I watched about 15 minutes of Bob Dylan – No Direction Home over my son’s shoulder tonight. Painful nostalgias kept erupting which seemed, mmm, disproportionate. I never particularly liked listening to Dylan – liked a few of his songs. I’ve disliked Joan Baez as long as I can remember. Most of the artists mentioned weren’t especial favorites of mine.
It is not mere nostalgia. That is something I can conjure in a moment. I have at most times of my life been morbidly nostalgiac. From a single evocative item – a Polaroid Swinger, for example – I can assemble the pieces unbidden. Eighth-grade boys in madras suitcoats or bright blazers (Rooster ties), moving over the linoleum toward clusters of girls in short, unbelted dresses. Some wordlessly take a girl’s hand and escort her to the dance floor, nervous even though she has accepted before and it is the last dance of the night. The others falter and head for the food table, now empty. “I Wanna Be Free,” Davy Jones aches. Karol Tsakalos and Marie Chicoine have badgered the shyer (but noisy) guys behind the record player table into playing the song, and they ache with Davy, but no one dances with them because they are tall – 5’6”.
I have hundreds of those, on disc, so to speak. The nostalgia of watching the Dylan movie was different, and it took some thought to understand how.
I have very poor defenses against serious movies. I see very few, and they seem quite real. Perhaps because they can draw me in so fully, I avoid them - they’re emotionally wearing. It was the original footage which gripped me, though I don’t believe I had seen a frame of any of it before. The commentary of old folkie guys between clips was irritating, even laughable. What Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy did as a painfully accurate sendup in A Mighty Wind, these guys were still doing for straight. I almost got stuck being one of those guys for life, I thought, my sons should be grateful. But I meant it only half-seriously – I could get distance from it easily. I could groan inwardly in embarrassment without any real pain.
I couldn’t get distance from some of the clips, and I couldn’t tell why. Howlin’ Wolf at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival – well who cares? I was 10 years old and never got near the place. Concert footage of New York coffee houses – why would that mean anything? But those clips had my old drug, my favorite drug, the one I’d forgotten I’d ever been addicted to. It was the sound of the crowd. I’d been on both sides of the mike for that sound, and it evoked living in that culture like nothing else.
Brilliant artists can recreate an era with a few perfect and streamlined details, which we recognize as authentic. Real footage is more authentic because some of the details are wrong. What we now call an “open mike” night was clumsily called a hootenanny night by some. I had forgotten that, because “hootenanny” referred more exactly to another type of variety show, and “open mike” is a better, though later name. A dozens details like that, wrong but more accurate, set the table for my drug delivery. All those acts that weren’t quite folk music in the coffee house sense, cluttering up every bill, were part of what you listened to. The guys booking acts didn’t know that Country & Western music didn’t count, and that troops of kids forced to play ethnic instruments were just lame. All those tiny niche entertainments had very few places to play, so they joined forces to pad the audience. In the age of ebay and downloaded music, it is hard to remember that it was often surpassingly hard to find something in a specialty category. So you listened to things that were sort of close, or listened to one record twenty times a week. Running across someone who liked what you liked was a treasured night – you would listen at his place, but never borrow; these were too precious.
Folk music was my introduction to the adult world. I was always the youngest performer or youngest in the audience, and what acceptance I received was somewhat grudging. Aspiring to join these crowds of wooly-headed liberals likely influenced my early politics more than any intellectual persuasion. I wanted to be like the only other people who knew who Oscar Brand or Theodore Bikel were. The late highschool years were heady ones for me, when I could go to festivals and know people, be asked to join local folkies for song or two. When Jesus preached about sitting below your station because it was such an honor to be called up, He wasn’t kidding. There’s no conceitedness that’s quite as dizzying as the one that springs from false humility.
The documentary had all the supporting details that confirmed this was my drug: the microphone and speaker quality of the time; the simple, unadorned guitar-work offset by occasional tough bits that showed you could play like the “commercial” artists if you wanted to; the more-authentic-than-thou Scots-Irish ballads and workers songs. I had not tasted that drug for years, and found I still liked it. I have never been more grateful for stupidly ruining my voice, as all that temptation is now beyond me.