The press release and full title for Down The Tracks refer to it as a 95 minute documentary that explores the music that influenced Bob Dylan. It is all that and more.
The first 70 minutes present an excellent review of the foundation and evolution of folk music from the early 1920’s through the 1960’s. Down The Tracks weaves classic clips and biographies of such artists as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt and more, with a running commentary and interviews, into an informative and entertaining presentation.
No artist influenced Bob Dylan or American folk music in general, more than Woody Guthrie. Dylan visited him in the hospital near the end of his life and just sang songs at his bedside. Guthrie’s legacy was one of proving that people could write significant songs that reflected life and protest. Many of his songs may seem obsolete today but his influence lives on. Initially Dylan would pattern himself vocally after Guthrie but long term it would be the lyrical influences that would serve him best.
Pete Seeger may have had less of a direct influence upon Dylan than Guthrie, but there is no denying his influence on folk music and the 1960’s musical protest movement. Seeger more than anyone else was the folk music link from Guthrie to Dylan. He was a collector of folk songs from around the world, but his greatest contributions were in the political arena. Seeger was relentless both in his singing and actions in establishing the foundations for Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and more to build upon.
Several early folk music influences are presented in depth. There is some fascinating footage of Leadbelly performing in prison and some contrived footage after his release. Blind Willie McTell may have played with a raw guitar sound, but his voice was a clear tenor making him unique at the time. Bob Dylan has always openly admired his music.
Mississippi John Hurt deserves his own documentary. He was more storyteller than straight blues artist which pushed him toward the formation of modern folk music. The clip provided showed Hurt’s technical mastery of the guitar which was superb.
The last part of Down The Tracks gets a little more tenuous. While Bob Dylan admired and would produce a significant amount of country music during his career, the links to Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers are not always clear. Dylan’s country style and sound would be more modern than Rodgers or Williams. It was the lyrics and the ability to tell a simple story that would connect him to these early country icons.
Finally the documentary tries to connect Dylan to the beat poets of the day. Spontaneity, being a free spirit and contempt for society are mentioned, but Dylan had those attributes anyway.
Bob Dylan, for the past 45 years, has been basically a folk artist clothed in many forms and types of music. Down The Tracks examines his roots and beyond and emerges as a solid historical document of an important artist and art form.