Dylan with Suze Rotolo, September 1961, New York
Ramblin’ outa the wild West,
Leavin’ the towns I love the best.
Thought I’d seen some ups and down,
‘Til I come into New York town.
People goin’ down to the ground,
Buildings goin’ up to the sky.
– Bob Dylan, ‘Talkin’ New York’
New York was a dream… It was a dream of the cosmopolitan riches of the mind. It was a great place for me to learn and to meet others who were on similar journeys.
– Bob Dylan, 1985
It seems pretty certain that half a century ago – on 24 January 1961 – Bob Dylan, 19 years old, arrived in New York. The story he would tell people was that he’d hopped a freight train: the truth was that he’d travelled from Minnesota in a 1957 Impala.
When I arrived, it was dead-on winter. The cold was brutal and every artery of the city was snowpacked, but I’d started out from the frostbitten North Country, a little corner of the earth where the dark frozen woods and icy roads didn’t faze me. I could transcend the limitations. It wasn’t money or love that I was looking for. I had a heightened sense of awareness, was set in my ways, impractical and a visionary to boot. My mind was strong like a trap and I didn’t need any guarantee of validity. I didn’t know a single soul in this dark freezing metropolis but that was all about to change – and quick.
– Chronicles, Volume 1
When Dylan first arrived in New York City on Tuesday 24 January 1961, he caught a subway down to Greenwich Village and made straight for the Cafe Wha? coffee-house. It was hootenanny night and the place was half-empty. Dylan asked the owner if he could perform – and he did, playing a short set of Woody Guthrie songs. In the following weeks, Dylan often appeared at the Wha?, ‘blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day’ as he put it in his early song, ‘Talkin’ New York’).
Bob Dylan, autumn 1961
Dylan wasted no time establishing himself in New York folk circles and cultivating his personal myth. On his second day in town he visited Woody Guthrie’s family in Howard’s Beach, meeting the young Arlo and teaching him some harmonica. By 29 January he had met Woody Guthrie at the home of Sid and Bob Gleason in East Orange, New Jersey.
By mid-February, Dylan was accompanying folk singers like Fred Neil (future writer of ‘Dolphins’ and ‘Everybody’s Talkin”), Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Dave van Ronk on his harmonica. He was also performing at Cafe Wha?, The Gaslight, and several other venues. On 13 February Dylan began performing regularly at Gerde’s Folk City at the Monday night hootenanny.
At first the owner of Gerde’s had thought Dylan looked too young, asking him to come back with proof of age. On 13 February Dylan returned with his birth certificate and began his regular appearances at the club’s weekly hootenannies. On 3 April, the Gerde’s owner took Dylan to get his union card, signing as his guardian, and advancing him the fee. On 11 April, Dylan was booked in at Gerde’s for two weeks, opening for John Lee Hooker.
Dylan’s big breakthrough came when his opening slot at Gerdes’ on 26 September was enthusiastically reviewed in the New York Times by Robert Shelton. It was this review that brought Dylan to national attention, and it was reprinted on the back of Dylan’s debut album.
Gerdes Folk City poster – September 1961
Under the headline, ’20-Year-Old Singer Is Bright New Face at Gerde’s Club’, Robert Shelton wrote in the New York Times of 29 September 1961:
A bright new face in folk music is appearing at Gerde’s Folk City. Although only 20 years old, Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play a Manhattan cabaret in months.
Resembling a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik, Mr. Dylan has a cherubic look and a mop of tousled hair he partly covers with a Huck Finn black corduroy cap. His clothes may need a bit of tailoring, but when he works his guitar, harmonica or piano and composes new songs faster than he can remember them, there is no doubt that he is bursting at the seams with talent.
Mr. Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty. He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his porch. All the ‘husk and bark’ are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs.
Mr. Dylan is both comedian and tragedian. Like a vaudeville actor on the rural circuit, he offers a variety of droll musical monologues: ‘Talking Bear Mountain’ lampoons the over-crowding of an excursion boat, ‘Talking New York’ satirizes his troubles in gaining recognition and ‘Talking Havah Nagilah’ burlesques the folk-music craze and the singer himself.
In his serious vein, Mr. Dylan seems to be performing in a slow-motion film. Elasticized phrases are drawn out until you think they may snap. He rocks his head and body, closes his eyes in reverie and seems to be groping for a word or a mood, then resolves the tension benevolently by finding the word and the mood.
He may mumble the text of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ in a scarcely understandable growl or sob, or clearly enunciate the poetic poignancy of a Blind Lemon Jefferson blues: ‘One kind favor I ask of you–See that my grave is kept clean’.
