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Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize: Triumph of the Troubadours?

Harvey Reid has played and taught guitar for 45 years, was a former national Fingerpicking Guitar Champion, and has released 32 highly-acclaimed solo recordings of original, traditional, and contemporary acoustic music. In 1980 he wrote the first college textbook for folk guitar. He now lives in Southern Maine and is still performing regularly and working on a very ambitious series of stringed instrument educational books that are available from Amazon.com and other online retailers and from this web site.

The Vagabond Act of 1572 The Vagabond Act of 1572

The awarding of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has sparked quite a bit of publicity and a surprising amount of controversy in the media. It feels like a perfect moment to interject the viewpoint of a modern troubadour into this discussion. We do not have a formal organization, public spokespersons or embassies in each country, so in hopes that I am possibly speaking for the community of minstrels I will venture some thoughts on this matter. It is a good sign that virtually everyone reading this will already know who Bob Dylan is, and those who are watching this issue from the sidelines most likely have some kind of positive impression of Bob’s body of work, after his 50+ years of service to the art of music-making.

It's not what I am anxious to discuss here, but it goes without saying that Bob Dylan has been a touchstone for me and my music, and an inspiration through my entire career as an acoustic guitar player, and I am sure that a vast number of modern songwriters and musicians would echo my feelings. It's also pretty clear to all that this Nobel prize makes a strong statement that troubadour art can be "real art", which undoubtedly resonates more within the ranks of modern troubadours than just among casual observers. Though when Bob went electric at Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and reputedly shifted the course of modern folk music, I was 11 years old, unaware of anything about music, and did not even play guitar yet. So I have slowly and gradually come to appreciate his immense contributions to songwriting and minstrelsy that have shaped my musical world. It's not easy to see that he really did change all of our impressions of what a song can be and what a song can do. By the time I was paying attention to songs on the radio, Dylan had already begun to influence songwriters everywhere, and it took a while before I realized how much he has fundamentally altered the relationship between modern song-deliverers and their listeners. It wasn't until the last 15 years or so that I learned how much Bob had studied folk music and popular music that came before him, and how much of a fan and a student of many kinds of music that he still is. People who scolded him for stealing folk melodies and writing new words clearly did not understand that writers have always done that, with folk songs, hymns, and popular melodies. Poets like Sir Thomas More and Robert Burns often wrote new words to old folk melodies, and hymns have gone through a constant rewriting, with new words and tunes being added steadily. In addition to creating a large trove of personal songs in his own style, Dylan has also consciously written in existing styles, and has created ballads, country songs, blues, talking blues, gospel and others.

But none of this says anything about his Nobel prize. Maybe you have scratched your chin a little and wondered to yourself if Bob’s work is indeed worthy of this honor, and of the designation as “great literature.” Or maybe you have thought about the irony of Nobel's money coming from the invention of explosives used in war. I can't pretend I am on the Nobel committee, and it would be silly to second guess their motives, or even to weigh in on the obvious questions of whether he deserved it or whether there was a better choice that was overlooked. I want to ask you to help me take a much bigger lens to pull back and see the much larger landscape. Personally, I see this Nobel prize as a historic moment in helping bring an end, or perhaps to simply signal that we may be nearing the end of the long persecution of troubadours that began over 500 years ago.

Persecution? Surely I must be over-stating something, but I am not. Let’s go on a little journey back in time…

As Bishop Thomas Percy said so beautifully in the introduction to his 1765 book Reliques of Ancient Poetry: “…Minstrels were an order of men, in the Middle ages, who subsisted by the arts of poetry and music, and sang to the harp verses composed by themselves or others. They also appear to have accompanied their songs with mimicry and action; and to have practised such various means of diverting as were much admired in those rude times, and supplied the want of more refined entertainment…. Their skill was considered as something divine; their persons were deemed sacred; their attendance was solicited by kings; and they were everywhere loaded with honours and rewards.”

Percy also explained carefully about the group of people he referred to as “minstrels”: “It is well known that on the Continent, whence our Norman nobles came, the bard who composed, the harper who played and sang, and even the dancer and the mimic, were all considered as of one community, and were even all included under the common name of Minstrels.” Percy even was so prescient as to include women, and mentioned that in 1469 the charter for the Guild of Minstrels discussed “the brothers and sisters of the Fraternity of Minstrels…”

For centuries, various types of musicians, poets, jugglers, comedians, mimics and other “troubadours” or “minstrels” were a vital part of art and entertainment in most parts of Europe. A number of kings granted charters, and 600 years ago there was actually an organized system in place in some locations for educating the next generations of younger troubadours.

