by Timothy White
At a 1965 symposium in New York on the American folk revival, Ewan MacColl's Scottish temper got the best of his critical judgement and he attacked Dylan's poetry as "cultivated illiteracy." A nonplussed Phil Ochs politely advised MacColl that there were two authentic revolutions in popular music, and neither of them involved traditional folk music.
One revolution, Ochs assured, was an emphasis on "perceptive" songwriting, some of it with "protest" in its "poetry." The other revolution was the deepening integration of rhythm and blues and country-and-western idioms as spawned by Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly into the rock and roll ferment that had drowned out the quaint properties and studious musical chops of ageing big band adherents.
Folk could revive itself all it liked to genuinely winning effect, but traditional folk was still a scenic blue highway lying off the main drag, where in 1964, The Beatles had six US number one hits, with five more to follow in 1965.
Dylan himself knew all MacColl's moot arguments about poetry, which he never really claimed to dispense, or politics, which he'd always largely left to Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Tim Hardin, or Ochs.
But Dylan had little patience in discussing this vexatious mid-'60s cultural vectoring with Ochs himself when Ochs told him he initially thought Bob "could become Elvis Presley . . . Essentially he could physically represent rural America, all of America and put out fifteen gold records in a row . . . What happened then was The Beatles got in the way. Dylan wrote the lyrics, and The Beatles captured the mass music."
As Dylan barked back at Ochs, "The stuff you're writing is bullshit, because politics is bullshit. It's all unreal. The only thing that's real is inside you. Your feelings. Just look at the world you're writing about and you'll see you're wasting your time. The world is, well . . . it's just absurd."
In effect, Dylan was warning that Ochs was flattering himself for waiting at the station for a mystery train he couldn't comprehend, one that was bringing a far more personal style of songwriting and self-exposition - one whose exponents would protest the impersonal and counter the absurd by simply telling the bone truth on themselves. And this coming style, by the way, was one which Dylan had not (and would never) master, even though he made fitful attempts in 1969-70 with his sparse-selling Self-Portrait and New Morning albums.