from the Commonplace Song to Bob Dylan
“Poor boy, long way from home” . . . “The cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird, she warbles, as she flies/ And she never, hollers cuckoo, til the fourth day, of July” . . . “Sun gonna shine in my back door, someday/ Wind gonna rise up, blow my blues away”—those lyric fragments and thousands like them are part of a pool of floating lines and verses—the raw material of the commonplace, commonly held American song. They took shape in the years after the Civil War; in the first part of the 20th century they reached a kind of critical mass, and thousands of voices emerged, speaking this new, common language.
Throughout American history people excluded from or ignored by the story the country teaches itself have seized on music as means of both affirming and questioning individual and cultural existence. Music has been used to make symbolic statements about the nature of the singer, the country, and life itself. These are big words for ordinary, anonymous songs like “The Cuckoo Bird” or “John Henry”—but it is in songs that seem to have emerged out of nowhere, and in songs that are self-consciously made to reclaim that nowhere, where much of the American story resides.
This course examines commonplace, authorless songs as elemental, founding documents of American identity. These songs can be heard as a form of speech that, with a deep foundation, is always in flux—especially in the work of Bob Dylan across the last fifty years. In that work, a single performer can be seen to have taken the whole of this tradition and translated it into a language of his own—a language that, today, with other artists, such as Todd Haynes with his film I’m Not There, a movie filled by Dylan-like figures, composites, and specters, is itself becoming a form of the commonplace.