It is not news to any of us that troubadour-type entertainers wandered around Europe in the Middle Ages plying their trades, or that there are people like Bob Dylan in our modern world who are a modern embodiment of basically the same thing. (It’s virtually certain but unprovable that there have been troubadour-type entertainers ever since there have been people.) What is startling and that was unknown to me until rather recently is that in the late 1500’s, beginning in the reign of Henry VIII, a series of laws were passed that restricted and eventually outlawed the profession in England, which was at that time was the dominant world economic and military power. Sometimes called “Poor Laws,” they led to the so-called “Vagabond Act.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagabonds_Act_1572 is one example to start your research.) This was not the first time minstrels had suffered hardship, for in 1277 King Edward I ordered 500 Welsh bards burned at the stake to complete his conquest of Wales. He apparently saw them as a political force that was resisting his occupation, and they were reported to have refused to sing his praises.

The Poor Laws were more than just a punishment for minstrels, since they created a system of taxation on all citizens to create a fund and some infrastructure to care for citizens who were unable to care for themselves, essentially the first welfare system. Unfortunately, the English laws became a model for similar statutes in other European countries and the Americas that targeted itinerant people as much as they assisted those in need. It was decreed that all persons who were capable of work should do so, and minstrels were apparently not considered to be working when they plied their trade. It was deemed fine for injured or crippled people to be cared for or to beg, but someone who was begging who was otherwise capable of work was referred to as a “sturdy beggar” and was punished. It made sense to working people that if they were going to be taxed to support those who needed help, they were not going to pay for some troubadour to wander around and sing or play the fiddle when he could be plowing a field or making some shoes. It’s easy to see that the public, who presumably enjoyed the music the “beggars” played, were also not happy about having to be taxed to pay for them to have fun, drink and sing songs. It was decreed in 1572 in England that any minstrel who was unlicensed or did not belong to “an honourable person of great degree” was "to be grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about." Yes, those are the words of the law. “Rogues” and “vagabonds” were also specifically targeted. In 1597, under Queen Elizabeth I, this punishment was lessened to merely jail time and whipping, but during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) it is estimated that 72000 people were executed to enforce these laws, no doubt including many minstrels and troubadours. By 1824 it actually became illegal in England to “sleep rough” or to beg. There have even been laws that made it illegal to play fiddle not just on the street, but in a tavern or public establishment.

You may need to take a break and go merrily a-Googling and find out if I am making this all up, and hopefully you are now back and we can resume our discussion of the consequences of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize.

The outlawing of minstrelsy in 16th century England had a very direct impact on American folk music that lingers palpably to this day. Gypsies and traveling people have often been feared and persecuted. Nearly every town in every European country and every state in America has had some kind of law against “vagrancy” and “loitering.” Apparently society has long been afraid of traveling or homeless poor people, and has punished them for centuries. Millions of people have been arrested and punished. Google for those words, and find all the weird laws on the books that outlawed freedom and independence, that essentially gave any cop anywhere permission to arrest anyone they wanted to for not living anywhere or for not having a “visible means of support.” You could be found guilty of breaking a law and punished, sometimes quite severely, by merely standing on the street doing absolutely nothing, with your precious 4th Amendment right against arrest without probable cause essentially bypassed. According to this article from Time Magazine [http://time.com/4199924/vagrancy-law-history/] , vagrancy was a crime in all 50 states and D.C. in 1949. It was not until the 1970’s that such laws began to be overturned (notably by the Supreme Court in 1971 and 1972) and people earned the right to stand on whatever streetcorner they wanted to for no apparent reason. (Incidentally, 1972 is the first year I started playing street music.)

African-Americans and other minorities were probably targeted the most by vagrancy laws in America, but itinerant musicians were basically in the same situation as in Elizabethan England, except that their ears were not burned through with a hot poker. Street musicians have been arrested, fined and regulated almost everywhere for as long as there have been police forces. Many a family has scolded their child for wanting to play guitar and sing songs, and tried to steer them away from a life of minstrelsy. How many musicians today have been scorned or belittled for not having a “real job.”? How many modern troubadours have felt pushed by society to go a school and learn to play “legitimate” music?

