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Tom Wilson: The Mid-Wife of the Folk Rock Movement

Words By: Roland Ellis | November 30th, 1965

Tom Wilson: The Mid-Wife of the Folk Rock Movement

It wouldn’t be a huge overstatement to say that Alan Turing was the single most important figure in winning the Second World War for the allies, that he was the founder of the modern computer age, and that he conceived of the modern concept of artificial intelligence. Yet before recent film The Imitation Game, how many of us had even heard of him let alone been aware of his incredible list of achievements?

Turing's obscurity is symbolic of the idea that history--at least popular history--brings to the fore the big-ticket celebrity much more readily than it does the guy in the engine room, even if that means leaving by the wayside some of its most pivotal figures. It does so because we want the instantly relatable hero; the Churchillian "we shall fight on the beaches" tag lines; the clean cut Edison light bulb moments. We want them because they’re easy and require no research into the scene behind the curtain.

If Bob Dylan was the father (and mother) of folk rock, then Tom Wilson was the mid-wife. Even though he first arrived to that position by accident

Much like Turing, Tom Wilson was a guy largely responsible for a movement that suppressed his name. By no means do I mean to suggest that Wilson was as important as Alan Turing in the shaping of the modern world--very few can claim that standing. Only that, like Turing, Tom Wilson's legacy flies under the radar when in reality he was a foundational figure of a hugely influential cultural movement.

If Bob Dylan was the father (and mother) of folk rock, then Tom Wilson was the mid-wife. Even though he first arrived to that position by accident:

"I didn't even particularly like folk music," said Wilson. "I'd been recording Sun Ra and Coltrane... I thought folk music was for the dumb guys. [Dylan] played like the dumb guys, but then these words came out. I was flabbergasted."

Tom Wilson: The Mid-Wife of the Folk Rock Movement Tom Wilson & Bob Dylan. 1964.

Due to hostilities between Dylan’s manager (Albert Grossman) and producer (John Hammond) during the recording of The Freewheelin' album, Columbia decided to bring on Wilson--a young african-american jazz producer--to finish the record. As noted above, Wilson wasn’t particularly excited by the idea at first. But once he heard Dylan’s lyrics the session took a turn.

Wilson produced four songs on The Freewheelin': "Girl from the North Country", "Masters of War", "Talkin' World War III Blues", "Bob Dylan's Dream". "Walls of Red Wing" was also cut during those New York sessions but didn’t end up on the album.

Listen:

The collaboration didn’t end there, however. Wilson went on to produce the albums The Times They Are A-Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Bringing It All Back Home. The last is widely regarded as the watershed moment in folk rock history.

Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh wrote: “By fusing the Chuck Berry beat of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles with the leftist, folk tradition of the folk revival, Dylan really had brought it back home, creating a new kind of rock & roll [...] that made every type of artistic tradition available to rock.”

"I didn't even particularly like folk music," said Wilson. "I'd been recording Sun Ra and Coltrane... I thought folk music was for the dumb guys. [Dylan] played like the dumb guys, but then these words came out. I was flabbergasted."

The last Wilson-Dylan collaboration came in the form of what Rolling Stone magazine has called the greatest song of all time: “Like A Rolling Stone”.

Wilson later commented that he was responsible for Dylan's rock and roll sound, to which Dylan responded in Rolling Stone (1969):

"Did he say that? Well, if he said it... [laughs] more power to him. [Laughs.] He did to a certain extent. That is true. He did. He had a sound in mind."

On top of his work with Dylan, Tom Wilson also produced other seminal folk rock works by the likes of Simon & Garfunkel and The Animals. In fact, one of his biggest contributions to folk rock began to unfold on this very day 50 years ago.

Below: Tom Wilson watches on as Bob Dylan works on a new unnamed song whilst on tour in England. May 1965.

It was mid 1964 when Wilson was appointed to produce the Simon & Garfunkel album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. The record sold poorly upon release later that year. Between June 11th-15th 1965, however, Wilson decided to re-open the Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. files unbeknownst to either Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel, who were no longer playing music together following the commercial failure of 3 A.M. Wilson re-worked the song "The Sound Of Silence" with the same backing band that had accompanied Dylan on "Like A Rolling Stone".

The new version of “The Sound Of Silence” was released in September 1965. It reached number one on the Billboard singles chart in December, leading to the reformation of Simon & Garfunkel. In 2013, the song was added to the American National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important".

Tom Wilson didn’t write the music of the folk rock movement, but he did facilitate the process of transforming nascent ideas into tangible realities. Without him "The Sound Of Silence" wouldn’t have its trademark backbeat; and Al Kooper wouldn’t have been allowed to sit down and play the iconic keyboard line on "Like A Rolling Stone".


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