You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend
When I was down
You just stood there grinning

Bob Dylan – Positively 4th Street

An artist creates; that is what defines them. A true artist creates the experience. They do not follow the whims of the public. Not every musician is an artist. Some musicians make a very good life for themselves by replicating other people’s art with remarkable fidelity. Some singers, while not songwriters, are able to interpret and deliver words in a way that makes the art accessible to a much wider audience. That is a valuable and wonderful gift to those who take inspiration from a creation that otherwise they may never have heard or seen.

Prior to the emergence of the recording industry, music was mostly transmitted via sheet music and subject to local musicians to deliver it. But going back further, music was orally transmitted via troubadours who would travel from town to town to entertain folks with stories, tales, and songs.

You got a lotta nerve

To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that’s winning

Positively 4th Street Verse 2

Folk Music

Probably the most famous “folk musician” in modern history is Bob Dylan. Dylan, 78, was born in Duluth, Minnesota and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota. Raised in a Midwestern mining culture where the early 20th century battle over workers’ rights and collective bargaining gave birth to a musical culture that was very different from the east coast big band. Big Band is essentially Jazz set to a mini orchestra production.

You say I let you down
You know it’s not like that
If you’re so hurt
Why then don’t you show it

Positively 4th Street, Verse 3

Folk, alternatively was typically a single performer, with an acoustic guitar, singing about something socially relevant. Folk featured blue collar themes, heavily colored by the dust bowl era and working man blues. Those styles, along with Blues music, sort of defined the early to mid 1900s, prior to the rock-and-roll era.

In the early 1960s Bob Dylan, who had moved to New York City, entered the folk scene there. His appeal was his underrated guitar picking skills, distinctive delivery, and lyrical virtuosity. Dylan was a master of observation, of living inside of a society and being able to create poetry that captured its essence. He changed minds, and he opened minds.

Bob Dylan – Blowing in the Wind

His songs Blowin in the Wind and The Times, They are a Changin’ were cultural touchstones that put a voice of clarity to the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. The folk industry held Dylan up as the “The Voice of a Generation.” He never asked for and never consented to this title. With that reputation as a messiah of folk, he began to feel painted into a box.

Dylan Goes Electric

By the time of the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Dylan was ready to tell different stories. Two years prior, in 1963, the Beatles had begun the British invasion of rock-and-roll. Dylan had come to feel constrained by the limitations of the singer-songwriter dynamic and assembled a band to play a more layered, complex set of songs. Earlier that year, Dylan released his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, with seven songs with a band and four more traditional songs with just himself and a guitar.

His subject matter began to diversify in accordance with his new musical direction. Love Minus Zero/No Limit, for example, was a personal celebration of love and admiration for a lover with no larger societal overtones. And his fans were not happy. They wanted him to remain in the gilded cage in which they had placed him.

Newport Folk Festival

So as the Festival began, there was a lot of unease. Hardcore folk fans thought that Dylan had sold out and given into the business side of the music industry. They expressed outrage and feelings of betrayal.

In fact, Dylan anticipated this and opened the set with Maggie’s Farm, a declaration of freedom and autonomy. His frenetic rendition suffered from a stage not built for a full band, and there is a defiant dissonance to the performance. Maggie’s Farm offended those who believed it to refer to the group think that had set in around the folk scene. Watch the last few seconds of the song and the rousing boos he received.

You say I let you down
You know it’s not like that
If you’re so hurt
Why then don’t you show it

You say you lost your faith
But that’s not where it’s at
You had no faith to lose
And you know it

I know the reason
That you talk behind my back
I used to be among the crowd
You’re in with

Positively 4th Street

But Dylan is an artist who made a career in speaking truth to power. He channeled his pain/rage into art. He didn’t run to a newspaper or TV show to complain, he wrote. And what came was what could be considered one of the first instances of a “clap back” by a major artist. “4th Street” is commonly believed to be a reference to the Greenwich Village center of folk society in NYC. 

The words were direct, clear, and completely unapologetic. Dylan, an artist, accepted no responsibility to regurgitate the content that his fans wanted from him. Dylan rejects the lines others paint around him, he remains true to his art.

You see me on the street
You always act surprised
You say, “How are you?” “Good luck”
But you don’t mean it

When you know as well as me
You’d rather see me paralyzed
Why don’t you just come out once
And scream it

Another Side Of Bob Dylan

He listened to himself, he continued to observe the world, and he remained a conduit for the human condition. But he has never let anyone off the hook. His final verses in the song essentially say that he has not grown immune to the social problems that folk music had made its target. He acknowledges that folk never really turned into a commercially successful genre, but it was not his responsibility to manage everyone else’s career.

No, I do not feel that good
When I see the heartbreaks you embrace
If I was a master thief
Perhaps I’d rob them

And now I know you’re dissatisfied
With your position and your place
Don’t you understand
It’s not my problem

Positively 4th Street Cover.

Bob Dylan has gone on to record 38 studio albums, including Triplicate in 2017. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. He has been nominated 25 times for Grammy awards, including a Lifetime Achievement award in 1992. Since 1992 he has been nominated 12 times and won 7 times. He continues to tour worldwide on the “Never Ending Tour” which started in 1988. His current tour played its 3000th show (yes, three thousand) in April 2019. He continues to vary his musical styles and surrounding band lineup.