All These Years Later, Could Dylan Really Be a Folksinger After All? And The Beatles, Too?

04/26/2017 12:45 pm ET Updated May 01, 2017

I was listening to tracks from Bob Dylan’s new Triplicate album, 30 gems like “Stardust,” “These Foolish Things” and “As Time Goes By.” So of course I started joining in on the familiar lyrics, with proper apologies to Bob and Dooley Wilson.

Then I started reading Dreaming The Beatles, a new book by Rob Sheffield (Harper Collins. $24.99), and so of course I was hearing every Beatles songs about which Sheffield was rhapsodizing or occasionally kvetching.

It all brought me back to a thought I’ve had before: We need a term that captures the popularity and durability of music like this.

And I think we have one: folk music.

Folk music? “Stardust”? “She Loves You”?

Yes. Let me explain.

The material Dylan was singing, we call a lot of things. Tony Bennett makes a strong case for calling it “America’s classical music.” Most often, maybe, we call it Golden Age standards or the Great American Songbook.

The Fab Four, complete with Beatle haircuts.
Apple
The Fab Four, complete with Beatle haircuts.

Beatles songs, we generally just call rock ‘n’ roll, even though both the Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll cover a musical spectrum so broad one end is barely in the same galaxy with the other.

Just as a brief refresher, the labeling of musical genres in modern times has been done mostly for marketing convenience. That used to mean organizing the bins in record stores. Now it means tapping a word on your phone.

My guess is many fans buy into it because it’s convenient. Saying “I hate country” or “I hate rap” saves you the trouble of having to listen, and in a world where most of us don’t have enough time for the things we know we do like, that’s useful.

But when a particular batch of music remains popular through multiple generations, it deserves a term acknowledging that broader appeal.

Like, say, folk music.

Now I know “folk music” for many people already has its own little cubicle. It’s an earnest young man or woman strumming a guitar and singing “This Land Is Your Land.”

For most listeners, it doesn’t mean “Sentimental Journey” or “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

But in the best sense of “folk music,” that’s exactly what they have become.

Folk music got that name because it was the music of “the folk,” regular old people who kept listening to or singing this song because they liked it.

Which is exactly what has happened with “Stardust” and “In My Life.”

Now yes, there are still a few boundaries. Folk music should be something the folk can sing, or sing along with. Opera, for instance, doesn’t generally qualify.

But Dylan’s songs on Triplicate, like most Beatles songs with the exception of the occasional “Revolution #9,” are accessible. We civilians may not sing them well, but we sing them.

It’s also important to remember that folk music isn’t limited to songs about saving the world. Folk music is stories, about a logger who stirs his coffee with his thumb or the tragic death of a maiden, or the headlight on a train you can see from your prison window.

Dylan on Triplicate, or the Beatles, they’re telling stories.

Youtube

My guess is that Dylan sings Triplicate songs for the same reason he sang old ballads, or Christmas carols. They’re good songs. He’s a singer. He wants to sing them.

That’s what Dylan seems to be saying in a long interview on his website, www.bobdylan.com, and it’s consistent with everything he’s ever said about the durability of music, from Charlie Poole and Charlie Patton to Warren Zevon.

With the Beatles, it can be argued that some of what endures are their specific recordings of particular songs. You and I can’t sing the recording of “Rain” unless we can make our voices go backwards.

Take away the production, though, and we’ve still got the songs. If they didn’t still say something, it wouldn’t matter how innovatively they were recorded.

Dylan didn’t want to be called a folksinger in the 1960s. Let’s assume he isn’t interested now. The Beatles would likely find the notion amusing.

But if we’re still singing along with a song written 50 or 100 years ago, it has become the music of the folk. It’s folk music.

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