The forgotten man

pete-seeger-81869_1920It wasn’t a deliberate strategy to make Bob Dylan the centerpiece of this blog over the last six months.

But as 2015 unwound and the world began to take notice of the 50th anniversary of key milestones in rock history, we couldn’t ignore the creative destruction that Dylan unleashed in the summer of 1965 that is still being heard and felt today.

For starters, his mind-bending surrealistic song poem, “Mr. Tambourine Man” became #1 for The Byrds in June of that year, followed by his own sneering six-minute put-town of a socialite, “Like a Rolling Stone,” which hit #1 a month later. The boundaries of pop music were suddenly eviscerated, as reflected by the blockbuster hit records that followed—"Get Off My Cloud,” “Turn Turn Turn,” “The Sound of Silence,” and Rubber Soul. This was no longer your father’s Hit Parade.

But before we put a wrap on the Dylan chat for the year, let’s revisit Dylan Goes Electric by Elijah Wald one more time and note the subtitle of that book: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties. This refers to the July evening in 1965 when Dylan, dressed like a British rock star, mounted the Newport stage with Fender Stratocaster in hand and belted out three songs with a loud electric band to a chorus of boos. This was considered the death blow for acoustic folk music—especially as championed by Pete Seeger—which had finally earned some popular acceptance (and even Top 40 radio play). From then on, rock ruled and many erstwhile folk singers performed with electric instruments and rock arrangements.

Music critic Paul Nelson (as quoted by Elijah Wald) wrote in his review of the concert that it “split apart forever the two biggest names in folk music,” Seeger and Dylan. And Nelson let the world know his preference.

Was it to be marshmallows and cotton-candy or meat and potatoes? Rose-colored glasses or a magnifying glass?...It was a sad parting of the ways for many, myself included. I choose Dylan. I choose art.

In time this “split” became viewed by many rock fans and critics as a triumph of the new order—of innovation over tradition, of freedom over control, of the radical over the conservative.

But, as Wald points out, that familiar narrative contains some inconvenient truths, as most historical explanations do. Pete Seeger, though viewed as an old fart (at 46!), could not fairly be considered a reactionary. In fact he was a “red-tainted pariah to conservatives,” having been blacklisted as a Commie activist in the 50s. The banjo-playing Seeger STILL couldn’t appear in many venues or on national TV at the time, while Dylan with coiffed hair and sunglasses was a celebrity who could appear anywhere he wanted and whose songs filled the airwaves for years.

One could just as easily argue that Seeger was the radical while his former protégé became seduced by glitter and gold. Or that Seeger was the guy who kept fighting for freedom while Dylan got high and cavorted with starlets.

But any overarching historical narrative we create is a frame superimposed on events of the past, which says as much about us as it does about the events. It never tells the whole story—and the full story of Pete Seeger (who died two years ago at 94) may never get told.

Of course we can’t overlook comparisons to business history (because that’s what we do here). It’s worth asking who might be an analog of Pete Seeger in the organizational world—somebody who worked tirelessly for working men and woman and yet is largely forgotten today? Or who was instrumental in the success of a particular field of business, but whose contribution was eclipsed by a subsequent leader who took the work to a new level and gained all the glory?

The contributions of Seeger—as singer, composer, community organizer, and change agent—get downplayed in most historical accounts. Yet without Seeger there would be no folk music explosion in the 60s. And no Bob Dylan.

But Seeger's time may come around again. As Pete often sang: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” And a New Year awaits.

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  1. I'll bet dollars to doughnuts Pete and Bob would find the whole concept of a split preposterous. Same bet that both revere the work of the other.

    When you see the valley between two mountains, which mountain can you remove in order to enjoy the valley better?

  2. I recently read that Andrew Carnegie thought of himself as a champion of the working man, but that might come as a shock to his workers. (Also, he's not forgotten.) I'd vote for Eugene Debs -- or Clarence Darrow who represented him -- but neither has been overlooked by history.

  3. Many, many examples in hi-tech where early innovators were left in the dust by those who found a way to more profitably "productize" their inventions - usually applying them in new ways. Microsoft and Apple built their businesses this way.

  4. "History is written by the victors" goes the saying and since electric rock n' roll "won" against purer acoustic folk music, Dylan is seen as the victor.

    The other saying - arguably far more applicable to a field like the arts - is, "Nobody wins unless everybody wins."

    Love Joel's comments about mountains and valleys.

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