Scenes of Love and Theft: Bob Dylan, Piracy, and Cultures of Transgression
By Robert LossJuly 1, 2015
Dylan Goes Electric! by Elijah Wald
How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt
IT STARTS WHERE all good stories begin: a mystery. After Newport ’65, after being called “Judas!” at Manchester Free Trade Hall in May 1966, and after his motorcycle accident that summer, Bob Dylan went silent. People speculated that he’d died. Had he suffered brain damage? Was the whole thing staged? Finally a mellow and biblical John Wesley Harding was released in December 1967 — but hold on, why was Manfred Mann prancing behind a flute in a heretofore unknown Dylan song called “The Mighty Quinn”? Throughout the spring and summer of 1968, Dylan’s songs popped up everywhere, from The Byrds’ breezy “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” to The Band’s pastoral masterpiece Music from the Big Pink. In June 1968, Rolling Stone ran a story about “The Missing Bob Dylan Album.” Where there was smoke there was fire, and arguably the fire was burning in that gap between mid-1966 and late 1967.
The informal home recordings Bob Dylan and The Band laid down mainly in 1967 came to be known as The Basement Tapes but were initially released in illegal and far-from-complete form in July 1969 as Great White Wonder, the first rock ’n’ roll bootleg. The story of those recordings and that bootleg form a particularly useful bridge between Elijah Wald’s new history of Dylan’s legendary 1965 performance at the Newport Folk Festival in Dylan Goes Electric! and the riveting story of post-millennial technology, piracy, and corporate futility told by Stephen Witt in How Music Got Free. Neither book mentions Great White Wonder, but to understand the story each tells, it helps to know the cultural shift the bootleg signaled: a new underground community of music fans that refused to be constrained by the corporate withholding of art or beholden to the wishes of an artist it revered. If that meant transgressing the laws of capitalism and copyright, so be it.
The frenzy surrounding Great White Wonder was very much the result of Bob Dylan’s extended public absence after his motorcycle crash, but that absence wouldn’t have mattered nearly as much without the rebel mystique and pop-art synthesis of American roots music that began to crystallize at Newport on July 25, 1965. “[W]e all know how that story ends,” writes Wald, 200 pages into Dylan Goes Electric! and just getting to the main event. Backed by a band he assembled the previous day, Dylan stunned and confused the audience by playing full-throttle electric versions of “Maggie’s Farm,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and what was then called “Phantom Engineer.” After the tumultuous response, Dylan was coaxed back out to play “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and his reluctant dissident aura was established.
All of the attendant myths of that performance are debunked or complicated by Wald: only a portion of the audience booed during the electric set, but that was shocking enough; the electric instruments weren’t the problem, but Bloomfield’s volume might have been; no, Pete Seeger didn’t try to chop the sound cables with an ax, he hid in his car. None of this is particularly new information. The real value of Dylan Goes Electric! is its weaving of these three narratives — Seeger’s career, the history of the Newport Festival, and the well-worn story of Dylan’s early career — into a historically contextual tale.
Wald also dispels the myth that the 1960s folk revival was an airtight collective of social justice-minded idealists. If anything, the revival was a morass of contradicting ideals. Foremost was the search for authenticity, at an individual level and as a movement, in order to gain legitimacy and unity. From the Greenwich Village scene to Newport, that search was fraught from the beginning. Committed but genteel folk stylists like Seeger, commercial artists like the “titillatingly Bohemian but reassuringly collegiate" Kingston Trio, and “neo-ethnics” like Dave Van Ronk all drew their water from the same well of authentic, rural folksingers — many of whom had originally recorded 78s for commercial record labels, not field researchers. But even the folk stylists who took a conservationist approach never considered themselves authentic. The rugged neo-ethnics, urbanites who learned the difficult and sometimes idiosyncratic techniques of rural folk and blues singers, admitted their traditional inauthenticity in order to overcome it by creating new work in the same vernacular. Tacitly Dylan belonged to this latter group, but he “acted like an insider,” writes Wald, “someone who had picked up whatever came his way as he wandered around the country.” Eventually he would pick up the British Invasion.
