Steve Earle: redemption songs

Steve Earle: redemption songs

Steve Earle

Steve Earle on stage at the Phil. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

At Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall last week, Steve Earle opened with the Woody Guthrie-styled title song from his excellent new album The Low Highway.  Later in the concert, Steve talked about the song’s genesis: travelling across his country and seeing everywhere the signs of economic failure, just as Woody did in the Great Depression: ‘I’m writing on the road, and the song is about what I was seeing out of my window as I travelled around North America last year. And the world too, because times are hard all over – we could see that just travelling from here from Manchester.’

‘The Low Highway’ is a song that observes today’s empty factories, unemployment lines and people ‘lining up for something to eat’.

Saw empty houses on a dead end street
People lining up for something to eat
And the ghost of America watching me
Through the broken windows of the factories

‘None of us remember the Depression first-hand. I realized that what I was seeing, not riding a boxcar but through the window of a three-quarter-of-a-million dollar bus, is a situation very similar to what Woody saw. Times really are that hard out there’.

Steve Earle sings with compassion and – like Rebecca Solnit in her essays – speaks of hope for the voiceless in the ‘bones of a better day’:

Wheels turnin’ round on the asphalt sayin’
Every sound is a prophecy

More than anyone (with the possible exception of Bruce Springsteen) it is Steve Earle who has carried the torch lit by Woody Guthrie into a new century (Bob Dylan having demurred the role), keeping alive the flickering embers of social conscience.  He’s quite explicit about this, singing in ‘Christmas In Washington’ (sadly omitted from his Liverpool concert) of the debt owed to Guthrie and other Americans who took a stand for freedom and justice:

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow

There’s foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You’d think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It’s going straight to hell

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barricades are goin’ up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We’re marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring

In the liner notes to his latest album, Steve articulates his mission in these words: ‘There’s something calling me out there. Always has been, ever since I was old enough to stand out on the highway and stick out my thumb’.  It’s more than 50 years since he stuck out his thumb – aged 14 and running away from home to follow his idol Townes Van Zandt around Texas. By the age of 19 he was in Nashville, working blue-collar jobs by day and playing music at night. During this apprenticeship he began to write songs and played bass guitar in Guy Clark’s band and on Clark’s 1975 album Old No. 1. It was around that time that Steve appeared in the wonderful film Heartworn Highways, a documentary on the Nashville music scene which included Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt and Rodney Crowell.

I’ve been a fan of Steve Earle ever since hearing the opening notes of Guitar Town back in the mid-1980s. That album – a perfect encapsulation of the frustrated hopes of small town life – sounds as good today as it ever did, with tracks such as ‘Guitar Town’ and ‘My Old Friend The Blues’ (both revisited at the Phil), ‘Someday’ and ‘Fearless Heart’ that remain great anthems of the dream of escape: ‘Someday I’ll put her on that interstate and never look back’.

Earle’s big break into mainstream radio play came with his swaggering, hard-rocking 1988 album Copperhead Road. But that success intensified a downward spiral of addiction to booze, cocaine and heroin that only ended a decade later, after he had come close to losing his life to drugs and spent a year in prison.

Yet Earle survived to turn his recovery and return to recording into a parable of redemption that has clearly been as much an inspiration to the man himself as for those who listen to his music.  In interviews he sometimes seems a little surprised to still be with us: ‘If I thought I’d live this long I would have taken better care of myself’, he remarked recently. But it’s the way that his experience on the edge has infused his writing that is significant.

From the start his songs had displayed an empathy with the small-town losers and ordinary guys who populated them, but since his return Earle’s commitment to empathise with those whom society would rather marginalise or condemn has intensified. In songs about the homeless, murderers on death row or – most controversially – about the captured American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh – he seeks empathy not retribution, understanding before judgement.   It’s as if his own struggles, the prison time and successful rehabilitation have urged him to place the possibility of redemption at the heart of his artistic and social vision. His songs are truly redemption songs: subtle, eloquent and empathetic.

As Joanna Colangelo wrote on the Huffington Post earlier this year:

It’s well-known that Steve’s hard-drug living days, a year in prison and decades of life on the road have led him into the shadows of the country – nooks of darkness and shame, which can too often be swept under a patriotic rug. Yet, it’s his poetic embrace of the beauty and dignity in these nooks that makes Steve Earle the most important highway philosopher of American culture today. His songs are reminders of the complexities and contradictions that exist in a country as massive as ours, and his albums are a dose of humanity, often times when it’s most needed.

At the Phil, Steve sang ‘Invisible’ off the new album, a song in which he gives voice to the homeless guy living on the street, invisible to passers-by:

Everywhere I go
People pass me by
They never know ’cause I’m
A shadow hangin’ low
A footstep just behind
They carry on but I’m

Songs from the new album, The Low Highway, some of them inspired by Earle’s observations of people enduring hard times, others by time spent in New Orleans as a performer on David Simon’s post-Katrina saga Treme, made up a large slice of his set at the Phil.  On stage for well over two hours, and including assorted gems from his back catalogue, Earle made plain his respect for the latest incarnation of his band The Dukes: ‘the best band I have ever played with’.

