According to Music Guide, a premier publishing network, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run was the most popular musical album ever made. If one ignores the jarring guitar notes and heavy drum sets, one cannot be blamed for thinking that the album belonged to the folk rock genre. Interestingly, the other nominees in Music Guide’s list of top albums include U2’s Joshua Tree and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, both of which have strong undercurrents of folk rock.
New Jersey, 1996. Braving the cold nip in the air, a motley crowd gathered to watch a Springsteen concert at a rundown football stadium. Accompanied by a sparse musical arrangement, Springsteen broke into a musical rendition of John Steinbeck’s socially conscious novel. The subsequent numbers portrayed the dark side of the American dream, which is often cleverly hidden under the kitsch and glamour of Hollywood. For Springsteen, it was a triumphant return to his original musical style. For music aficionados, the concert proved that folk rock was alive, and more importantly, kicking in America.
The appeal of folk rock has a lot to do with the social history of America in the Sixties — with the huge socio-cultural transitions that American society was undergoing then. Events like the Cold War, the feminist movement and Martin Luther King’s crusade influenced the genre heavily.
Folk artistes sang about contemporary issues — racial violence, economic hardships under an evil capitalist system, displacement, unemployment, social revolution and restructuring. They opened a subaltern perspective in the musical consciousness of America. Although critics termed them “the beatniks” who worshipped anarchy, drugs and utopia, their questioning of established norms gave folk rock a radical edge.
One of the earliest folk rock bands was the Fairport Convention. By the mid-Sixties, the arrival of performers like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell ensured that the popularity of folk music did not go down, but upwards. But the credit of taking folk rock to its pinnacle of fame lies with Robert Allan Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan.
Throughout his protest singing days in Greenwich village, Dylan was being hailed as a folk-messiah who could change the world order with his songs. Songs like “Masters of War”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” captured the true essence of this genre. Unfortunately, Dylan got tired of living up to the image of what he called as “a romantic lie of a folk troubadour” and alienated himself from the hard-core protest-song crowd, earning the sobriquet,“Judas”.
In a new guise
Something had changed in Dylan. And with him, the face of American folk rock changed as well. The changing socio-political character of America in the late Seventies and early Eighties — epitomized by the glorification of material success, consumerism and easy living — encouraged other forms of music like disco, glam rock, pop and punk.
The resurgence of interest in folk rock was brought about by the grunge movement of the Nineties. The sound of this kind of music was harsher — electric guitars, drums and synthesizers backed up by mindblowing stage-shows and choreography. Yet their lyrics bore an uncanny resemblance with original folk rock, talking as they did of disillusion, social hypocrisy and ennui. The anger was back in American music. So was folk rock in a new guise.
Established artistes started retracing their original steps. Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad”, Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and Dylan’s “Lovesick” bore traces of this musical rewind. New bands like Tricks Upon Travellers, You Slosh and the Barely Works provided the much needed adrenalin rush in folk rock’s second coming.
“Ghost of Tom Joad” stands not just for the social conscience of America. It is a part of the tradition of American folk rock itself. And come what may, its spirit will continue to linger despite all efforts to exorcize it.