Bob Dylan In New York City Before Anyone Knew Him: The Year of Wine, Women, Song and Protest
(What follows is an excerpt from the forthcoming book by Dennis McNally, On Highway 61: Music, Race and The Evolution of Cultural Freedom (Counterpoint, 2014) which traces the culture and history of American music from Old South through the 1960s. It will be available October 14.)
Naturally, Dylan went straight to Greenwich Village. The Village had been receptive to folk music at least since the Almanac Singers had lived on West Tenth Street, and it was a genuine community. It wasn’t about money, he’d write a couple of years later. “Instead a bein drawn for money you were drawn / for other people.”
Soon Bob hooked up with a blues player named Mark Spoelstra, and they worked at the CafÃ© Wha? as a duo in the afternoons. Before long he was playing other basket houses (so-called because the only pay came when someone passed a basket around the audience), often three or four in a day, working from noon to 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. He began to develop a hip, funny stage act that went along with the songs. He also played anywhere else that would let him unpack his guitar, especially at parties and at Israel “Izzy” Young’s Folklore Center.
He had a voice—not a conventional voice, not the sweet voice of Minneapolis, but what one of his biographers called “a tonsilly scranch, a dry, throaty tenor, ‘with all the husk and bark left on the notes.’” He also had a persona as a baby Woody Guthrie, and he was always in character. His closest friends weren’t sure if he was playing Woody or being himself—ultimately, he was always inscrutable—until after a while, it was clear that he’d become what he imagined.
The bluesman Big Joe Williams would say of Dylan, “Bobby didn’t change, he just growed.” Quite so. Small, baby-faced, and charming yet ravenously ambitious, he was no innocent, but full of what Raymond Chandler called “the hard core of selfishness which is necessary to exploit talent to the full.” He grew famous for spinning fantasy tales about his past that weren’t entirely lies but what Andrew Loog Oldham meant when he wrote, “It wasn’t an act, even if it was.”
He was also at heart a moralist, very much part of the world of the songs he sang, “hard-lipped folk songs with fire and brimstone servings,” as he wrote later. “They weren’t friendly or ripe with mellowness . . . They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic.” They were “weird,” Dylan said later, “full of legend, myth, Bible and ghosts.”
A song like “Barbara Allen” poses fundamental questions: Why are people cruel, why is life so hard? The answer is that it’s a mystery—and, Dylan added elsewhere, “Mystery is a fact, a traditional fact.” The magic’s in the mystery; the mystery is magic. And the mystery is spiritual. Folk songs, black and white, were what he would later call his “lexicon and my prayer book. All my beliefs come out of those old songs . . . I believe in Hank Williams singing ‘I Saw the Light.’”
To top it off, Bob played the folk songs with what he called a “rock ’n’ roll attitude. That is what made me different and allowed me to cut through all the mess and be heard.” Rock ’n’ roll, the white derivative of the black musical ethos, would always be an essential part of his oeuvre.
As soon as he could, he went off to find Woody, going first to his home in Brooklyn, where he charmed Woody’s thirteen-year-old son, Arlo. Arlo sent him to Bob and Sidsel Gleason’s fourth-floor walkup in East Orange, New Jersey. The Gleasons were loving fans whose home had become a Woody Guthrie salon. On Sundays, they would bring Woody from the hospital, and his wife and son Marjorie and Arlo, Alan Lomax, Woody’s former manager Harold Leventhal, Pete Seeger, and Cisco Houston when around, perhaps some of the younger Village players, would all gather to eat, talk, and sing.
Healing the body politic and wringing wisdom from a social commitment were the more subtle aspects of the salon, and Bob soaked it all up. He also had the privilege and joy of having his idol validate what he was doing. “The boy’s got it! He sure as hell’s got it!” By now, Woody was so terribly ill that some questioned how much he could actually relate, but most witnesses were clear that a strong bond grew between the boy and the man. Dylan began to visit Woody at Greystone, bringing him Raleigh cigarettes and playing “Tom Joad” as the other patients passed by—the shufflers, the man who licked his lips, the poor fellow chased by spiders.
Humility would never be Dylan’s strongest virtue, but Woody’s suffering taught him “that men are men / shatterin’ even himself / as an idol . . . for he just carried a book of Man / an’ gave it t’ me t’ read awhile / an’ from it I learned my greatest lesson.” In mid-February he came back to the Village from one of the sessions at the Gleasons’ and wrote his first really good song, “Song to Woody,” an honest and moving tribute from a protÃ©gÃ© who accepts a link and does so without ego.