True, too: this is a bunch of fine musicians, lending sympathetic support to songs from all stages of Steve’s career, from pounding rock to sensitive bluegrass or country melodies.  The Dukes now consist of original members Will Rigby (drums) and Kelley Looney (bass) joined by Chris Masterson (lead guitar and pedal steel) and Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle, piano and harmony vocals).  The latter two musicians also comprise The Mastersons, who opened the night as support performing a handful of songs from their album Bird Fly South.

Mastersons and Steve Earle

Steve Earle and The Mastersons on stage at the Phil. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

Earle himself played an impressive variety of instruments including acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and even keyboards on one song. Eleanor Whitmore is an extremely versatile musician; she turned her hand at different times to guitar, mandolin and keyboards, but most especially plays terrific fiddle, as exciting as that played by Lucia Micarelli, Steve’s busking partner in Treme. Whitmore also accompanied Earle on most songs, while Kelly Looney on acoustic and electric bass and Will Rigby on the drums provided a forthright yet varied pulse.

Since making his comeback Earle has been busy in many departments: as well as recording a string of critically-acclaimed albums, he has been actively involved in political campaigns, most notably in opposition to the death penalty.  He has published a collection of short stories and, last year, his first novel.  Alongside all this, he has appeared in two David Simon TV series: in The Wire Earle played a recovering addict, while in the first two seasons of Treme he played street musician Harley Watt.

Naturally, with Treme being so concerned with music, Earle contributed songs to the show, and several of these appear on The Low Highway and were featured at the Phil.  There were the two songs, co-written with Lucia Micarelli – ‘That All You Got?’ and ‘After Mardis Gras’, as well as the classic post-Katrina anthem ‘This City’:

This city won’t ever die
Just as long as our heart be strong
Like a second line stepping high
Raising hell as we roll along

Here, Steve talks about writing the song and performs it live in the studio:

While this is the band’s performance in Eindhoven last month:

Another New Orleans-inspired song from Treme is the languid ‘Love’s Gonna Blow My Way’ which featured great fiddle from Eleanor Whitmore.  This was the song performed in Glasgow two nights later:

Then there was that remarkable moment when Steve sat down at the keyboards.  As he explained: ‘hang out in New Orleans long enough and you start believing you should be able to play piano’.  This was by way of introduction to the bar room boogie of ‘Pocket Full of Rain’

Alongside the new songs, old favourites were dusted down: ‘Guitar Town’ rocked like it was still the 1980s with Chris Masterson providing that twangy Duane Eddy riff:

Hey pretty baby are you ready for me
It’s your good rockin’ daddy down from Tennessee
I’m just out of Austin bound for San Antone
With the radio blastin’ and the bird dog on

By way of contrast, ‘My Old Friend the Blues’ also from the debut album, began with Earle performing solo. It’s a simple song that still retains its power to move.  The pounding rock of ‘Copperhead Road’ and ‘Taneytown’ contrasted with the bluegrass fiddle sound of songs like ‘Warren Hellman’s Banjo’ and ‘The Galway Girl’, reflecting the engaging blend of genre influences that have defined Steve Earle’s albums.

Steve’s introduction to ‘Warren Hellman’s Banjo’ was interesting: he spoke of his admiration for San Francisco’s Warren Hellman – the only banker he has ever hung out with.  Hellman earned his praise for financing the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival held at The Golden Gate Park each year.  When Hellman died in 2011 he left sufficient funds for the festival to continue for a while. Earle’s song is a celebration of a wealthy man who didn’t lose contact with the ground he walked on or the society he lived in.

Steve Earle

Steve introduced ‘Nothin’ But You’ as ‘Bob Dylan’s favourite Steve Earle song’. I was pleased that Steve included a couple of songs -‘Ben McCulloch’ and ‘Mystery Train’- from Train a Comin’, the album he recorded in 1994 for a tiny independent label after he had served prison time and was was clean and sober for the first time in many years.  It’s a great record with a relaxed acoustic session feel, featuring some renowned acoustic pickers, including Norman Blake, Peter Rowan, and Roy Huskey, Jr. The mood is akin to the informal gatherings captured in Heartworn Highways.  There’s a great cover version of McCartney’s bitter ‘I’m Looking Through You’ that must have had a special meaning for Steve at the time.

Easily the most moving song on the new album, and one of the most personal songs that Steve has written, is ‘Remember Me’.  It would be difficult, I think, for any parent to hear it through with dry eyes.  As he explained when he introduced the song at the Phil, he wrote it for his three year old son, John Henry, who was born when Steve was 55. ‘I’m 58 years old; my son is four.  That has to be a definition of optimism’, he said.  He went on to explain that John Henry has been diagnosed as autistic: in Earle’s view, ‘This is  a worldwide epidemic. And it’s obviously something environmental. It’s one in 50 kids. Think about it: that’s far bigger than influenza; far bigger than Aids, polio . . . bigger than any epidemic we’ve ever faced. It could be pesticides they spray on crops. It could be genetically modified food. It’s universal. This is about the future of the human race’.