Authenticity often seeks its proof in tradition, but in the folk revival, under the stewardship of Seeger, that same tradition also encouraged democratic involvement. Such participation not only invited competing perspectives on what authenticity and tradition meant, it encouraged people to actively contest those standards through music. Since its inception, the festival was marked by the instruments its audience brought along for late-night jam sessions. Enlisted by organizer George Wein to reinvigorate Newport in 1963, Seeger reversed the festival’s previous commercial dominance by booking a diverse line-up of folk stylists, neo-ethnics, rural performers, and eventually singer-songwriters. Somehow the inevitable volatility of this mass participation had to reconcile with legendary folklorist Alan Lomax’s complicated sense of tradition and Seeger’s unwavering belief in the primacy of the community and the common good.
But the competing ideals of authenticity, tradition, and participation were embedded within the core principle that the revival, and thus Newport, had to confront: the folk process. Wald describes this as individual artists’ common method of creativity — pilfering other people’s songs, revising, improvising, and presenting them as original but of the tradition — which is true, but its anchor was the community. In 1907 the British ethnomusicologist Cecil Sharp defined folk music by three recursive stages later expanded upon by the International Folk Music Council: “continuity” between past and present, “variation” or innovations of the songs, and the “selection” of those variations by the community. Sharing between performers was encouraged, which implied equal ownership. In all cases, though, the community had the last word. Akin to Hegel’s dialectic process or to how T. S. Eliot describes innovation in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the oral transmission of the folk process meant the community selected new variations and changed but retained its coherence. Before the era of mass media and culture, this wasn’t so much a problem: each community and genre seemed discrete, and the oral and print transmission of songs spread slowly. But by the late 1950s, Sharp’s definition already didn’t apply neatly to the folk revival precisely because of mass media, and by the early 1960s, the scale of the community had widened enormously and the pace had increased drastically.
An adherent of the folk process, Seeger encouraged this growth. His eclecticism allowed Newport to expand what folk music meant and still maintain “a feeling that everyone was part of a small clique sharing a secret passion.” It didn’t stay small for long, and thus the conflicts between authenticity, tradition, ambition, unity, and the new youth culture. In his book Romancing the Folk, Benjamin Filene argues that Seeger knew himself to be a paradox, a leader of sing-alongs who could also be aloof and lonely. Robert Cantwell, in his seminal history of the folk revival, When We Were Good, called Seeger “a foot soldier in a vast invisible banjo army, at once crusader and apostate.” Wald obscures Seeger for much of the book, and as such, he seems a bit one-dimensional and unaware. But it seems plausible that Seeger knowingly chased a paradoxical and grand ambition with Newport: to connect traditionally authentic micro-communities — those founded on long-standing geographical, historical, ethnic, and cultural ties — with the massive, manufactured, and thereby traditionally inauthentic macro-community of a national folk movement. (Which sounds only slightly less daunting than drafting the Constitution.) Reaching thousands risked divulging that “secret passion” and inviting competing ideals. Building new traditions always put old traditions at risk. But wasn’t that what the mass-culture folk process asked for?
The irony of Dylan’s transgression at Newport ’65 and its aftermath was that Dylan actually presented a solution to the movement’s paradoxes: they didn’t have to be reconciled. You could have your folk music and your rock music. From a certain point of view, Dylan’s performance was the end of the folk revival, a statement that should be taken the way the art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto meant “the end of art,” i.e., the end of the necessity to act out a certain story of art. “Today there is no longer any pale of history,” Danto writes in his 1997 book After the End of Art, discussing the legacy of the Warhol-led New York pop art scene, the philosophies of which were influential upon Dylan and are significantly absent from Wald’s book. “Everything is permitted,” Danto goes on to say, and that, I think, is what Dylan was saying from the stage at Newport. At the least he was reacting against what Danto calls the modernist “ideal of purity” and its contests in which “several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors.” Instead of eradicating history and tradition and ignoring ideology and politics, Dylan’s fusion of genres argued against purity and fruitless aesthetic antagonisms. It replaced the closure of Hegel’s dialectic with the unceasing give-and-take of Bakhtin’s dialogic. In other words, Dylan ushered folk music into the postmodern age.
Dylan’s performance in some ways fulfilled Seeger’s paradoxical vision of distinction and equality. It’s true enough that Dylan’s set “was the iconic moment of intersection,” as Wald puts it, “when rock emerged, separate from rock ’n’ roll, and replaced folk as the serious, intelligent voice of a generation,” but folk did not cease to exist or matter. To say everything is permitted also means complex and fluid communities are permitted, each possessing a new kind of freedom and volatility without the need for reconciliation, only exchange. Pluralism challenges any easy notion of a single judge or a single community that judges. It does not forbid judgments. Essentially, Dylan implanted the folk process into popular music.
But now he was the foot soldier, the crusader and apostate. Dylan’s 1965 Newport performance greatly advanced the notion of the rock ’n’ roll performer as a legitimate artist, separate from the masses, whose power came from the assertion of will. This new brand of authenticity and mystique shifted the balance of cultural authority to the artist and created a divide between him and the community that ideally did not exist in the folk revival. If there was no longer a pale of history, there was a seductive boundary between the audience and the performer. Very quickly that audience would also defy authority on the basis of its will. It would grow into a subculture of fans that used a version of the folk process to get the music it wanted by crossing that boundary, a divide patrolled by the music industry.
Great White Wonder emerged in the summer of 1969 from two LA record-industry insiders named Ken and “Dub,” both self-proclaimed “hardcore Dylan fans.” It contained only seven songs from The Basement Tapes sessions, but it sparked a fever, most of which had to do with Dylan’s stature and reclusiveness. The folk revival’s ideal of performer-and-audience-as-one had not vanished; in fact, the increased distance from the artist only intensified the desire to collapse it, a longing that became romanticized, even sacralized.
It was also political. In his book Bootleg: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Recording Industry, Clinton Heylin quotes Ken and Dub telling Rolling Stone, “We’re just liberating the records and bringing them to all the people, not just the chosen few.” Folk communalism had not died at Newport, and with the aggression of what Guy Debord was already in 1967 calling the Spectacle, bootlegging became a guerilla war against capitalism and the commodity. The Beatles (Kum Back) and The Rolling Stones (Live’R Than You’ll Ever Be) were bootlegged by the end of 1969. Great White Wonder was copied, and new Basement songs were added to bootlegs with new titles like Flower, Troubled Troubadour, and years later The Genuine Basement Tapes and A Tree with Roots. The game was afoot. Dylan, according to the RIAA, would become the most bootlegged artist in history, and by 1995 it was common to find his unlicensed music in independent record stores … and, increasingly, online.
For roughly 35 years after Newport 1965, the music industry thrived on a simple business model described by Stephen Witt in How Music Got Free: hit radio singles drive album sales. In 2000, the industry sold over 900 million CDs. As with previous changes in technology like the eight-track and cassette tape, the record industry profited from the dominance of the long-playing format since with every new format fans repurchased their favorite albums. Even as manufacturing costs dropped, CD prices in the early 2000s reached nearly $19. Despite consumer burnout and new technologies like the internet and the MP3, the music industry doubled down on the compact disc. By 2014, the number of CD units sold had shrunk to just 140 million. “The album was vanishing,” writes Witt, and “[t]his — more than piracy, more than bootlegging, more than anything else — was what was really killing the music business.”
