Last Friday, on Bob Dylan's birthday, I spent the morning checking out old interviews with the supreme trickster on YouTube. I came across this one, from the 1980s, in which an Australian journalist asks Dylan how he'd like to be remembered.
"Oh, as someone who tried to love somebody," the singer answers, a grin sneaking across his face. The interviewer accepts that answer and moves on, but Dylan interrupts him. "You ever heard that expression before? he asks, chuckling nervously. "Yeah, yeah," the journalist says, but he clearly hasn't. The slightest look of frustration passes over Dylan's face before the chat continues.
This moment perfectly encapsulates a fundamental tension within popular music, between the urge to be innovative and the need to acknowledge one's debts. Asked a deeply personal question, Dylan offers someone else's answer: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it first, in a sermon delivered not long before his assassination. Dylan clearly expects to be called out for this obvious appropriation. But when the moment passes, he grudgingly accepts it — as proof perhaps, of the fact his songs demonstrate over and over, which is that originality is really just a matter accessing old streams in unexpected ways.
Dylan is a borrower the way Elvis was a borrower and Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong and David Bowie and Kool Herc were all borrowers: these paradigm-shifting artists talked back to the legacies they encountered with so much grace and authority that their music seemed to come out of nowhere. But nothing comes out of nowhere, and every artist struggles to find a voice that can rise above the din tradition makes. What these musicians, along with Dylan, seem to find easy is enriching their own strong visions by tapping into legacies rather than simply imitating them.
In the 21st century it's harder than ever for young artists to both honor tradition and distinguish themselves from their sources. The availability of seemingly every song ever made, all at once, paradoxically makes old ways more immediate while erasing the traces of how they developed over time. In the excellent documentary It Might Get Loud, from 2000, prime Dylan inheritor Jack White plays a Son House song on a scratchy record player and admits that he came up with the ultra-stylized White Stripes image in part to get away from being just another new kid imitating old masters. But the confession itself is a Dylanesque trick: White says the song was "it, for me." But as the blogger Jacob Bender has pointed out, that Son House recording is itself an imitation. Son House made it not on the Dockery plantation in the 1930s, but in 1960s New York, reworking his own legacy to appeal to young rockers of the White variety. "Jack White seems hell-bent on demonstrating that just because an identity is assumed, doesn't mean it's not real," Bender writes. That's one way to confront a past (or the idea of a past, really) that seems at once inaccessible and overwhelming.
This year, plenty of musicians are finding success without taking such a complicated stance. The Etsy-ish craftspeople of the post-Mumford and Sons neo-folk scene are peppering the Top 40 with simple singalong choruses — unironically playing the banjo as they jet from festival to festival. I'm hoping that these campfire folkies are leading young listeners back to some foundational stuff, the same way Billy Bragg led me back to Woody Guthrie and The Gun Club got me interested in the blues. Yet I'm more drawn to newer music that, however subtly, addresses both how difficult it can be to find oneself as part of a lineage, and what a serious — though always also playful — matter it is to participate in that task. Here are five, all working in different areas, whose music would likely bring a sly grin to Bob Dylan's face.