I wasn’t entirely sure about this, and did a bit of online research later.  Experts seem divided on the extent to which autism is primarily caused by genetic or environmental factors. For example, a page, Causes of autism and Asperger syndrome, on the NHS Choices website states:

New fathers who are older than 40 are estimated to be six times more likely to father a child with an ASD than fathers under 40. This is possibly because a man’s genetic material is more at risk of developing mutations as he gets older.  Researchers are currently studying the possibility that air pollution and pesticides may cause ASDs, under what is known as the CHARGE study. However, it will probably be several years before there is definitive information on environmental factors.

In the meantime, Earle is dedicating himself to ensuring the best care for his son:  ‘John Henry, I think, is gonna be okay – but he’s got resources’.  He performs benefits to support The Brown Centre for Autism and their work with early intervention for children with autism.  And he’s writing his memoirs with the aim of devoting the proceeds of publication to his son’s support.

So, Steve Earle continues to carry the Woody Guthrie mantle.  While the set at the Phil mainly featured the political songs off the new album, such as ‘The Low Highway’, ‘Invisible’ and ‘Burnin’ It Down‘, brought back for a third encore, the band blasted us with ‘The Revolution Starts…Now’, the incendiary title track of Steve’s 2004 album, a collection of songs influenced by the Iraq war and the policies of the George W. Bush administration that won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album.

The Revolution Starts…Now was one of a sequence of blistering and predominantly political albums released in the decade after 9/11.  Two years earlier he had released Jerusalem, his most explicitly political album with songs that took on the war on terror, capital punishment, poverty and the growing gulf between rich and poor.  The most controversial song was ‘John Walker’s Blues’ which, while by no means endorsing of Lindh’s actions, attempted to understand how an American boy could find a personal truth in Islam and take up arms thousands of miles from home.  It was an album packed with angry yet thoughtful lyrics presented in musical settings as loud and abrasive as anything from Tom Morello and Rage Against The Machine.

Steve and the band were brought back for three encores. They began with a Beatles cover (they were in Liverpool after all); less predictably, Steve chose ‘Cry Baby Cry’ off the White Album.  Then came ‘Continental Trailways Blues’, one of Steve’s great American road songs.Returning for the third and final encore, the band blasted into ‘The Revolution Starts…Now’ (would that it were that simple!) which ended with Steve raising a clenched fist before kneeling to fiddle with knobs and trigger an endless Hendrix-like chord on his guitar which continued to resound as he left the stage.

Steve Earle fist

The Revolution Starts…Now’ (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

I was walkin’ down the street
In the town where I was born
I was movin’ to a beat
That I’d never felt before
So I opened up my eyes
And I took a look around
I saw it written ‘cross the sky
The revolution starts now
Yeah, the revolution starts now

The revolution starts now
When you rise above your fear
And tear the walls around you down
The revolution starts here
Where you work and where you play
Where you lay your money down
What you do and what you say
The revolution starts now
Yeah the revolution starts now

Yeah the revolution starts now
In your own backyard
In your own hometown
So what you doin’ standin’ around?
Just follow your heart
The revolution starts now

Last night I had a dream
That the world had turned around
And all our hopes had come to be
And the people gathered ‘round
They all brought what they could bring
And nobody went without
And I learned a song to sing
The revolution starts now

Steve Earle encore

Steve Earle doing a Hendrix thing. (Photo: Simon Nicholl)

Leaving the auditorium, the PA played us out with Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’. Here’s Steve Earle singing it:

Set list

The Low Highway
21st Century Blues
Calico County
Hard Core Troubadour
I Thought You Should Know
That All You Got?
Love’s Gonna Blow My Way
After Mardi Gras
Pocket Full Of Rain
This City
You’re Still Standin’ There
Burnin’ It Down
Guitar Town
Copperhead Road
Warren Hellman’s Banjo
Little Emperor
Dominick Street/The Galway Girl
Mystery Train Part 2
Remember Me
My Old Friend The Blues
Ben McCulloch
I Ain’t Ever Satisfied
Down The Road
Cry Baby Cry
Nothin’ But You
Continental Trailways Blues
The Revolution Starts… Now

See also

Ry Cooder’s Election Special

I’ve got a bad feeling about the American Presidential election, and so has Ry Cooder.  He’s so worried that he’s rushed out a new album, Election Special, on which every track is dedicated to alerting his fellow-countrymen and the rest of the world to evil intentions of the Tea Party Republicans and their wealthy backers only interested in power, profit and war. Yes, it’s uncompromising, unapologetic, and concerned that this may be the last chance for ‘the 90 and the 9’ to hold on to their rights, their jobs, and a future for their children:

This may be the last time , I don’t know
It may be the last time for the 90 and the 9