How Music Got Free, by its very title, suggests Ken and Dub’s promise to liberate music was fulfilled; the book’s unwavering premise is that popular music was constrained by the consolidation of record labels and radio stations into massive corporations. Whether or not you agree with that appraisal, Witt makes a blistering case for why music fans see it that way and how digital technology has fostered their resistance. How Music Got Free breathlessly ties together three narratives that eventually collide even though the actors never meet: Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German mathematician and audio engineer who brought the MP3 to life; record executive Doug Morris, a veteran of the industry overwhelmed by the changing market and technology; and “Dell” Glover, a young employee at a North Carolina CD pressing plant who “leaked over 2000 albums over the course of eight years.” Witt’s strongest sympathies lie with Glover, who approaches the level of a tragic hero. “He was,” Witt writes, “the greatest music pirate of all time.”
The distinction between music piracy and bootlegging — a distinction the RIAA doesn’t care about — grew fuzzier as time passed and technologies changed. Bootleggers like Ken and “Dub” pursued mainly unreleased studio recordings or live shows for aesthetic and ideological motives and sold them for modest profit, but soon, not-for-profit tape-trading networks flourished, too. As home computers began to include CD burners and the internet found its legs, bootlegged rare recordings were more frequently traded, not sold. Piracy had traditionally been defined as creating unauthorized reproductions of commercially available work and reselling it for profit, but the early releases so-called pirates like Dell Glover obtained were distributed for free. Even still, the music industry could now make a better claim to lost profits than it had against Great White Wonder since the freely traded product was meant to be sold. Or so its story went.
The most perverse pleasure in How Music Got Free — there are many — is to read along helplessly as Glover gets caught up in the web of nascent online file-sharers who made Brandenburg’s MP3 a hit. He begins the book as small-time hustler, burning CDs and reselling them, until he hooks up with the online pirating collective Rabid Neurosis (RNS) and its leader, Kali. Although Glover makes no money from the music uploads, he receives access to “topsites” containing a dragon’s hoard of media he can download, burn, and sell as his reward for snatching pre-release CDs from the pressing plant once he figures out, in a thrilling chapter, how that is done: by wrapping each in a rubber glove and lodging it behind a southern-sized belt buckle.
Bootlegging or piracy, the industry reacts the same way. Doug Morris stands in for the corporations like Seeger does for Newport. Cast as a deft and determined old-school exec who rebrands MCA as Universal Music Group, scoops up Interscope and its rappers, and makes a fortune by trusting market research and taking risks, Morris is still unprepared for the MP3 revolution. Claiming that the answer is better music, he says, “You [don’t] solve the problem of piracy by calling the cops.” Eventually he and the rest of the labels, backed by the RIAA, do just that. Through Morris we watch the industry’s numerous and impressively dumb ways of committing expensive hara-kiri: rejecting Brandenburg’s early offer of access to the MP3 technology; refusing Napster’s post-lawsuit offer to create an industry-wide subscription service; filing “educational lawsuits” against children, college students, and single-parent moms despite RIAA president Hilary Rosen’s behind-the-scenes objections; failing to foresee the value of portability for consumers (i.e., the iPod); sticking with CDs — on and on the list goes.
That litany of mistakes supports Witt’s debunking of the myth that online music piracy killed the industry. One anecdote is particularly enlightening. In 2007, Glover, having brought the industry to its knees with a belt buckle and a rubber glove, faces the choice of leaking either 50 Cent’s album Curtis or Kanye West’s album Graduation. He goes West, 12 days early — and Graduation tops Curtis by selling almost a million units in its first week. (Throughout How Music Got Free and bootlegging’s history, you sense how being part of a secret subculture means being a music industry quasi-insider, a sort of producer.) The corporations failed to understand what every musician can tell you: people have to hear your music, by radio, live performances or singles, before they buy it. But the industry’s consolidation had killed radio’s diversity, driven up concert ticket prices, and eliminated the single as a purchasable format. As Greg Kot argues in his book Ripped, the industry also forgot its audience’s hunger for the new, risk became a sin to shareholders in an industry demanding risk, and artists were no longer developed long-term. Meanwhile, MP3s and online file-sharing gave listeners low-cost or free control, and the opportunity to take risks without having to buy an overpriced CD first. Maybe they’d buy the thing if they liked it.
