Listen to this article
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the death of Pete Seeger, the mythic American folk singer, had made the top of the news on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the middle of the week. The programme is not noted for moist-eyed idealism, but its tone was generous. Seeger’s life and work were rightly lauded for their integrity and commitment to the kind of causes that may not be considered controversial, but which are incontrovertibly ignored in the power play of real-life politics.
Seeger’s vision was for a just and peaceful world, and he never let it relax, not for a minute. As he achieved elder statesman status, his acolytes were increasingly fuelled by pure nostalgia. There was a day, they would recall, when all this stuff sounded convincing and credible. Seeger’s gentle and courteous ways began to appear quaint, acts of history rather than imperatives to change the way we live now. By the end, everyone loved the nonagenarian Seeger. Even Barack Obama paid tribute: Seeger was able, he said, “to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong, and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be”.
Ironically, Seeger’s most memorable act, for many who were around at the time, was an act of vandalism. The fact that it didn’t really happen scarcely mattered. When we talk of the greatness of events and men, mythology steps in when actuality leaves us thirsty for more vivid colours. So this is how the story goes: at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, Seeger was so upset when Bob Dylan appeared on stage wearing a leather jacket and wielding an electric guitar, that he picked up an axe and tried to chop through the cable that was powering Dylan’s electrified, in all senses of the word, set.
The tale is, of course, absurd. For Seeger, axes were for chopping wood, keeping the home fires burning, maintaining the frugal pioneer spirit that helped move his country closer to the America he knew it could be. To advance the notion that he turned psychotic after listening to a few power chords from his young friend shows a certain lack of perspective.
But let the symbolism of the moment stand. Seeger was, without any doubt, deeply upset when Dylan powered into “Maggie’s Farm”. The American producer Joe Boyd, then serving an apprenticeship as a fledgling soundman, recalls seeing him striding away in anger from Dylan’s set towards the parking lot, and his wife Toshi, in tears.
Seeger himself, remembering the occasion four decades later, claimed that he was merely disturbed by the volume and lack of clarity in Dylan’s singing. “You could not understand the words,” he said. “I was frantic.” Just as well, some might say. Within the spit of a guitar lick, Dylan was on to “Like a Rolling Stone” and its ghostly chorus: “How does it feel, to be on your own?” Seeger had started the day in front of the festival audience by playing a recording of a friend’s newborn baby; he ended it by listening to folk music’s prophet telling him that the age of communality was over. We were all alone. That is some downer.
The erudite Boyd had a point of reference for Dylan’s conversion: “Like the Acmeist poets in Russia in the 1920s, [Dylan] confused and frightened the commissars with his opacity. He was no longer outer-directed . . . Anyone wishing to portray the history of the sixties as a journey from idealism to hedonism could place the hinge at around 9.30 on the night of 25 July, 1965,” he wrote in his autobiography White Bicycles.
Dylan said that the very idea that Seeger wanted to take an axe to his power cables stabbed him “like a dagger” when it was conveyed to him, and he immediately wanted to go out and get drunk. The alluring chimes of hedonism were already enticing him away from the worthy tracts of idealism. Seeger must have known the game was up, although he never showed it.
Where to trace the beginning of the end of togetherness? The following decade, the 1970s, was famously labelled the “Me” decade by Tom Wolfe. Nonsense, said others. It was the Thatcher-Reagan years. All well and good, say more recent cultural historians, but surely it has been the atomising effect of 21st-century technology that has really torn us away from each other.
I’m with Seeger: I blame Dylan. At a stroke, his artistry acquired several more layers of profundity on that night at Newport, but like any great artist, he became more self-centred and less generous in his startling and newfound eloquence. Seeger got that. Whether he was aiming a few imaginary swings at his newfound enemy or merely stewing in the parking lot, reality crept up on him that night.
And so the rock star replaced the folk singer. Dylan looked divine in that puffed sleeve, polka-dot shirt that he wore at the Newport sound check but nobody would listen to his songs in quite the same way again. He became a celebrity, and we now know what that has come to mean. “Your songs are supposed to have a subtle message,” said an earnest reporter at a press conference to the singer later that year. “Where did you read that?” asked a faux-perplexed Dylan. “In a movie magazine,” replied the reporter, and everyone burst out laughing.
To to listen to culture columns, visit ft.com/culturecast
Letters in response to this column: