Salvatore Quasimodo wasn't the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He was the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature fifty years ago. Also in 1959, Robert Lewis Taylor won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. And who made more money for RKO in the 1930s than Cary Grant or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? The comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey did.
Today's success does not guarantee tomorrow's fame. Many popular artist have their hour or even decades in the spotlight and then are gone. Maybe public tastes have so shifted that the artists no longer resonate with audiences. Maybe the artists represented a particular era, that that era has receded from the public's attention. Maybe the artists weren't as good as they seemed to be when they were famous.
It is hard to imagine that Bob Dylan will be forgotten in fifty years. He is clearly the best songwriter of the second half of the 20th century. A convincing argument can be made that he is the best songwriter in American history. His talent certainly deserves survival. But, sad to say, talent is not enough either to become famous or to survive. No one is certain where Dylan will be unrecognized, known just by his name and a brief identifier, or be seen as the dazzling songwriter he is now. I assume that an artist like Dylan must be concerned about this. After all, his legacy continues in his children and his music. But family provides only a private memory. If he also wants a public memory, I have a suggestion.
The suggestion is based on the career of Woody Guthrie. Woody was not well-known even as he was producing his rousing songs. Two particular efforts, beyond his sheer talent, helped propel him to ongoing fame. Pete Seeger was responsible for the first effort. A blacklisted Seeger was forced to play not in night clubs but in camps and schools. The pay wasn't so good, and while the audience was enthusiastic it was young and unsophisticated. But the nimble Seeger had stumbled onto a great opportunity. Those impressionable minds heard Seeger sing Woody's songs, and, having heard them as children, they carried the songs into adulthood.
The second effort involved a man who deserves wider recognition. Howie Richmond had worked as a press agent for Frank Sinatra. He knew his way around the business. In 1951, Richmond was serving as Woody's music publisher and listened as Woody tape recorded hundreds of songs. Richmond's incredible ear picked out "This Land is Your Land." He made copies of the song and sent them free to school publishers that produced songbooks for young people. The publishers then sold the books to schools. It took about a decade and a half, but by then the song had been sung by untold numbers of young people, as it continues to be sung even now.
Howie Richmond had discovered the key to continuing fame. Dylan needs to use that key. The crucial first step for him to take to ensure survival of his material is to choose the most appealing (that is emotionally moving and easy to sing) songs for young people and make those songs available for free to schools, camps, and anyplace else where children gather.
Will Dylan survive? Look to America's children for the answer.