When The Bootleg Series vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete was finally released in November 2014, the six-disc, 139-song box set musically told the story of American popular song as Dylan and The Band saw it in 1967 and 1968: gags, blues, Child ballads, country weepers, soul protests. Here was Dylan enjoying the “everything is permitted” he argued for at Newport: free, eclectic music made just to make it.
But this official “bootleg” also contained the cultural journey from the folk revival to the commodification of counterculture and transgression’s mystique. As music, The Basement Tapes Complete can make that statement seem trite, but as an artifact, it tells the story of how we got to where we stand today. Forty-five years after Great White Wonder, the official, inarguably better product didn’t create a frenzy; it peaked at #42 in the US and cost more than $100, far too expensive for millions of Americans who could stream it for free on Spotify, so long as they didn’t mind the commercials. Piracy was down thanks to online streaming services; according to a report by market researchers at the NDP Group, just 10 percent of Americans downloaded music through peer-to-peer networks in 2012 compared to 20 percent in 2005.
So why did we transgress? In Dylan Goes Electric! and How Music Got Free, transgression results from the individual’s inability to reconcile personal desires with the community’s restrictions; in both books, ambition wins. Dylan scoffs, taunts, disappears, and reemerges. The frenzy over Great White Wonder creates a nascent audience of transgressors pitted against the triumph of neoliberal privatization and deregulation that resulted in an economy of low-value material abundance but less buying power for the shrinking American middle class and working poor. Less money means less music if we’re to buy it, which means less participation in culture and community. By the time How Music Got Free picks up the story, that audience has become a committed subculture with its own traditions that grows into a massive new counterculture that disobeys the laws of the capitalist economy.
Why might we continue to transgress? Maybe we’re dissatisfied. Maybe we still seek music’s communities. Faced with a massive media spectacle, we carve the mainstream into niche markets in order to carve out unique identities. With less capital, in the spectacle of the internet we value being first and “now,” claims to a neutered prestige. For the bootlegger and pirate in all of us, access to more music, faster and cheaper, meets these goals. Part of the payoff is producing instead of just consuming. We create. Thanks to all of this, we find roles to play in communities online and off.
Online music piracy and bootlegging is, in some ways, the fulfillment of the folk process’s egalitarianism, a transgressive subculture of free access and participation operating in the bright shadow of spectacle and economic disparity. Alienated from the centers of power, including the artist, the audience applied the folk process technologically. Music became something to be shared, not owned and bought, a commodity in a collaborative economy that we might call a folk economy. Even still, Guy Debord’s diagnosis in The Society of the Spectacle looms large: social life is replaced by virtual society, consumerism is dressed as production, and representations of power (i.e., online prestige) are gladly confused for actual power. Undoubtedly, online file-sharing is not the same as the accumulation of capital, or a sign that economic disparity is waning. Just the opposite. Working in the spectacle, we remain essentially spectators.
In every good story, a little mystery remains. Transgression is often a mark of progress, but progress for whom? So far, the cost is borne by the musician, who is valued as a persona, not a person. She submits her work into the collaborative economy but makes less money from album sales and pittances from online streaming. If obtaining and sharing music for free is conventional within the spectacle of American consumerism, can the musician keep making music? Does she transgress by claiming it as her own? In our culture of remixing and sampling, which looks a lot like the folk process of creative pilfering, revising, and improvising, is the musician held to traditional standards of authenticity and originality but without ownership of the work by which those ideals are judged? To riff on Sean Wilentz, is the musician free to steal what he loves and love what he steals just as much as his audience? You could ask Bob Dylan. Ask him about “Love and Theft” and see what he says.
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