Ambiguity In Folk Music And Culture: Bob Dylan & Kara Walker

1824 words - 7 pages

American singer-songwriter and folk musician Bob Dylan describes in his autobiography, as well as his life and music in general, the ambiguity of folk songs and their ability to be openly shared, interpreted, and even fabricated, and he believes that human nature is such that we are most comfortable with this opacity. The work of African American artist Kara Walker reinforces this belief, and applies it to history with the exploration of cultural ideas regarding race, sexuality, identity, gender roles, repression, and violence.
In Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One, he says, “folk songs are evasive – the truth about life, and life is more or less a lie, but then again that’s exactly the way we want it to be. We wouldn’t be comfortable with it any other way.” He goes on to also confirm the ambiguity of folk music, saying that “[a] folk song has over a thousand faces and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff. A folk song might vary in meaning and it might not appear the same from one moment to the next. It depends on who’s playing and who’s listening” (71). One of the characteristics that Bob Dylan possesses, and that has helped him be such a successful folk artist, is his ability to recognize this ambiguity. His ears were and still are immune to the literalness of time, and upon hearing something new, he can apply what he does not know to his listening, instead of confining his interpretation to what knowledge he already has. This is the basis for what folk music taught Dylan in some of his most formative years, that “[i]f you told the truth, that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well, that’s still well and good” (35). Even old folk legends are unclear in their origin and factuality, such as the widely known American tale of John Henry. Who exactly was John Henry, and does it really even matter? If there were a real John Henry so many years ago, he has actually been completely forgotten. All that we can say that we know, and this knowledge is only based on what nearly every rendition of John Henry’s story tells us, is that John Henry was an African American former slave who utilized his immense physical strength to become one of the greatest steel-drivers America has ever known. The fact (and this term is loosely used) that John Henry has been cast in popular culture as African American is interesting. If he were a white, slave-ownin’ man, like many others, would he have become such a legendary American hero? Perhaps in this myth of John Henry we are too comfortable about our having forgotten the real man (if he even existed) behind it.
Dylan says that we would be uncomfortable if life were full of truths and absolutes, and the unclear tale of John Henry goes to show that forgetting is, well, “still well and good.” The contemporary artist Kara Walker has certainly proved Dylan’s assessment that we are comfortable in life as a lie, more or less, and that the truth can certainly bring a feeling of uneasiness. In...

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