Roadblocks, part 2 – When our art isn’t what others want it to be

Bob Dylan, Newport Folk Festival, 1965

This post considers how the opinions of family, friends, and even total strangers can, if we’re not careful, put a ceiling on our musical aspirations. It’s the second in a three-part series calling attention to influences and patterns of thinking that may stop us from pursuing our musical goals to the fullest. In part-one we considered various ways that the music industry itself can quash ambition when we buy into imagery giving the impression that there’s an insurmountable divide between those who have “made it” and those who haven’t. Next time we’ll get more personal and look at how our very own thinking can hold us back.

On July 25th, 1965, Bob Dylan played an electric guitar through an amplifier at the Newport Folk Festival and, so doing, angered and alienated thousands of folk music purists in attendance. In the coming days, as news of this evidently treacherous act spread, thousands more fans checked Dylan off their list of great artists. “For doing what?” you ask. For playing his folk songs on an electric guitar.

You see, by 1965 Bob Dylan had become one of the well-known figureheads of America’s growing folk music revival. It was a musical movement, built around the serene sound of a strummed acoustic guitar, that stood as much for social change and political dissent as it did for creating great songs. Dylan didn’t invent the revival; it was already an audible voice on American college campuses when Dylan shook the world in 1963 with “Blowing In The Wind.” Nor did Dylan want to be characterized primarily as a folk musician, and much less as an icon of the revival. Nevertheless, with an acoustic guitar in his hands he quickly rose to be viewed as one of the movement’s leaders, and, by 1965, his name began to stand for its values and ideas.

So it was against this reputation that Dylan decided at Newport to exchange his customary acoustic for a Fender Stratocaster in the innocent hope of energizing the picnicking peaceniks with an unexpected set of good ol’ rock-n-roll.

According to author Robert Shelton, who retells this famous moment in his book No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, here’s what happened next:

From the moment the group swung into a rocking electric version of “Maggie’s Farm,” the Newport audience registered hostility…”Play folk music!…Sell out!…This is a folk festival!” Dylan began “It Takes a Train to Cry,” and the applause diminished as the heckling increased.

Strange as it may sound now, in 1965 the electric guitar was viewed as suspect by the activist fans of folk music. To them, it represented the big-business pop music establishment of which the teenybopper, twist-and-shout Beatles (who had yet to become peaceniks themselves) were still part. So the moment the crowd heard feedback scream from Dylan’s amp, they felt betrayed, and what ensued was something like a mutiny.

The response Dylan got from the Newport audience surprised and disappointed him. Clearly he didn’t understand how his fans had come to view him so differently than he viewed himself – more as an agent of social change than as a free-thinking artist.

The Trap of External Definition

At Newport, Bob Dylan’s persona – the image of Dylan that people had in their minds, not who Dylan really was – had come into conflict with the songwriter’s true artistic ambitions.  But while Dylan’s story is dramatic, his predicament is not unique. In fact, the situation he faced is common, one we experience time after time in both our personal and musical lives.  Like Dylan, we all grapple with moments when a person or a group has expressed an opinion about who we are or what we ought to do which, if we buy into it, can have the effect of trapping us in a limited identity.

In ways both big and small, we routinely allow flimsy, uninformed comments from peers and supposed authorities to supercede our own ideas of who we are and what we can and should do with our lives. For example, someone may say something ridiculous like, “Well of course you’ll never be a lead singer, you’re just a drummer, dude.” Comments like this are harmless when we clearly see how ludicrous and unimaginative they are. On the other hand, the moment we suspect that what this person is saying may be true, such a comment can echo in our brains forever and have a devastating effect. When we live within the constraints we’ve allowed others to set for us, we’re unable to pursue the life that makes us happiest and, ultimately, most successful.

In spite of the damage they can cause, these limiting statements are rarely intended to be harmful. I overheard the following conversation between a former student and his mother:

“I love drumming, Mom.”

“That’s great, Michael.  I’m sure that whatever career you choose, music will always be a nice hobby.”

From the parent’s perspective, this was a perfectly supportive statement. From the son’s perspective, however, the message was as clear as it was subtle – a career in music is not legitimate.

Similarly, a music teacher may believe she’s simply educating a child when she tells him, “Sorry, but with your pitch problems you should only sing in a group, so we’re giving the solo instead to Rickie.” Now if Bob Dylan – a man not known for having great pitch – had been told this and had taken it to heart, he wouldn’t even have been given the opportunity to be booed off the stage at Newport.

Interestingly, a remark doesn’t have to be critical to have a harmful effect. I have a friend who by age six was already becoming a virtuoso violinist. Growing up, she was told again and again just how lucky an orchestra would be one day to have her. She was halfway through college at an expensive music conservatory when she finally had the guts to tell her parents that she actually wanted to be speech pathologist.

We’re never going to stop people from saying things that may influence the way we think about our music, our career choices, and ourselves. And we wouldn’t want to – hearing feedback from others is a crucial way we grow as artists and as people. But what we can do is adjust how we take in comments people make about us and the things we do. We must always consider the source of the comment and their own motivation for saying what they said. And it’s one thing to hear a piece of advice tossed out by a single person, and quite another to hear it again and again from a variety of people whom you trust. Just remember, everyone loves to give advice (I should know), and it’s up to you to sort out what advice to employ and what to throw away.

And whenever you’re in doubt, take heart – you’re not alone in deciding courageously to act against someone’s preconceived notions of who you are and what you may become. Who would have imagined Dave Grohl, the glum-faced, voiceless drummer for Nirvana, would later step out as a loveable, comedic front man of Foo Fighters? Or that Paul Simon, another songwriter to emerge from the sixties folk revival, would become a central figure in the massive world music movement? For that matter, who would have imagined that a Hollywood B-movie actor would become a popular U.S. president, but Ronald Reagan did just that. Or that an insurance salesman who is recognized as one of the pioneers of estate planning would become one of the most celebrated American composers of the 20th Century, but Charles Ives did just that. Or that a local Chicago news anchor would become one of the most powerful women in the world, but Oprah Winfrey did just that. Of course such examples are endless. Clearly, Bob Dylan is not the only artist to defy the critics, the naysayers, and their own public persona only to become even more successful.

The Newport event saddened Dylan, but surviving it only convinced him of something he already knew about himself – that he would never allow himself to get stuck in a box that others made for him. Only he could define who he’d become and the music he would create.  Sure enough, album to album, Bob Dylan’s stylistic identity shifted dramatically, moving confidently from folk singer, to rocker, to religious messenger, even to country crooner. With every metamorphosis, Dylan alienated thousands of fans, only to gain millions more. And time after time, he courageously sacrificed the soothing comfort of immediate approval for long-term artistic satisfaction.

Referring to what happened at The Newport Folk Festival, Dylan later said, “It was honest. It was honest.” The honesty that was instinctual for Bob Dylan and others is not so instinctual for many of us. Yet, if you are going to be happy – and I would also argue successful – in the music industry, you need to be honest with yourself about what you want to do and who you want to be. Sometimes your honest choices will have to stand against the opinions of others who think they know what’s best for you. That’s a small price to pay. Because even if you later decide that the road you chose was wrong, you learned far more by making your own mistake than by blindly following someone else’s presumptuous lead.

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