He spent a great deal of time now with Hugh Romney, the Beat poet much influenced by Lenny Bruce who was the MC and entertainment director at the Gaslight. “Dig yuhself,” Hugh kept saying, but he also introduced Bob to the work of Lord Buckley, whose “Black Cross” would become part of Bob’s repertoire.
The Gaslight was a dark, tiny, crowded basement room below the Kettle of Fish Bar where a musician had to learn to avoid hitting one’s head on the pipes above the stage. It had once been a coal cellar, and it was still the filthy home of rats and cockroaches. It had begun by featuring poetry—Allen Ginsberg had read there—but switched to folk music when the tides of commerce had so dictated. The coolest part of the Gaslight was the Room, a closet backstage, where the players gathered. Since they could do only three songs each, this meant there was plenty of traffic, and while waiting to go on they played penny poker. It was another classroom for Dylan.
Actually, all New York had things to teach him, and he was alert to the possibilities. On Sundays he’d go to the old Madison Square Garden on Fiftieth Street for gospel shows, seeing the Soul Stirrers and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Then the Clancy Brothers exposed him to another kind of folk music. Paddy and Tom Clancy were actually Broadway actors who started doing Midnight Special shows at the Cherry Lane Theatre to raise money for a production they wanted to put on. Their brother Liam and friend Tommy Makem joined them in New York in the mid-’50s, and they recorded an album of Irish rebel songs, The Rising of the Moon. They slowly became singers more than actors, and on March 12, 1961, they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and were such a hit that John Hammond signed them to Columbia. Dylan thought Liam was the best ballad singer he’d ever heard. They shared a common joy in escaping repressive small towns and a taste for drink and good company at the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan’s education proceeded.
There was the Commons, a basement club on the west side of MacDougal Street near Minetta Lane, later known as the Fat Black Pussycat. Around the corner on Bleecker Street was the Bitter End, a more legitimate club with a bigger stage and a real backstage. There was Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, packed with records and books in front, instruments on the walls, Izzy on the phone saying “schmuck” a lot, and musicians in the back teaching each other songs.
And there was Washington Square on Sunday, “a world of music,” Dylan wrote. “There could be fifteen jug bands, five bluegrass bands, and an old crummy string band, twenty Irish confederate groups, a Southern mountain band, folksingers of all kinds and colors singing John Henry work songs . . . drummers of all nations and nationalities. Poets who would rant and rave from the statues.”
There was also Gerde’s Folk City at 11 West Fourth Street. Izzy Young had tried to run it but it had reverted to the bar owner, Mike Porco. It had a tiny stage—bluegrass players had to choreograph getting to the microphone to sing—and didn’t look like much, but it was going to be a very important place to Dylan. In mid-March 1961 it featured Lonnie Johnson, and Bob saw him whenever possible, crediting him with influencing the way Bob would play “Corinna, Corinna.” Big Joe Turner was there too—Bob was conscious that he was an heir to these men, and he was paying attention while he could.
And not just to folk musicians. Dylan would spend a significant amount of time listening to jazz, from Cecil Taylor, with whom he once played, to Red Garland and Don Byas. Bird had been gone six years, but lots of people who’d known him were around, and it seemed, Dylan said, “like he had transmitted some secret essence of life to them.” As the poet Ted Joans had written on the wall for all to see, “Bird Lives.” Thelonious Monk was at the Blue Note, and Dylan would recall dropping in on him once and introducing himself as playing folk music up the street. “We all play folk music,” said Monk. Folk clubs and jazz joints sat side by side, and the Beat tradition brought jazz and poetry together onstage. “I was close up to that for a while,” Bob would recall.
On April 11, Dylan began his first regular paid gig in New York at Gerde’s, opening for John Lee Hooker, who was advertised as a “country blues singer,” having recently released The Folk Blues of John Lee Hooker. Bob got $90 a week, which was satisfying, and he loved Hooker, going to his hotel with wine and a guitar and talking until late. “What he was doing was blues,” said Hooker, “but it was folk-blues. He loved my style and that’s why he got with me and we would hang out together all the time.” He performed well, and the Gleasons, Tom Paxton, New York Times folk critic Robert Shelton, the Clancy Brothers, and Dave Van Ronk all showed up to hear him, bespeaking an impressive status after just three months in town.
Van Ronk was an important part of Dylan’s life at this point. His wife, Terry Thal, was Bob’s first manager of sorts, although her efforts to get him a record deal were not fruitful. Moe Asch at Folkways wasn’t interested. Manny Solomon at Vanguard said no.
