Irwin Silber passed away this week. Here is a link to his obituary in today’s New York Times.
He was no doubt a man of real integrity, as dedicated to social and political causes as he was to folk music. But he was “one of the prime movers behind the folk-music revival of the 1950s and 1960s” as the Times says. And Bob Dylan fans probably know him most for his 1964 “Open Letter to Bob Dylan” in Sing Out! magazine where Silber took Dylan to task for what he felt was Dylan abandoning political and protest songs.
When I was assembling the discography book that will come with our upcoming Bob Dylan Box of Vision collection, I sought permission to reprint the “Open Letter” and a later editorial he wrote critical of “Highway 61 Revisited.” I went to his wife Barbara Dane, who was looking after his affairs, as Irwin was suffering from the illness that has now taken his life.
If you have never heard of Barbara Dane, she is also a pretty remarkable woman. You can read her bio at http://www.barbaradane.net/Biography.html. She is not only an accomplished singer and performer, record producer, club owner, and supporter of the arts, but a lifelong social and political activist.
In responding to my request, she wanted to make sure that, although “Irwin would certainly stand by [his] quotes,” we “put to rest the absurd notion that “going electric” was what Irwin was talking about.” Instead, she emphasized “it was the shift in focus, not in what sound to make, or in which style, that concerned him.” She says that “Irwin was always about content and social relationships and the interaction of cultural phenomena with society’s needs.”
She explained that at the time “there was a good deal of withdrawal and denial going on about the ability of humankind to influence or alter the course of history.” At a time of dramatic political and social upheaval in our country and the world, she and Irwin felt frustrated and angry about what they saw as the “escapist frame of mind reflected in Highway 61 Revisited.”
She wanted it be clear that the critique was not a reaction to the music itself. She says, “Personally, I agree with the millions who have enjoyed and even reveled in that album, in purely artistic terms it is great!” It is just they felt it depicted a world that was ducking responsibility at a time when Dylan seemed to have an enormous power to help direct social and political change. (In retrospect, Irwin later was quoted as saying that he had felt “deserted by a poet.”)
As expressed by Irwin Silber in “Sing Out!” (and included in our upcoming discography book) in response to “Highway 61 Revisited:”
“Somehow, I feel that most critics (and admirers) of the “new” Dylan have missed the main point. They have made Dylan’s Electrification the point of demarcation between the old and the new. The fact is that “Desolation Row” is not less (or more) “folk music” than “The Death of Hattie Carol.” Whether what Dylan does should or shouldn’t be called “folk” is about the most unimportant question one could ask.” And “it is not by amplification or vocal technique that audiences have ever responded to (or rejected) Bob Dylan. It has always been by the substance of what he had to say—sometimes clearly articulated, sometimes couched in incredibly involved and frequently challenging symbolism.”
Silber was certainly not the last “critic” to express his own disappointment in a Bob Dylan recording. In fact, I think rock criticism, in the late sixties and through the seventies and eighties, grew and blossomed around critics projecting their own personal expectations (as fans, as much or more than as critics) onto Dylan’s work. Silber was probably just one of the earliest and most high profile. More on that in a later blog. Today should be about Irwin Silber– a man who should be remembered for so much more.
It seems particularly appropriate to wish that Irwin Silber, rest in peace….
Jonathan M. Polk