Mr. Dylan’s highly personalized approach toward folk song is still evolving. He has been sopping up influences like a sponge. At times, the drama he aims at is off-target melodrama and his stylization threatens to topple over as a mannered excess.
But if not for every taste, his music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth. Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.
One of the first consequences of Shelton’s laudatory review was that Dylan was invited to take part in his first studio recording session – playing harmonica on three tracks of Carolyn Hester’s first Columbia album. Also in on the session was Bruce Langhorne, who was to play guitar on future Dylan albums. Ultimately, this led to Dylan being signed to Columbia by the legendary producer John Hammond.
Bruce Langhorne, Carolyn Hester, Bob Dylan and Bill Lee at Columbia Studio A, New York, 29 September 1961
In Chronicles Volume 1, Dylan wrote three chapters about the year between his arrival in New York City in 1961 and recording that first album, choosing to focus the book on the brief period before he was a household name:
It was freezing winter with a snap and sparkle in the air, nights full of blue haze. It seemed like ages ago since I’d lay in the green grass and it smelled of true summer – glints of light dancing off the lakes and yellow butterflies on the black tarred roads. Walking down 7th Avenue in Manhattan in the early hours, you’d sometimes see people sleeping in the back-seats of cars. I was lucky I had places to stay – even people who lived in New York sometimes didn’t have one. There’s a lot of things I didn’t have, didn’t have too much of a concrete identity either. “I’m a rambler – I’m a gambler. I’m a long way from home.” That pretty much summed it up.
In the world news, Picasso at seventy-nine years old had just married his thirty-five-year-old model. Wow. Picasso wasn’t just loafing about on crowded sidewalks. Life hadn’t flowed past him yet. Picasso had fractured an art world and cracked it wide open. He was a revolutionary. I wanted to be like that.
Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume 1, pages 54-55
Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo
During these months Dylan was absorbing ideas and influences like a sponge, and one night in the spring he met someone who was to have perhaps the most crucial impact on his outlook: Suze Rotolo, a 17-year old Italian-American, who wrote in her memoir published in 2009:
I first saw Bob at Gerde’s Folk City, the Italian bar and restaurant cum music venue … Bob was playing back-up harmonica for various musicians and as a duo with another folksinger, Mark Spoelstra, before he played sets by himself.
As the weeks went by, Suze and Dylan would run into each other at parties. At a get-together after a day-long hootenanny in July, at which Dylan had performed, Suze recalled, ‘I really got to know Dylan more. We were kind of flirting with each other…’. Then, all of a sudden they were a couple. In mid-December 1961 Dylan moved into his first rented apartment, a small place on West Fourth Street, and Suze Rotolo moved in with him. It was in West Fourth Street, in February 1963, that Dylan and Suze were photographed in the snow by CBS staff photographer Don Hunstein for the cover of Freewheelin‘.
Freewheelin’ in New York
Meeting Suze Rotolo had a profound effect on Bob Dylan’s interests and song-writing, turning it firmly, for the next 12 months or so, in the direction of political protest:
Our time together fed his work. I know I influenced him. We marked each other’s lives profoundly. He once told me that he couldn’t have written certain songs if he hadn’t known me…. I served as his muse during our time together, and that I don’t mind claiming.
– Suze Rotolo, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties
Suze Rotolo was from a family of deeply committed Communists – her mother was deeply involved with the Party’s illegal work, acting as a courier, travelling to Fascist Italy and war-torn Spain carrying concealed passports gathered from Italian Americans to Europe, where the passports were doctored to provide passage for underground cadres in Italy to travel into Spain to join the International Brigades. These passports later gave safe passage to Italian Communists trapped in France after the defeat of the Spanish Republic. These activities had placed Suze’s mother in mortal risk. While still attending high school, Suze had worked in Harlem on initiatives of the Congress of Racial Equality. She also helped organize for The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy Committee and had defied a U.S. government ban by visiting Cuba.
Suze discovered that Dylan was not who he claimed to be – a runaway from a travelling circus – but the oldest of two sons of second-generation Jewish parents who owned and operated a clothing store in Hibbing, Minnesota. In her memoir, Rotolo recalls: ‘Mother had a hunch right off the bat that the tales he told about himself, not to mention his name, were bogus’.
Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo and Dave Van Ronk
In an extensive discussion of Rotolo’s influence on Dylan and his work in this period, Gerald Meyer writes:
It was neither Dylan’s raspy voice nor his strumming technique that stopped a generation in its tracks. A short list of political anthems that he composed during his time together with Suze Rotolo enraptured a new generation of political activists. …Blowing in the Wind, Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, With God on Our Side, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol, Only a Pawn in Their Game, and Chimes of Freedom were composed at a moment when American youth were poised to repudiate the domestic cold war and mobilize a massive antiwar movement. This short list of songs gave immediacy and gravity to Dylan’s music; it launched his work into the special space reserved for those few performers/composers of American popular music who create classic American popular music. Suze Rotolo not only introduced Bob Dylan to the Left movement, she also took him to the Museum of Modern Art to see Picasso’s Guernica, encouraged him to listen to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Three Penny Opera, and exposed him to other aspects of the Old Left’s cultural amalgam of folk and high culture.
Dylan with Suze Rotolo in the studio during the recording of ‘Bob Dylan’, December 1961
As a teenager in Cheshire, the snowbound streets and smoky coffee houses of Greenwich Village seemed impossibly remote and romantic. I remember poring over the prose-poem that Dylan had written for the jacket of Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1963 In The Wind lp, in which he recaptures that first year of folkie communality in New York City:
Snow was piled up the stairs an onto the street
that first winter when I laid around New York City
It was a different street then –
It was a different village –
Nobody had nothin –
There was nothin t get –
Instead a bein drawn for money you were drawn
for other people –
Everybody used t hang around a heat pipe poundin
subterranean coffeehouse called the Gaslight –
lt was at that time buried beneath the middle a
MacDougal Street …
Everybody that hung out at the Gaslight was close –
Yuh had t be –
In order t keep from going insane an in order t
An it can’t be denied –
It was a hangout –
But not like the street corner –
Down there we weren’t standin lookin out at the world
watchin girls – an findin out how they walk –
We was lookin at each other . . . and findin out about
It is ‘f’ these times that I remember most sadly –
For they’re gone –
And they’ll not never come again –
It is ‘f these times I think about now –
There was not such a thing as an audience –
There was not such a thing as performers –
Everybody did somethin –
An had somethin t say about somethin –
I remember Hugh who wore different kinda
clothes then but still shouted an tongue
twisted flowin lines a poetry that anybody who
could be struck by the sounds ‘f a rock
hittin a brick wall could understand –
I remember Luke playin his banjo an singin ‘East
Virginia’ with a tone as soft as the snow outside
an ‘Mr. Garfield’ with a bitin touch as hard as the
stovepipe on the inside –
An Dave singin ‘House a the Risin Sun’ with his
back leaned against the bricks an words runnin
out in a lonesome hungry growlin whisoer that
any girl with her face hid in the dark could
Paul then was a guitar player singer comedian –
But not the funny ha ha kind –
His funnyness could only be defined an described
by the word ‘hip’ or ‘hyp’ –
A combination a Charlie Chaplin Jonathan Winters
an Peter Lorre –
Anyway it was one a these nites when Paul said
“Yuh gotta now hear me an Peter an Mary sing”
Mary’s hair was down almost t her waist then –
An Peter’s beard was only about half grown –
An the Gasligbt stage was smaller
An the song they sung was younger-
But the walls shook
An everybody smiled –
An everybody felt good –
An that’s where the beginnin was at –
Inside them walls ‘f a subterranean world
But it’s a concrete kind a beginnin’
It’s concrete cause it’s close –
An it’s close cause it’s gotta be close –
An that feeling aint t be forgotten –
Yuh carry it with yuh –
it’s a feelin that’s’ born an not bought
An it can’t be taught –
An by livin with it yuh learn t see and know it
in other people
T sing an speak as one yuh gotta think as one –
An yuh gotta believe as one –
An yuh gotta feel as one –
An Peter an Paul an Mary’re now carryin the feelin
that was inside them walls up the steps t the
whole outside world –
The rooster never crowed on MacDougal Street –
There was no dew on’ the grass an the sun never came
shinin over the mountain –
There was nothin t tell yuh it was mornin cept
the pins and needles feelin in yer arms an legs
from stayin up all nite –
But all ‘f us find our way a knowin when it’s
And once yuh know the feelin it don’t change –
It can only grow –
For Peter’s grown
An Paul’s grown
An Mary’s grown
An the times’ve grown
As Suze Rotolo observes, in her memoir, A Freewheelin’ Time:
It was very important t him at that time t write as he spoke. Writin like speech an without havin any punctuation or t write out the word to.
On 4 November Dylan played his first New York concert – at The Folklore Centre, Carnegie Chapter Hall, on West 57th Street.
The flyer for the show quoted Dylan:
I don’t want to make a lot of money, want to get along….I want to reach more people and have the chance to sing the kind of music I sing….I can offer songs that tell something of this America, no foreign songs – the songs of this land that aren’t offered over T.V. and radio and very few records.