If the Democrats don’t make it
Then I’ll have myself to blame
If we don’t raise some sand
Then our votes might slip away
And our civil rights and our equal pay
And then it’s too bad, Jim, for the 90 and the 9

They promised war was done but peace didn’t declare
Our young folks are still going there
I didn’t raise our child to go to war this time
Honey, they’re just shootin’
At the 90 and the 9

Opinion polls show Romney and Obama neck and neck.  Some say that the sane majority of Americans will remember why they voted for Obama in the first place. But, is there a sane majority in America these days? That’s what worries me.  Yesterday, The Guardian reported that an attendee at this week’s Republican party convention was removed from the conference after allegedly throwing nuts at a black camerawoman from CNN, saying ‘this is how we feed animals’.

Released in the US just in time for the Tampa Convention, Ry Cooder’s album features a cheeky ditty, ‘Going to Tampa’, voiced by a delegate who’s heading there to get ‘my ashes hauled’:

Goodbye my honey, farewell my baby
Don’t look for me around convention time
I’m bound for Tampa, in the great state of Florida
To see some distinguished friends of mine

Mitt and Rick and the pitbulls, the jolly ride and step forth
To the highest bidder each will guarantee
I’d give all my money sir if Palin calls me honey
And shakes the pizzas on my tree

‘Cause I’m goin’ to Tampa in the morning
Got my credentials in my overalls
But I can’t take you with me little darling
I’m going down to get my ashes hauled

If they can just find another Willie Horton, he opines, ‘we can petrify the nation and bring the votes from Mexico somehow’.  This guy dreams of reasserting states’ rights and Jim Crow laws.  In his sleeve notes to the album, Cooder wonders whether ‘as a mother, will Sarah Palin lead the Republican convention in a prayer for Treyvon?’

Election Special is full of folk, blues, and gospel themes brilliantly played by Cooder on guitar, mandolin and bass, with his son Joachim on drums.  Its songs draw upon old traditions of radical America reinterpreted for 2012, and in them Cooder takes direct and sometimes humorous aim at rapacious capitalists, big corporations and corrupt politicians.  An album consisting of nothing but political songs could end up an unlistenable disaster, but Election Special is entertaining, enjoyable to listen to, and musically seductive.  Many of these songs will last, like Woody Guthrie’s did.

In an interview with The Guardian, Cooder explained how these songs differ from the protest songs of the sixties:

Well, I don’t know how to write soldier music. They were soldiers’ songs so people could go out and hit the frontline. We shall overcome and so forth. And you need those types of songs. Especially in the Occupy movement. I think they’re going to want to have songs like that, it’ll be helpful. But I don’t know how to do that really. That’s a different kind of musical brain up there. So what I look at is these bleak stories: they’re narratives and they introduce you to a character and the character says something.

The album opens with the plaintive ‘Mutt Romney Blues’, voiced by the dog that Romney once strapped to the roof of his car for a long family road trip.  In his  forthright Guardian interview, Cooder explained that his loathing for Romney is fuelled as much by the way his business interests have raped the environment, as by his policies:

Romney is as bad as anyone can be. He’s a dangerous man. He’s a cruel man. He’s a perfect creation for what the Republican party is all about. And that is to say, a rapacious capitalist.  Anyone who ran Bain Capital is not your friend. All they’re going to do is rape and pillage the land.

The targets in ‘Brother Is Gone’ are the Koch Brothers who head up Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the United States and who liberally fund a bewildering range of conservative, free market and libertarian policy groups, lobbying organisations and right-wing foundations in the United States.

In an article a couple of years ago in New Yorker, Jane Mayer wrote:

The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry – especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests…. Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a ‘kingpin of climate science denial’.  The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program – that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

In his sleeve notes, Ry Cooder observes, ‘The only logical explanation for the Brothers I could come up with is, they made their deal at the crossroads with Satan. Satan will need to get paid, but in the meantime, they are doing everything in their power to hurt you and me. The big hurt’.

Oil spills and cancer towns was our stepping stones
Immigration bills and foreclosure homes
States’ rights we proclaimed
Like in the good old Jim Crow days
Our highest aim was to take your vote away

So, in the manner of Robert Johnson’s encounter with the devil at the crossroads, and decorated with a lovely mandolin arrangement, ‘Brother is Gone’ imagines the Koch brothers owing the devil, as Cooder explained in a New York Times interview:

I thought how could you – in a song phrase – explain them? Then I thought the crossroads. Everybody understands that. I thought, That’s how I’ll start: “We made the deal, and Satan’s deal was good, ’cause he said we could have all that horrible power and do anything we want.” But Satan’s price is he’ll come for one of the Koch brothers and take him back down. He won’t say which one. He won’t say when.

