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Down the Tracks: The Music That Influenced Bob Dylan

Ben Fong-Torres

Ben Fong-Torres

Posted to Artist Spotlight on May 22, 2014

The New York Times' chief film critic, Tony (A.O.) Scott, called Inside Llewyn Davis the best movie of last year. It wasn't, but it was a fine portrait, snapped by the Coen Brothers, of the early folk music scene in Greenwich Village, on the eve of Dylan.

One of the great musical losses of recent months was that of Pete Seeger, who, as many writers and musicians noted, was one of the most important folk musicians--and social and political activists--of all time.

If either event got you curious about the folk scene and its impact on America— and on music itself--here's a Q (as in Qello) tip: Check out Down the Tracks: The Music That Influenced Bob Dylan.

Despite its title, the film is less about Dylan than about the people, musical forms and scenes that influenced him.

So, although musician and critic Sid Griffin says that Dylan "inspired everybody," we learn much more about such folk and blues pioneers as Pete Seeger, Huddie (“Leadbelly”) Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliot, as well as Harry Smith, compiler of the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music.

Dave Van Ronk, who Llewyn Davis is said to be based on, despite almost no similarities between the film's lead character and the respected "Mayor of MacDougal Street," also made an impression on the kid from Minnesota, who'd read Guthrie’s book, Bound for Glory, and decided that he needed to hit the road and see the world—or, at least, Greenwich Village.

Although Dylan and his music are absent (licensing and money issues, no doubt), Seeger is on board and gets credit for leading the way to the folk revival that opened the door to Dylan.

Seeger is chronicled in the film, as are Guthrie, Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi John Hurt, the Carter Family and early musicians of the Appalachians. But, ultimately, it comes down to Dylan. Sure, he drew ideas from many sources, from Ramblin' Jack to Rimbaud, but proved to be a pivotal guiding light himself, a poet, writer and performer with insight.

Years after he'd become the symbol of folk protest, we met for a Rolling Stone interview, during his 1974 tour with The Band, and he said that there still was a call for such music.

"Sure, there’s still a message," he said. “The same electric spark that went off back then could still go off again—the spark that led to nothing. Our kids will probably protest, too. Protest is an old thing. Sometimes protest is deeper, or different—the Haymarket Riot, the Russian Revolution, the Civil War. That’s protest.

“There’s always a need for protest,” he said. “You just gotta tap it.”

Spoken 40 years ago.

Even if you weren’t reading Rolling Stone magazine in the late '60s /early '70s, you might still know who Ben Fong-Torres is from the movie “Almost Famous.” Ben Fong-Torres is the legendary Rolling Stone Senior Editor who was characterized in the Cameron Crowe movie and now,… More