A few nights before the concert, Dylan sang and was interviewed on WNYC Radio by Oscar Brand. This was one of the occasions on which Dylan promulgated outlandish myths about his early years:
Oscar Brand: On Saturday Bob Dylan will be singing at the Carnegie Chapter Hall. And that should be a very special occasion. Bob was born in Duluth, Minnesota. But Bob you weren’t raised in Duluth were you?
Bob Dylan: I was raised in Gallup, New Mexico.
Oscar Brand: Do you get many songs there ?
Bob Dylan: You get a lot of cowboy songs there. Indian songs. That vaudeville kind of stuff.
Oscar Brand: Where’d you get your carnival songs from ?
Bob Dylan: Uh, people in the carnival.
Oscar Brand: Do you travel with it or watch the carnival ?
Bob Dylan: Travel the carnival when I was about 13 years old.
Oscar Brand: For how long ?
Bob Dylan: All the way up till I was 19 every year off an on I’d join different carnivals.
Oscar Brand: Well I’d like to hear one of the kinds of music that you’ve been singing and I know you’ve been doing quite well, and I know you’ll be singing at the Carnegie Chapter Hall. Do you wanna pick something out ?
Bob Dylan: Well I’ll pick a carnival song that I learnt. Wrote. Do you wanna hear one of them ? <plays Sally Gal>
Oscar Brand: Now lets return to our guest this evening. His name is Bob Dylan and on November 4th he will be at Carnegie Chapter Hall in a very exciting concerts of songs that he’s collected since his first days. When he was born in Minnesota, and then he went down to the south west. He travelled around the country with carnivals and as we heard earlier he’s collected a lot of many songs from many people Bob I know that that means when you travel that much that you hear a lot of songs. But doesn’t it also means, mean that you forget a lot of songs that way?
Bob Dylan: Oh yeah. I learned, forgot quite a few I guess. An once I forgot ’em I usually heard the name of them. I looked ’em up in some book and learned ’em again.
Oscar Brand: Can you read music?
Bob Dylan: No I can’t. But this here song’s a good example. I learned it from a farmer in South Dakota. An err he played the autoharp. His name was Wilbur, live outside of Sioux Falls, when I was visiting people and him. Heard him do it an …., I was looking through a book sometime saw the same song and remembered the way he did it. So this is the song. <plays The Girl I Left Behind>
Three days before this interview, on 26 October, Dylan had signed for Columbia Records. On 20 November 1961 he entered the Columbia studios to begin recording his first album, bringing two songs that he had written during 1961: ‘Song To Woody’ and ‘Talkin’ New York’ . The album was released in March 1962.
‘Bob Dylan’: the first lp cover
This is ‘Talking New York’, recorded live at Gerde’s Folk City, New York, in April 1962:
Ramblin’ outa the wild West,
Leavin’ the towns I love the best.
Thought I’d seen some ups and down,
“Til I come into New York town.
People goin’ down to the ground,
Buildings goin’ up to the sky.
Wintertime in New York town,
The wind blowin’ snow around.
Walk around with nowhere to go,
Somebody could freeze right to the bone.
I froze right to the bone.
New York Times said it was the coldest winter in seventeen years;
I didn’t feel so cold then.
I swung on to my old guitar,
Grabbed hold of a subway car,
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride,
I landed up on the downtown side;
I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block.
Got on the stage to sing and play,
Man there said, “Come back some other day,
You sound like a hillbilly;
We want folk singer here.”
Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play,
Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day.
I blowed inside out and upside down.
The man there said he loved m’ sound,
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound;
Dollar a day’s worth.
And after weeks and weeks of hangin’ around,
I finally got a job in New York town,
In a bigger place, bigger money too,
Even joined the union and paid m’ dues.
Now, a very great man once said
That some people rob you with a fountain pen.
It didn’t take too long to find out
Just what he was talkin’ about.
A lot of people don’t have much food on their table,
But they got a lot of forks n’ knives,
And they gotta cut somethin’.
So one mornin’ when the sun was warm,
I rambled out of New York town.
Pulled my cap down over my eyes
And headed out for the western skies.
So long, New York.
Howdy, East Orange.
The speed at which Dylan’s life had changed during 1961 was extraordinary. He had exploded on the Greenwich Village cultural scene like a rock hurled in a pool. He was making waves in New York City, but within 18 months those waves would be lapping at shores worldwide, and a 15-year old schoolboy living south of Manchester would, like countless others, have his music and politics inspired and shaped for life.
- Bob Dylan’s New York City: Why It Never Got Better Than 1961 – (one of a series in Village Voice, celebrating the anniversary)