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Down the Tracks: The Music That Influenced Bob Dylan (DVD Review)

13 Jul, 2008 By: Dan Bennett

Down the Tracks

Street 7/15/08
Eagle Rock/Kayos
$12.98 DVD
Not rated.

We tend to think of Bob Dylan as the singer-songwriter who transformed the art and became the primary inspiration for thousands of musicians who followed.

This is likely true, but also true is that Dylan enjoyed his own formidable influences. Down the Tracks examines the musicians who shaped Dylan's musical tastes. Not surprisingly, these artists comprise some of the massive heavyweights in 20th century American folk music.

While growing up in Hibbing, Minn., Dylan was first a movie fan. His uncle owned a movie theater, and Dylan was a constant presence, learning the rhythm of language from the great films of the 1940s and '50s.

Dylan was also a fan of folk music early on, particularly Woody Guthrie, the ultimate troubadour of the Dust Bowl era, whom Dylan worshiped. In fact, when Dylan first arrived in New York City in January 1961, he made a pilgrimage to Guthrie's nursing home, where the legendary folkster was living with his debilitating hereditary disease, and sat by Guthrie's bed, singing songs for him.

The documentary uses interviews with musical historians and wonderful archival footage of some of the other greats, including Leadbelly, Blind Willy McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Guthrie successor Pete Seeger, who offers his own in-depth observations on Dylan's influences.

Also covered are the political leanings of many of these early artists, and how Dylan learned to merge his musical tastes with political and cultural commentary. This understanding gave Dylan a head start as he immersed himself — and helped form — the renegade Greenwich Village music scene of the early 1960s.

The documentary lacks Dylan's participation but makes up for that missing piece of the story by interviewing musicians who know Dylan — or perhaps know him as well as anyone can know Dylan.

This is a scholarly enterprise that also easily entertains, and is not only a find for Dylan fans, but also for anyone with an interest in classic American folk and blues music.

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