‘The Wall Street Part of Town’ was clearly inspired by the spirit of solidarity invoked by the Occupy movement:

I’m in trouble again but this time I’m not the only one
I was hurtin’ before but this time I’m not a lonely one
Divide and rule, that’s always been their plan
We’re in trouble again but this time we’ve got friends

So I’ll keep walkin’ if it takes all night
Hopin’ we gonna make things right
I’m lookin’ for the Wall Street part of town

‘Is there a Wall Street part of town in your town?’ Ry asks in his sleeve note. ‘Start your own, it’s easy. When the police come, remind them that you pay their salary, such as it may be’.  Or, as he put it more bluntly in the New York Times:

The only way we are going to save the country from these bastards is unity and solidarity, and the conservatives went after unity and solidarity when they started to dismantle the labor force under Reagan.

‘Guantanamo’ is not the lilting Cuban song about a country girl from Guantanamo, but a thunderous attack on prisons everywhere, and one notorious one in particular: ‘You can’t come back from Guantanamo’.

The striking thing about this election is the lack of any of the fervour that surrounded the Obama campaign in 2008, and there’s certainly no ‘Yes We Can’ video this time. Then, youth voter turnout was the highest it had been in 35 years, and it helped propel Obama to the White House. Now, according to an article in The Guardian earlier this month, as Obama strikes a centrist tone in order to reach crucial swing voters and conditions on the ground worsen, rappers see him as ‘part of the very political establishment rappers have long held in contempt’.

But Cooder will have none of this: at the heart of this collection of songs is his belief that Americans who want to preserve their liberties, defend jobs, health care and public services must stand up for Obama.  In ‘Cold Cold Feeling’  he imagines the president, alone in the dark, walking the Oval Office floor. ‘Before you criticize and accuse, walk a mile in his shoes’, he says on the album’s sleeve.  In the Guardian interview, Cooder was asked whether he saw Obama as a good man trapped in an impossible situation:

Yes, 110%. He’s set upon by dogs. He’s prevented from doing anything because the Republicans ensured that no president and no Democrat president can ever do good again. That’s what Bush was sent in there to do: destroy the presidency, and that’s what I think he did. How do you come back from that? How do you make the presidency good again? They talk about bi-partisanship but that’s an empty word, doesn’t mean a thing. So what is Obama supposed to do? How can he operate? This healthcare thing is really quite something, if it lives. They’re going to go after it and try to destroy it, that’s the leading end of the Republican effort right now, that’s going to sink the Titanic, you know?  I mean, I think he’s a good man. He’s a smart man. He understands the constitution, therefore he must respect it. They don’t. I believe that he does.

‘Kool-Aid’ is a fearsome blues enhanced by some classic Cooder slide guitar that gives voice to a poor man who swallowed conservative arguments. Too late, he realises that the rich have given the the poor gun rights and ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws – but  defaulted on the promise of well-paid jobs and a secure future. He drank the Kool-Aid, they really drank it down.

Your poor white people — conservatives want to split them off and say, “We are going to engineer it so these people will vote against their own self-interest.” But this character in the “Kool-Aid” song says I did everything that was asked of me but I’m still losing my job and I’m going to lose my house. Finally, it occurs to him at 3 o’clock in the morning, what my friend Jim Dickinson used to call the moment of the horrible hillbilly reality, as his wife’s asleep and he’s smoking Chesterfields, and he says: “Wait a minute — this didn’t work at all. I’m hung out to dry. I’m twisting in the wind. I drank the Kool-Aid.”

Perhaps the best tracks on the album are the two with which it closes – the aforementioned ‘The 90 and the 9’ and ‘ Take Your Hands off It’, an out-and-out rocker co-written with his son Joachim.  They see this as a re-working of Woody Guthrie’s, ‘This Land is Your Land’. In it the Cooders storm, ‘take your hands off my Constitution, my Bill of Rights, my polling rights, my reproductive rights’. ‘Take your hands of it, you know it don’t belong to you’.

Get your bloody hands off the peoples of the world
And your war machine and your corporation thieves
That lets you keep your job and pays your dirty salary
Take your hands off us, you know we don’t belong to you

This isn’t the first time that Cooder has gone overtly political: his last album, Pull Up Some Dust opened with ‘No Banker Left Behind’ and may prove to be the record that future generations look to in order to understand this recession. And, of course, throughout his lengthy musical career Cooder has immersed himself in Dustbowl era music and social history, always seeing the parallels to the modern-day situation.

Ry Cooder first surfaced in 1964, at the age of 17, playing in the blues-rock band Rising Sons with Taj Mahal. They recorded an album’s worth of material that was not released until 1992.  After that, Cooder was in demand as a studio musician, working with everyone from Captain Beefheart to the Monkees, and making classic contributions to Rolling Stones recordings, including the mandolin break on their cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain’ (on Gimme Shelter) and the slide guitar solo on Sticky Fingers‘ ‘Sister Morphine’.

His first solo record came out in 1970 and largely consisted of old folk and blues covers, including radical classics like Woody Guthrie’s ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’. That began a pattern of albums early in his career that had at their centre classics of the Dust Bowl era, with songs by by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and others.