The first English settlers who came to North America in the early 1600’s and founded the American nation came from a world where this kind of regulation was established and commonplace, and presumably the streets and taverns of colonial America were not filled with the sound of fiddles or ballad singers. The idea of “peasants” or “common people” providing music for the community was apparently unknown in colonial America. Presumably the fires of folk music burned hottest on the lawless frontier and in proximity to the influence of African-American and slave culture in the South. There have been numerous laws expressly forbidding fiddle playing, and though no doubt many people secretly sang ballads and played fiddle tunes, it was frowned upon and even punished. The Rev. Cotton Mather, who was deeply involved in the Salem witch trials and persecution of women in the late 1600’s, was also deeply involved in church music, and argued strenuously against using instrumental music in the worship of God. I am married to a fiddler, so I am tempted to try to find out if he was involved in punishing fiddlers, since he wrote of detesting the hurdy gurdy and called it an “instrument of torture…” A Lady Eastlake wrote tellingly in the late 1800’s that “… Music is not pure to the pure only, she is pure to all; it is only by a marriage with words that she can become a minister of evil.” (I hope Bob reads that one...) It might be a nice doctoral thesis to assemble a significant body of illustrations of the scorn and persecution of “illegitimate music” at the hand of the “legitimate” during the 500+ years that troubadours have been wandering in the desert in exile. There is no shortage of anecdotes.

In the 1950’s folk singers were suspected of being communists, and many were called before Congress, and some were blacklisted from jobs in the industry for spreading “radical ideas.” When Pete Seeger was hauled before Congress on Aug 18, 1955 and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, it was not that far removed from Edward I’s vicious attack on the bards of Wales. Seeger was sentenced to 10 years in prison for contempt of Congress for “practicing his profession” as a folk singer, allegedly at Communist Party meetings. (If they had burned him at the stake and martyred him it might actually have done more long-term good in building public awareness of the persecution of minstrels.) Benny Goodman wasn’t called in, nor was Rosemary Clooney; no, it was the troubadours that were under suspicion for “subversive activities.” This is a powerful illustration of how nearly 400 years after the Poor Laws, it wasn’t hard to whip up some public outcry against the “profession” as the Congressional committee members called it. It would be interesting to try to find out what public opinion was at that time on Seeger’s situation, and it is a sign that public perception of troubadours has improved dramatically in the last 50 years that people today might be surprised to hear that this even happened. In troubadour world history, Seeger's story is as vital as Paul Revere’s ride is to patriots.

The exciting “roots” music of America that underlies modern folk, country, blues, jazz, rock and rap music, that we now love to celebrate, apparently grew out of sight, like weeds outside the garden, fueled largely by the cultural collision of music traditions of the European settlers with those of the millions of African people who were brought here. It seems to have flourished far more in the South and West than it did in regulated and staid New England, where even now in my life I can feel the lingering disrespect of being a musician who is not allied with a powerful family or “honourable person of great degree.” The “low” musics of jazz, country and blues only infiltrated our culture by virtue of recordings made by record companies who were trying to sell records and record players. If not for pure capitalism, and the all-American desire to make money, we might all still be standing in church singing the Psalms of David a capella. It’s probably only been in my lifetime that a modern minstrel like me could travel around playing music without being arrested regularly, and I am white and college-educated. Now with the arrival in the last couple decades of portable sound systems and cell phones, there are an uncountable number of nearly-itinerant troubadours playing gigs, making and selling recordings and engaging in troubadour activities “below the radar” of the music business, and even of chambers of commerce or other government business regulation. I am probably in a very small minority of modern troubadours who pays sales tax to the state, and who files income tax returns documenting my troubadour income and expenses.

In the last 90 years or so of the ascension of the music industry, though, troubadours have been left out of the party until the last couple decades, though they have proliferated on local and regional levels. It’s interesting to go to one of the web sites like this or Billboard's own list (http://www.billboard.com/archive/charts/1965/hot-100 ) and scan the names of artists to look for troubadours on the pop charts. They are very scarce, and pretty much non-existent from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. Roy Orbison (1964) might be the first singer-songwriter-troubadour to top the charts. For the first few decades of pop music, it was all orchestras, then bands, followed by crooners or vocal groups who generally did not play instruments or write their own songs.

