Sunday, July 17, 2011
Town and Country Rock
Rock is largely derived from country, blues, and gospel. Different forms of blues are very specific— urban blues (like Chicago blues) and rural blues (like Mississippi Delta blues). Blues is split between town and country. Country would seem to be just that— but many urban centers in Tennessee have been oriented around country music for a long time. It’s another split; as is gospel. And then the hybrid offspring, rock and roll, into rock. Elvis Presley was a “country boy”— but he had to move from Tupelo to Memphis to get famous. If “town” is generally loud, insistently intense, and cathartic, while “country” might also be intense but is more at ease, the major first gen rockers were certainly town; even if Elvis’s ballads were an exception. Between the British Invasion and the inception of folk-rock, one thing the 60s did was to open a new way for rock to be country— but not the country music version of country. It has more to do with a vision and version of the bucolic— songs specifically set in rural environments. This could emerge in lyrics or different kinds of instrumentation. Dylan’s early songs were, more often than not, topical folk— the sense of current (often political) relevance urbanized them. It wasn’t until John Wesley Harding that a fully realized bucolic vision emerged. It was expressed in coded, allegorical, often elliptical lyrics (that shied away from politics and towards the religious) and minimalistic music.
John Wesley Harding was only loosely “rock,” but it was influential enough to move popular music, commodified and mass-consumed, towards an awareness and an appreciation of the bucolic. Two other releases from that year (’68) are also relevant in charting the development of a specifically bucolic sensibility— the Beatles’ White Album and the Band’s Music from Big Pink. Beatles fans generally know that the White Album songs were written in India while the Beatles were studying with the Maharishi; there are several bucolic visions among them. This is relevant because, just through the Beatles’ enormous popularity, bucolic visions were being consumed not only in bucolic settings but in Cleveland and Detroit (for example); rural culture infiltrating urban settings. “Mother Nature’s Son,” “Piggies,” and “Dear Prudence” all had a country-side feel to them— though “Prudence” used electric instrumentation, the Blakean innocence-song lyrics cast a spell without nodding towards the urban. “Mother Nature’s Son” is even more extreme— an explicit rendition of a rural character portrait. Critics have often claimed that what the Beatles and Dylan were channeling was a reaction against the psychedelic excesses of ’67; but there is a headiness or “trippiness” to the rural that is, for want of a better word, psychedelic. Nor is “Dear Prudence” any more simple than, say, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”
There is even more irony in Dylan’s ’68 approach— lyrically, John Wesley Harding may be the most psychedelic collection Dylan ever recorded, if psychedelic means trippy and mind-expanding. A song like “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” is so mind-bendingly strange and multi-layered that it puts the Blonde on Blonde songs to shame, even if the music is comparatively sparse and lean. Much of the credit for the ’68 paradigm shift towards the bucolic was given to the Band for Music from Big Pink. Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel both had a gift for writing densely layered songs. Because the lyrical imagery was derived from American history, the blues, and the Bible, the songs were both more trippy and more sophisticated than Jefferson Airplane’s or the Grateful Dead’s. Garth Hudson’s organ created a musical ambience as spooky as the Doors, and there it was— Music from Big Pink was a psychedelic masterpiece. That these records were commercially successful was, and remains, an interesting study in sociology— urban audiences no longer needed to stick to urban music. For these audiences, these records could be an escape valve— a way of transporting themselves to a locale more peaceful and more imaginatively stimulating than the one they lived in. They could be a trip. And if, to the critics of the day, the way forwards seemed to be the way backwards, we can see in hindsight that what seemed to be “backwards” wasn’t backwards at all. The deep trips came after the introductory ones.