop; it all sounds the same to me now, after years of sounding fresh and new.) But I do believe that music is a universal language, and that the wonderful new music dissemination technologies can do much to unite the world. Perhaps that�s why the radical Islamists find it so dangerous and want to ban it.

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