The emergence of the troubadour as an economic and cultural force in today's world was probably also significantly boosted economically by the consequences of the copyright laws and the activities of the shadowy organizations like ASCAP and BMI who sift through the music industry’s output and allocate royalty money to the owners and publishers (not the performers!) of the music. The performer and the record company that creates a hit recording makes some money from sales of the music, but the biggest chunk of the pie is funneled quietly to the owners and controllers of the copyright. When rock & roll burst on the scene in the 1950’s and when LP record albums became dominant, record labels started putting songs by the agents or producers as “filler” on hit albums, since each song on an album would make the same royalty money as the hit. For the last 40 years, the number of singer-songwriters has mushroomed, and more and more artists have recorded and popularized music that they own. This has led to a new reality where individuals who create music have become more popular and financially dominant than bands or groups who just perform it. (Disputes among band members over control of this money have also been a major factor in the breakups of many musical groups and partnerships.) The 2014 list of top-earning musicians is telling— only one band in the list (Coldplay) that includes Madonna, Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi, Cold Play, Toby Keith, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Elton John, Kenny Chesney and Beyoncé. People, not bands. In 2015 Katy Perry topped the list (yes, she is an acoustic guitar-strumming folksinger underneath all the glitz) which also included Garth Brooks, Diddy, Calvin Harris, Justin Timberlake, and 3 bands: One Direction, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Big-money troubadours Ed Sheeran and Adele did not make the top 10 but were close, and 20 of the Top 25 were individual artists and not groups. And this list came from Forbes Magazine, who considers paid endorsement deals as well as sales of music.

For the first time since about 1925, when early recordings often featured solo guitarists or small groups like the Carter Family, individual troubadour-type artists appear now to be dominating the music business. Popular TV singing contests like American Idol and The Voice have tilted the scales back toward the celebration of singers rather than creators, but I think it can be easily argued that individual artists (modern troubadours) are firmly on top of the heap at long last. Folksingers like Adele and Taylor Swift are breaking sales records for music, and street-poet rappers are similarly top money-makers in pop music. After almost a century of being marginalized in pop music, troubadour artists like Swift, Sheeran, Adele, Sam Smith, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar (yes, rappers are troubadours too) are dominating the pop charts and the awards ceremonies. In country music, troubadours have always kept a high profile, competing successfully with bands since the beginnings of the genre with Jimmie Rodgers in 1927. Gene Autry, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb (who called himself the Texas Troubadour) Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, Merle Travis, Johnny Cash and many others have maintained a steady succession throughout the history of the music.

And now Bob Dylan has been awarded a Nobel prize, so perhaps we troubadours and fans of troubadour music can lift a glass and say that we have at last entered into a new epoch of respect and acceptance of the troubadour arts. Families perhaps will not be ashamed to have their children become troubadours. Paulinho Da Viola, a Brazilian troubadour, was chosen to sing the national anthem of Brazil at the Rio Olympics, where he sang beautifully and proudly for hundreds of millions of viewers with only his gentle but superb nylon-string guitar for accompaniment. A triumphant troubadour moment. As was the recent winner of America's Got Talent, 12-year old Grace Vanderwaal who bested all the magicians, acrobats, dancers and singers to win the million-dollar prize by charmingly strumming a song she wrote on the ukulele. She made a lot of people feel good, and there are few things as lovely as the pure heart of a young girl singing a song she wants to sing. I'd like to welcome her into "the profession" in hopes that Hollywood or Nashville won't harpoon her and turn her into one of their weird partly-plastic musical gladiators.

There are still no schools for troubadours, and no college degrees, though the Berklee College of Music is almost there with its songwriting and Americana music programs. The tide of the long battle may have turned symbolically, though there are still legions of troubadours who struggle to stand tall in their troubadour boots, and who might be secretly and needlessly ashamed that they can't read music. Maybe the times they are a changin’ at long last. Thank you, Bob Dylan, for a lifetime of impeccable service to the cause of the modern troubadour, and thank you to the Nobel committee for helping to heal some very old wounds in the world of minstrelsy. On behalf of our community I would love to send Bob a crusty sheepskin plaque with some engraved silver and animal bones on it as a lifetime achievement award from the Guild of Minstrels, if there were one.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues and awareness in the life of modern troubadours... Thank you if you made it this far, and please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics. 

Chordally yours,

HARVEY REID

 ©2016