“Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing”: The lightning-like ascent of a “voice of a new generation”

By on June 3, 2016

Among the gems we’re currently offering to Night Flight Plus subscribers is Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing, a lucid, well-observed, and smartly-documented look at Dylan’s formative work during five explosively creative years in the early 1960s.

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As its title suggests, British director Tom O’Dell focuses his lens on Dylan, freshly transplanted from Minnesota to New York City in 1961, as he moved swiftly from his status as the darling of the growing Greenwich Village folk scene to the reigning “voice of a new generation” (in writer Ralph J. Gleason’s oft-quoted words). The film climaxes with Dylan’s entry into rock in 1965, when he turned his back on his folk roots for more personal, mercurial work.

O’Dell’s two-hour 2014 feature covers much of the same ground that Martin Scorsese did in the first half of his three-hour 2005 PBS doc No Direction Home. But the English filmmaker seems intent to avoid slavishly following in the American director’s footsteps, and supplies plenty of context that Scorsese may have taken a little for granted in the earlier picture.

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Dylan at home in his Greenwich Village apartment (Photo by Ted Russell)

Roads Rapidly Changing leads off with a hip-pocket history of the American folk movement from its genesis in the left-wing political ferment of New York in the ‘30s. He walks viewers through the advent of the folk revival with the rise of such totemic figures as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Guthrie’s protégé and eventual collaborator Pete Seeger.

The early folkies’ notion of “people’s music” ultimately culminated in the slick, commercially popular sound of Seeger’s early-‘50s group the Weavers. But the act, and the left-tilting folk music of the era, was ultimately brought to ground during the era’s anti-Communist panic by the red-baiting of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee (which led to Seeger’s conviction for contempt of Congress, later overturned), and the widespread use of the blacklist.

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Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, circa 1940. This image was likely taken in Oklahoma City during a trip Pete and Woody made from Washington, D.C., to Pampa, Oklahoma

O’Dell picks up the thread again with Dylan’s materialization in the Village, which came in the wake of renewed interest in folk with the highly commercialized late-‘50s hits of Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio. Styling himself after earlier avatars like Guthrie (whose book Bound For Glory was his Bible) and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (né Elliot Adnopoz, Brooklyn-born son of a Jewish surgeon), Dylan immediately hurled himself into the scene, playing for tips at the local “basket houses,” where musicians passed the hat for pay.

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Though Dylan plundered the traditional American folk repertoire in his early sets, he soon began writing original material, which quickly outstripped similar, topically oriented work by such contemporaries as Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs. His second and third albums, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’, established him as the brightest writer of socially-conscious material on the scene, a fresh voice who fearlessly and poetically grappled with issues like civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and the growing threat of new conflict in Southeast Asia.

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Dylan at work, 1964 (Photo by Ted Russell

Dylan’s lightning-like ascent is retold by several contemporaneous observers, most of whom were untapped by Scorsese: musicians Paxton, Eric Andersen, Peter Stampfel, and Maria Muldaur; Harold Leventhal, manager of Guthrie and the Weavers; Art D’Lugoff, owner of the folk club the Village Gate; and Izzy Young, proprietor of the Village’s Folk Center. Critical perspective is supplied by American writers Robert Christgau and Anthony DeCurtis.

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The Brit perspective on Dylan’s tale is supplied by Martin Carthy, who was a luminary on the U.K. folk scene when the American star paid his first visit in late 1962. Carthy and Nigel Williamson, author of The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan, both note that Dylan’s sojourn overseas probably led to his pillaging of traditional English balladry for such originals as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.”

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Soaking up influences everywhere, Carthy notes, “He was like a piece of blotting paper.”

However, by the summer of 1964, Dylan had become impatient with his role as a political mouthpiece, and had tired of writing what he would late call “finger-pointing songs.” DeCurtis says, “He saw politics as a subject…[but] he understood it as an artist.”

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Under the spell of French symbolist poets like Arthur Rimbaud, Dylan began concocting impressionistic, highly personalized material that eschewed the messages that so enraptured his original folk audience. The first fruit of this new direction came on Another Side of Bob Dylan, released a mere two years after his debut LP; by the spring of 1965, he applied a full-blown rock band to the style on the half-acoustic, half-electric Bringing It All Back Home.

Roads Rapidly Changing climaxes with Dylan’s sensational, controversial appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where a brief set of material performed with an impromptu rock band detonated a near-riotous reaction.

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Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 (Photo by David Gahr

One sees disillusionment and betrayal on the face of Old Guard folkie Young as, almost 50 years after the fact, he recalls Dylan’s definitive break with his acoustic, didactic style and his first supporters. D’Lugoff, another old-school folk fixture, considers the schism ruefully, in terms of a notorious modern marketing gambit: “They grew up on the old Coca-Cola – they didn’t want the new Coca-Cola.”

Unlike Scorsese, O’Dell didn’t have access to Dylan as an interview subject, but he makes up for it by using evocative photographs and clips from copious 1961-65 performances, including a number of rarely-seen TV appearances. He also wisely uses material from D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back, the classic documentary about Dylan’s 1965 U.K. tour, and Murray Lerner’s equally invaluable footage of Dylan’s Newport sets in 1963, 1964, and 1965.

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Bob Dylan and his muse, artist Suze Rotolo, walk down West 4th Street in Greenwich Village, 1961 (Photo by Don Hunstein)

Thoughtful, keenly assembled, and packed with informative testimony, Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing is a welcome entry for the aficionado, and can be included in the small shelf of top-flight films about the musician.

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Night Flight contributor Chris Morris surveys Bob Dylan’s albums, from his self-titled debut to his new collection Fallen Angels, in his new book Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press).

About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).