More recently he produced two concept albums that documented social change in America in the years before and after the Second World War.  His 2005 masterpiece Chavez Ravine, dealt with the true story of destruction of a Latino neighbourhood in Los Angeles, a land grab to build Dodger Stadium. It was a heartfelt work about the forgotten victims of political and corporate shenanigans, built around the Hispanic sounds that permeated that displaced community. He followed that with My Name Is Buddy, a collection of songs imbued with socialist values about unions in the Depression as seen through the eyes of a cat named Buddy and his friends Lefty Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad.

A Ry Cooder radical America playlist

No Bankers Left Behind (from Pull Up Some Dust)

Do Re Mi (from Ry Cooder, 1970)

Strike! (from My Name Is Buddy, 2007)

One Cat, One Vote, One Beer (from My Name Is Buddy, 2007)

The Bourgeois Blues (from Chicken Skin Music, 1976)

Vigilante Man (from Into The Purple Valley, 1972)

How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? (from Ry Cooder, 1970)

Take Your Hands Off It (from Election Special, 2012)

Woody Guthrie: a Liverpool celebration

Woody Guthrie: a Liverpool celebration

A little bit of music history was made in the Rodewald Suite last night.  The event was a celebration of the centennial this year of the birth of Woody Guthrie at which Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, gave an engaging personal talk about her father’s life and music. Organised by Alun Parry, founder of Liverpool’s Woody Guthrie Folk Club that meets on the final Thursday of each month at the Ship and Mitre on Dale Street.  Alun had heard that Nora was touring Europe in 2012 and took a chance on asking if she could fit in a visit to Liverpool.

As Nora explained at one point in the evening, she was eager to come to Liverpool for several reasons, one being that when Woody served in the Merchant Marine during the war he took shore leave several times in Scotland and England, and may (though this is unconfirmed) have stepped ashore in Liverpool.  Another reason was that Liverpool in the 1950s was the city of the ‘Cunard Yanks’, the Liverpudlian seamen who served on the ocean liners and brought back American blues, jazz and R&B records, thus enriching the musical culture of the city.  This was when a certain George Harrison was playing in a band led by Les Stewart that specialised in tunes by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy – and Woody Guthrie.

But there was another way in which Woody’s songs seeped into the repertoire of Liverpool bands: young musicians like Paul McCartney and John Lennon began messing around with guitars during the skiffle boom, heavily influenced by Lonnie Donegan, probably the most significant popularizer of songs byLeadbelly and Woody Guthrie.  With this in mind, when Nora Guthrie got the invite to Liverpool, she decided to contact Lonnie Donegan’s son, Pete, in London to see if he could make it.  He did – and provided a triumphant ending to a great night.

Alun Parry kicked off the evening with a song of his own, inspired by Woody’s statement in which he summed up the point of his songs:

I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard travelling. … I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.  I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what colour, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.

Then Nora took the stage to give a presentation, illustrated with family photos, paintings and drawings by Woody, and pages from his notebooks.  He wrote down all his lyrics, she said, because he could not memorize them. She began with the original words of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, written by hand in a school notebook.  ‘This Land’ was, she pointed out, one of the earliest songs he wrote – in 1940, when he was only 27 years old and had just arrived in New York.  But, she asked, how did this song come to be written?

She took us right back to Woody’s beginnings in Oklahoma.  He was born on July 14, 1912 in a ‘typical Wild West town’, Okemah which, as Woody later wrote

was one of the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns.
Bound For Glory

When he was a boy, Okemah was a sleepy farm town where they grew cotton out in the fields. Then as it became an oil boomtown, when he was about 8 years old, all kinds of other people were suddenly in Okemah overnight: a pretty rough and rowdy bunch of people that worked in the oil fields.  The politics were rough, too: Nora noted that Oklahoma was the last state to join the union, and had the most political parties – 14 in all, mostly left-wing (though today Oklahoma is a red state, solid Republican).

Woody’s mother, Nora and his father, Charley were a middle class up and coming couple: Charley was an entrepreneur, a land dealer, young and ambitious.  But the family went through an appalling sequence of tragedies that, suggested Nora, were the foundation of his empathy and compassion – not intellectual but a response to the experiences of his own family life.

Woody Guthrie’s childhood home in Okemah photographed in 1979

When Woody’s father got enough money to build a new house, it burned down before the family could move in. Then his older sister Clara was also burned in a fire and died.  Within two years of that happening his mother was sent away to an insane asylum, while his father lost everything in the Depression.

We now know that Woody’s mother was suffering from Huntingdon’s disease, a neurological disease that causes degeneration of the nerves and eventually leads to loss of control of the body, and death.  But at the time nothing was known about it. People in the town made fun of  the way she behaved. She was a victim of a disease and she was ridiculed for it, and eventually deemed insane.

