Down The Tracks: The Music That Influenced Bob Dylan
Written by David Bowling
Published June 28, 2008
The press release and full title for Down The Tracks refer to it as a
95 minute documentary that explores the music that influenced Bob
Dylan. It is all that and more.
The first 70 minutes present an excellent review of the foundation
and evolution of folk music from the early 1920's through the 1960's.
Down The Tracks weaves classic clips and biographies of such artists
as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt and
more, with a running commentary and interviews, into an informative
and entertaining presentation.
No artist influenced Bob Dylan or American folk music in general,
more than Woody Guthrie. Dylan visited him in the hospital near the
end of his life and just sang songs at his bedside. Guthrie's legacy
was one of proving that people could write significant songs that
reflected life and protest. Many of his songs may seem obsolete today
but his influence lives on. Initially Dylan would pattern himself
vocally after Guthrie but long term it would be the lyrical
influences that would serve him best.
Pete Seeger may have had less of a direct influence upon Dylan than
Guthrie, but there is no denying his influence on folk music and the
1960's musical protest movement. Seeger more than anyone else was the
folk music link from Guthrie to Dylan. He was a collector of folk
songs from around the world, but his greatest contributions were in
the political arena. Seeger was relentless both in his singing and
actions in establishing the foundations for Bob Dylan, Joan Baez,
Phil Ochs and more to build upon.
Several early folk music influences are presented in depth. There is
some fascinating footage of Leadbelly performing in prison and some
contrived footage after his release. Blind Willie McTell may have
played with a raw guitar sound, but his voice was a clear tenor
making him unique at the time. Bob Dylan has always openly admired his music.
Mississippi John Hurt deserves his own documentary. He was more
storyteller than straight blues artist which pushed him toward the
formation of modern folk music. The clip provided showed Hurt's
technical mastery of the guitar which was superb.
The last part of Down The Tracks gets a little more tenuous. While
Bob Dylan admired and would produce a significant amount of country
music during his career, the links to Hank Williams and Jimmie
Rodgers are not always clear. Dylan's country style and sound would
be more modern than Rodgers or Williams. It was the lyrics and the
ability to tell a simple story that would connect him to these early
Finally the documentary tries to connect Dylan to the beat poets of
the day. Spontaneity, being a free spirit and contempt for society
are mentioned, but Dylan had those attributes anyway. Bob Dylan, for
the past 45 years, has been basically a folk artist clothed in many
forms and types of music. Down The Tracks examines his roots and
beyond and emerges as a solid historical document of an important
artist and art form.