More significantly, Van Ronk was by far the premiere blues singer among the Village folkies, and he taught Dylan songs like “The House of the Rising Sun,” “Poor Lazarus,” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” Van Ronk was five years older than Dylan and sang, Bob thought, “like a soldier of fortune and sounded like he’d paid the price.” The Gaslight was his fiefdom, and he made Bob welcome, “brought me into the fold” there.
Van Ronk had come to folk through Duke Ellington and the stride pianists and then become a “moldy fig” New Orleans–style banjo player. He became a close friend of Clarence Williams, who’d once produced Bessie Smith and was now retired to the Harlem Thrift Shop, which was more of a hangout than a store, playing duets there with friends like Willie “The Lion” Smith. It was no wonder that Van Ronk introduced Dylan to the Vanguard, the Village Gate, and the Blue Note, the jazz clubs that shared the Village with the folkies.
Dylan went out of town to New Haven on May 6 to play the Indian Neck Folk Festival, a small gathering put on by some Yale students. There he encountered players from the Cambridge folk scene, including a young artist and singer from Ohio named Bob Neuwirth. They clicked over a common love for Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and Jimmie Rodgers and bonded fast. Neuwirth would take him up to Cambridge, and although it would never be a central part of his life, a couple of people there would have their effect on him.
The Cambridge scene centered on Club 47, a coffeehouse at 47 Mt. Auburn Street in Harvard Square. The owners had thought to make it a jazz place when they opened in 1958, but Joan Baez soon changed their minds. There was also the CafÃ© Yana and the Golden Vanity near Boston University, the Turk’s Head on Charles Street and the Salamander on Huntington. It was a much more relaxed place than New York, of course. “You could be loose in Cambridge and not have your head kicked in,” reflected Neuwirth.
The music was fairly eclectic. Inspired by the New Lost City Ramblers, the Charles River Valley Boys—Bob Siggins, Clay Jackson, Ethan Signer, Eric Sackheim—played bluegrass. Eric Von Schmidt was an aspiring illustrator who’d heard Lead Belly and fallen in love with music. Ten years older than most of the folkies, he played a wide range of blues and country music, and his apartment became a regular gathering place for the scene. Neuwirth would bring Dylan to visit Von Schmidt, and in between the red wine and games of croquet—Dylan was the worst player Eric had ever seen, he said—he introduced Dylan to a blues song called “Baby Let Me Follow You Down.”
As the summer of 1961 passed, Bob got a week’s gig opening for Van Ronk at the Gaslight and met comedian Bill Cosby’s manager, Roy Silver, who signed him to a management contract. He also spent time watching foreign movies, particularly Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, about a talented piano player who lived for music and women. “Everything about the movie I identified with,” he said. More importantly, on July 29 he went to Riverside Church, where a new radio station, WRVR, was celebrating its debut with an all-day folk music program. The show featured Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, the Reverend Gary Davis, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, newly returned from five years in Europe, and Victoria Spivey.
One of the audience members at WRVR was a seventeen-year-old folk fan named Suze Rotolo. The child of left-wingers, she’d been raised on the Woody/Pete/Lead Belly canon, listening to Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival radio show with her sister Carla, she said, “while still in our cribs” (the show debuted in 1946 when she was just two and, amazingly, was still running actively in 2010). She’d attended the socialist Camp Kinderland as a child and at fifteen took part in a 1958 antisegregation March on Washington organized by CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality). Her father’s death that year had left her vulnerable, as had a car accident in 1961 that damaged an eye. She was intellectual, cultured, passionate, pretty, politically sophisticated, a little naÃ¯ve, and at loose ends emotionally. Bob took one look and was smitten.
Later he’d write, “Meeting her was like stepping into the tales of 1,001 Arabian nights.” It would not be a tranquil relationship. Dylan was secretive and complex, and as Suze put it, “neither one of us had any skin growing over our nerve endings.” But when it worked, their romance was a thing of beauty. Suze opened up New York even more for him, and together they devoured the cultural buffet that was the city. Afternoons they went to MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) to see Picasso’s “Guernica.” Her favorite artist—and soon Bob’s—was the young multimedia artist Red Grooms, whom Bob would later dub the “Uncle Dave Macon of the art world.” Evenings they went to see Off Broadway productions like the Living Theater’s The Connection. Suze’s sister Carla worked for Alan Lomax, and between her and the Gleasons, Bob would have access to all the folk music he could imagine. Having read the Beat poets in Minneapolis—Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, and Kerouac—he now joined with Suze in digging into the French poets Rimbaud, Verlaine, and above all Villon, a rowdy fifteenth-century brawler who delighted Bob.
