Earlier this year I had the fortune of watching Martin Scorsese’s wonderfully entertaining and revelatory documentary “No Direction Home.” It provides an in depth look into the life of Bob Dylan from his youth growing up as Robert Allen Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota, up until his transition to rock music in the mid-1960’s. Part of the American Masters series on PBS, which is always awe-inspiring in its ability not only capture the heart and soul of their subjects but somehow decipher their mercurial essence, it paints a comprehensive portrait of a young man thrust upon events as if ordained. Born thirty years after the Greenwich Village scene, I was surprised to see just how young he really was. The image of a grand scale social movement deriving from hauntingly profound lyrics were written by a small, wiry-haired twenty year old with a terribly shy and nervous demeanor. He existed as the walking riddle that spurned his songs.
But what I found equally rewarding in the documentary was the detailed coverage addressing the folk movement thriving at that time. I knew little to nothing about folk music, so to discover the names of iconic figures such as Pete Seeger was a treasure I hold dear today. Still green with knowledge, I’ve learned about the wonderful musicians that paved the way and influenced the artists I have admired as their folk-rock successors.
And yet, there was something else happening in the documentary as seen through the nameless photographed faces of youngsters and their guitars. Bob Dylan was no doubt one of hundreds, if not thousands of musicians living the life of the bohemian/beat that Ginsberg so passionately praised. They must have been individuals that carried their real estate in their hand, going from place to place each night in hopes of finding warm shelter. They suffered and sang while the freezing cold nights and lonely vagabond days fueled their music. So there’s a beauty to their sadness when they’re discovered and appreciated. But what a tragedy for the countless number that get cast away into the shadows of the alleys. Not surprisingly, it reminds me of a folk song that they must have played some nights at a bar or joint where others like them gathered together. “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.” And no doubt, it takes a sad man to sing a sad song. It requires digging deep into the dark places of your soul in order for the emotions to rise. Folk music is timely because of that authenticity. So when hundreds come and ago for one Bob Dylan to succeed, the music world loses more than a voice. A torched spirit lit by melancholy dissipates into the recesses of the darkness it channeled, like swallowing a black abyss that knots in your throat. And yet, it spirit finds its way into the music of others. The genre grows with every unsung chord hit and every melody fading into obscurity. “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” It’s a sad life for Llewyn Davis because a talent and potential goes unrecognized. And the tragedy is definitely palpable. But what he leaves behind makes folk music richer and a movie steeped in sadness gleam with hope for the hundreds that will follow down his path and the handful that will become a vessel to them all.
Here’s a link to the Kingston Trio’s rendition of “A Worried Man:”