At the end of “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” the best episode of the most recent season of Mad Men, Don Draper tries to comfort his daughter, who is scared of the dark. She is scared of the dark because she thinks that her new baby brother is inhabited by the ghost of their grandfather. Together they go to the baby’s room to look at it, and Don comforts her by telling her that the baby is not her Grandpa: “This is your brother. We don’t know who he is yet, or what he’s going to be. And that is a wonderful thing.” And then the episode fades to black and “Song to Woody” starts playing over the closing credits.
Bob Dylan’s “Song to Woody” is really a song about identity—or, more accurately, it’s about the lack of identity that comes with youth. It’s about how people define themselves before they’ve done anything important. And it is the most beautiful and brilliant song on Dylan’s first album.
“Song to Woody” also serves, of course, as Dylan’s tribute to his hero, Woody Guthrie. Dylan’s love for Guthrie is one of the most endearing things about him, especially in the early years of his career. People, even die-hard fans (maybe especially die-hard fans), tend to remember Dylan as an enigmatic, deliberately opaque musical figure. If you asked why he had turned his back on folk music, he would insist that he’d never been a folk singer…or that he was still a folk singer. If you asked him whether he still believed in the cause of peace and racial justice, he would make some comparison to a “hunk of butter.” No matter what you asked Dylan, he would disagree with the very premise of the question.
We tend to forget, though, that there was an entire period between 1962, when his first album came out, and 1964 or ’65, when he started treating everyone in the media with open contempt, when Dylan was a young, earnest, and pretty naïve kid. And nowhere was that earnestness more apparent—and constant—than in his love of Woody Guthrie. I’ve read and watched dozens of interviews with Dylan, and I’ve never heard or seen him say anything even remotely negative about Guthrie, even in interviews where he seems to spew nothing but vitriol. He never denied that Guthrie was a seminal influence on him, even when he branched out from folk music. Even for someone as bold and iconoclastic as Dylan, Guthrie remained pure and good.
You can hear this adoration in Dylan’s voice when he delicately sings, “Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song / ’Bout a funny old world that’s coming along.” He just wants to do something that his hero will like.
But, of course, when you idolize someone like this, he’s bound to cast a large shadow, and that is why “Song to Woody” is really about Dylan himself, and about what Woody means to him. The song doesn’t even start with Woody, but with Dylan: “I’m out here a thousand miles from home / Walking a road other men have gone down.”
And this is where identity comes into the picture. Dylan is orphaned and directionless. He’s far away from his home, and the land he’s in now belongs to “other men,” of which Guthrie is the most notable. Even though Dylan sets out to tell Guthrie about this “funny ol’ world,” he knows that trying to illuminate something for Guthrie is futile. One stanza after he sets out to write Guthrie a song, Dylan practically gives up: “Hey, Woody Guthrie, I know that you know / All the things that I’m sayin’ an’ a-many times more / I’m a-singin’ you the song, but I can’t sing enough / ’Cause there’s not many men that done the things that you done.”
Dylan thus paints a portrait of his own lack of identity by pointing out how impressively Woody Guthrie—as well as “Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly, too,” the brethren Woody leads—has accomplished what Dylan hopes to accomplish for himself. But even in the face of such intimidating predecessors, Dylan’s song retains an underlying optimism; after all, the lack of identity means that your destiny is undetermined and hopeful.
The world that Woody Guthrie helped illustrate with songs like “1913 Massacre” and “Dust Bowl Blues” may seem sick and hungry and tired and torn, but Dylan describes it as “comin’ along.” It may feel like it’s dying, but it’s hardly been born. You can read these lines cynically, as a tongue-in-cheek condemnation of the world as it is, but that doesn’t really fit with the innocence and sincerity of the rest of the song. These lines ought to be read as forward-looking, as Dylan’s way of staking his claim to a potentially bright future.
The last verse is a wonderfully poignant end to the song. Dylan announces his intentions to “leave” tomorrow, and set out on his own path, towards his own version of the world. He could leave today, but he’ll wait until tomorrow, to take this day to recognize Woody and the rest of those that came before him. At the end of Dylan’s road, the “very last thing” that he wants is “to say I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too.” In other words, he doesn’t just to follow Guthrie’s footsteps, as valiant and noble as those footsteps are. With “Song to Woody,” Dylan honors his predecessors, but he also refuses to be bound by them. He will create his own future. And that, as Don Draper reminds us, is a wonderful thing.