Suze connected Dylan to something even more profound. Her day job was at CORE, and in 1961 it was action central for the burgeoning civil rights movement in America. CORE had been at the heart of the Montgomery bus boycott and had grown enormously in the wake of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in in early 1960 and the subsequent actions in Nashville. These early activists were spiritual warriors who acted on love and would not respond to the violence directed at them. “They were to be teachers,” wrote their biographer, David Halberstam, “as well as demonstrators.”
Something special took place in Nashville in 1960, and the events would affect the national civil rights movement for years to come. After months of sit-ins and hundreds of arrests at the department stores in Nashville, white resistance escalated. A bomb went off at the home of black attorney Z. Alexander Looby in April 1960. Thousands gathered and marched silently downtown to meet the mayor at the courthouse steps.
As they waited for him to arrive, Guy Carawan, a folk singer from the Highlander Folk School, led them in a song. The song had once been a Baptist hymn, “I’ll Overcome Someday.” It had been modified by Pete Seeger and passed to Carawan. It was called “We Shall Overcome,” and it became the activists’ anthem. Singing had always been at the center of black culture, and now it became a pivotal part of the movement. The mayor arrived and was challenged by Diane Nash, one of the student leaders. At some length, she forced him to agree to oppose segregation. Victory!—and it came with a song.
The weekend before the bombing, black students from across the South had gathered at a conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, and formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC (pronounced Snick). Early the next year, CORE ran an ad in the SNCC monthly seeking volunteers to test the recent (December 1960) decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Boynton v. Virginia, which banned segregation in public transportation. On May 4, 1961, the Freedom Riders set off from Washington, D.C., aiming to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, the seventh anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. It was a very brave act, for they had no allies; President Kennedy was cool and uncommitted—he presided over a Democratic Party full of very senior, very racist Southern senators—and the FBI was commonly assumed to be sympathetic to the white South.
Although there were beatings at certain stops, there was little major violence until May 14, when the Klan attacked and firebombed one of the two Birmingham-bound buses in Anniston, Alabama. No one died, but only because the head of the Alabama State Police, Floyd Mann, was an honest cop. He’d planted an undercover officer named Eli Cowling on the bus, and Cowling’s gun dissuaded the Klan from finishing off the passengers who stumbled away from the burning bus. When the second bus arrived in Birmingham that day, all hell broke loose as a Klan-led mob beat media members and Freedom Riders alike (law enforcement in Birmingham was controlled by city police).
Birmingham’s leading civil rights activist, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, drove to Anniston and collected the Riders, and everyone gathered at his home. The head of CORE, James Farmer, was convinced that continuing the rides was going to kill people, and he threw in the towel. The Nashville/SNCC students, as represented by Freedom Rider John Lewis, saw it differently. The federal government could not ignore the unfolding events—it was only a month after the debacle at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba and the president was about to meet with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev; he needed to show that he was in control. President Kennedy had his attorney general, brother Bobby, send his assistant, John Seigenthaler, to Birmingham. Seigenthaler told Diane Nash, running the situation from Nashville, “You’re going to get your people killed.” She replied, “Then others will follow them.”
On May 20, the bus arrived in Montgomery, where the Klan was waiting, having been promised a fifteen-minute open season by Birmingham Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor. By now the American media was out in force, and the station was thronged with TV and photographers. The Klan attacked the Riders, but also the photographers and press in general. Women swung heavy purses and little children clawed with their fingernails at the faces of Riders who’d been knocked to the ground. “It was madness,” wrote John Lewis. “It was unbelievable . . . Everywhere this crowd was screaming and reaching out and hitting and spitting. It was awful. They were like animals.”
John Seigenthaler’s skull was broken. Lewis would have been killed but for the presence of Floyd Mann, who fired a gun into the air, which started breaking things up. Violence makes great TV, and scenes of the attack went around the country—and the world. Eventually, the federal government would intercede for real, and after failing to convince the students to stop, the bus would move out of Montgomery escorted by a convoy of National Guard soldiers, helicopters, and Border Patrol aircraft. When the Riders reached Mississippi and all got arrested and sent to Parchman Farm, hundreds more followed in their wake and filled up the jail cells in Jackson.
The most dramatic events in black-white relations since the Civil War would send out reverberations for decades. For Dylan, falling in love with a young woman who was at CORE headquarters was going to affect him to the depths of his being.
(Copyright 2014, Dennis McNally. Excerpted with permission. All rights reserved.)