Woody felt this deeply, argued Nora in her talk. Running through every single song that Woody wrote is a sense of empathy with people who are enduring hard times, whether they are homeless or hungry or whatever. That became the signature and the heart of all of his music, suggested Nora.  She displayed the last photo of Woody’s mother, and drew attention to how she was holding her arms behind her back – literally holding on to her arms to control the Huntingdon’s.

Woody Guthrie in Okemah

Nora suggested that her grandmother had been important to Woody in another way: as she played piano, she would sing old Scots-Irish ballads. These long ballads were very likely the inspiration for the long ballads that he would later write.

In a very short period of time, Woody’s middle-class family life had fallen apart. By age thirteen, he was pretty much on his own with no parents – his father had left for Texas, while he stayed in Okemeh, living in a gang house with a couple of other kids on their own. In his autobiography Bound for Glory he tells of collecting garbage to get by. He was out of school and surviving on his wits.  At this point, Nora said, he wanted to be an artistand he took to painting as a potential career.  All of the art from his early years is gone, Nora said.  One of the only portraits that still survives, to her knowledge, is one that he did of Abraham Lincoln a few years later, when he was in his twenties. It’s an oil painting that’s now at the Smithsonian Institute in the Smithsonian Folkways Collection.

It was very hard to keep that up and pay for a $5 brush and the canvas and the oils.  Then he realized that once you did a painting and you sold it once and you never saw it again, and that dollar you earned for it got spent…He realized with a song you write it once and someone says, ‘Hey, I like that song. Sing it again!’ It was really a funny, very natural understanding that songwriting was a better way to make money in the early days than painting.

After two years in the gang house decided to join his father in Pampa Texas, where he spent most of his time in the public library ‘interested in everything’:

I scratched around in the books. I carried them home by the dozens and armloads, on any subject, I didn’t care which. I wanted to look into everything a little bit, and pick out something, something that would turn me into a human being of some kind – free to work for my own self,  and free to work for everybody.
Bound for Glory

This was when he really start writing, following the principle that ‘all you can write is what you see’.  What he saw first was the terrible impact of the dust storms on that part of Texas:

On the 14th day of April of 1935,
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky.
You could see that dust storm comin’, the cloud looked deathlike black,
And through our mighty nation, it left a dreadful track.

From Oklahoma City to the Arizona line,
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande,
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom.

It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns,
It covered up our tractors in this wild and dusty storm.
We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in,
We rattled down that highway to never come back again.
– ‘The Great Dust Storm’

I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing,
I’ve seen the dust so black that I couldn’t see a thing,
And the wind so cold, boy, it nearly cut your water off.

I seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down,
I’ve seen the wind so high that it blowed my fences down,
Buried my tractor six feet underground.

Well, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
Yes, it turned my farm into a pile of sand,
I had to hit that road with a bottle in my hand.
– ‘Dust Bowl Blues’

Dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936, Photo: Arthur Rothstein

Like countless others, Woody left Pampa, Texas in the early 1930s for California to see if he could get work in the fruit orchards
there. When he got to the California border there were roadblocks – they were stopping people from crossing the state line. Nora elaborated:

You get to a state line and they won’t let you cross the border. You are an American citizen, this is your country and they won’t let you cross the border. It’s not another country. This is America and these are American citizens. They wouldn’t let you cross the border unless you had $50 in your pocket. But he was thinking, I’m from Oklahoma. I’m not a foreigner. I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve walked across the desert a thousand miles and you are telling me I can’t come in? He saw families being turned around and being sent back. How in the world are these people going to have $50? They don’t have anything to eat, let alone have $50 in their pockets. Woody writes in the song ‘Do Re Mi’, ‘If you ain’t got that Do Re Mi, well you had better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia and Tennessee.’

Lots of folks back East, they say, is leavin’ home every day,
Beatin’ the hot old dusty way to the California line.
‘Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin’ out of that old dust bowl,
They think they’re goin’ to a sugar bowl, but here’s what they find
Now, the police at the port of entry say,
“You’re number fourteen thousand for today.”

Oh, if you ain’t got the do re mi, folks, you ain’t got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi.

When Woody arrived in Los Angeles he soon had a radio show which quickly became a tremendous hit because all of the Okies had come to California, so he had the biggest audience in Los Angeles. He got 10,000 letters a week in fan mail. The producers raised his salary and made his show longer. The same thing happened, Nora said, when he moved to New York. There, too, he soon had a very successful radio show. They were paying him so much that he wrote to Alan Lomax and said, ‘they are giving me money so fast I have to sleep under it’.

Then, Nora said, the producers and the sponsors would say, ‘Tone it down on some of those songs, Woody’.  But the idea of someone telling him how to do a radio show or what songs to sing – he would just walk out. He would just say, ‘I’m not doing this’.

With Woody’s arrival in New York in 1940, Nora finally reached the conclusion to the story of how ‘This Land Is Your Land’ came to be. Woody had hitchhiked from Los Angeles to New York.

All kinds of things are going on. Hundreds of thousands of people in America are displaced because of the Dust Bowl and The Depression. As he is hitchhiking across America – Hollywood is in good shape and New York is in good shape, but from California to New York Island and everything in between, is really not so great. It takes him a month to hitchhike from Los Angeles to New York. In every jukebox at every truck stop and every diner he kept hearing Kate Smith’s hit song ‘God Bless America’. But Woody’s experience was seeing people homeless and hungry. He was seeing people walking across the country because they had lost everything. He saw families travelling on Route 66 who had lost the farm that had been in their family for generations. So as he is hearing ‘God Bless America’ on the radio and the jukeboxes, he is thinking if God blessed America everybody would have a home and food and a job. We would be okay. He said I’m not getting it and I’m not seeing it. He finally got to New York in February 1940 and in the first week he was in a little boarding house on 43rd Street. He looked out the window and saw homeless people, and things were not so good.

So ‘This Land Is Your Land’ was a direct response to ‘God Bless America’ – even to the extent that the original chorus was ‘God blessed America for me’.

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island; 
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters 
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway, 
I saw above me that endless skyway: 
I saw below me that golden valley: 
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps 
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts; 
And all around me a voice was sounding: 
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling, 
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling, 
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting: 
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there 
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.” 
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, 
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
By the relief office I seen my people; 
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me, 
As I go walking that freedom highway; 
Nobody living can ever make me turn back 
This land was made for you and me.

In the melting pot of New York, Woody for the first time was able to forge friendships with black Americans and with radical women. It was there he met Leadbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. It was there, too, he met people like Lee Hayes, Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax. Woody met Lomax when he performed at a ‘Grapes of Wrath Evening’, a benefit for the John Steinbeck committee for Agricultural Workers. Woody Guthrie’s ballad ‘Tom Joad’, recorded in 1940, was directly inspired by John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath and the successful John Ford film adaptation, released in 1940. The seventeen-verse song summarized Tom Joad’s story, concluding:

Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain’t free.
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma.
That’s where I’m a-gonna be.”

Nora said that after Steinbeck heard Woody’s ballad, he sent him an acerbic note: ‘You little bastard. You said in twelve verses what it took me 500 pages to say’.  She was asked from the floor whether Woody and Steinbeck ever met – she thought not.  But on the Internet, Steinbeck’s son, Thom, is quoted as saying

My father met Woody several times. There was a mutual affinity there for each other’s creative output even though Steinbeck loved all American music. Dad made it very clear to Woody…you don’t just write ‘folk songs’ you write battle hymns.

Steinbeck later wrote, in the 1960s:

Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tyre iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.
– foreword to Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967)

In New York Woody began work on his autobiography, Bound For Glory, completed with the support of  his second wife Marjorie Mazia, whose disciplined approach came from her job as an instructor at the Martha Graham Dance School (leaving notes on the fridge like ‘finish chapter 5 today!’).  The book was first published in 1943, and I still remember the thrill, as a teenager, of reading Woody’s larger than life narrative told in vivid and energetic dialect.

The cover of the original 1943 edition of Bound For Glory

During the Second World War, Woody joined the Merchant Navy with his friend and singing partner, Cisco Houston.  He washed dishes on a the troop ship which carried troops to the Normandy beach in early July 1944. Later, Woody was routed through London and Glasgow, before returning to the United States. While in London, he went to the BBC where he was given the opportunity to sing on Children’s Hour. After some autobiographical anecdotes, he was recorded singing ‘The Wabash Cannonball’ and ‘900 Miles’.

In 1946 Woody and moved to Mermaid Avenue on Coney Island with Marjorie and his daughter, Cathy. One of their children, Cathy, died as a result of a fire at age four, sending Guthrie into a serious depression.Three other children were born and grew up here – Joady, Arlo and Nora. In her talk, Nora vividly recalled this period of her childhood, when most of the year would be spent on the beach.




Woody with (left to right) Nora, Joady and Arlo, 1951


This was a productive song-writing period in which Woody wrote many songs for children, often inspired by Cathy, songs which he recorded with producer Moses Asch. He also began writing more songs inspired directly from daily newspaper headlines, such as Deportees, his response to a plane crash in 1948 in which 28 Mexican farm workers from Oakland, California being deported back to Mexico, were not named but simply referred to as ‘deporteees’ in press reports:

The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting
The oranges are filed in their creosote dumps
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexico border
To take all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, farewell Roselita
Adios mes amigos, Jesus e Maria
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees

My father’s own father, he waded that river
They took all the money he made in his life
It’s six hundred miles to the Mexico border
And they chased them like rustlers, like outlaws, like thieves
The skyplane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
The great ball of fire it shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends who are falling like dry leaves?
Radio said, “They are just deportees”

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can raise our good crops?
To fall like dry leaves and rot on out topsoil
And be known by no names except “deportees

In 1947 Cathy died in a fire in the Coney Island apartment, shortly before Marjorie gave birth to Arlo.  Nora movingly recalled how Woody, who looked after the children during the day while Marjorie worked, would record Cathy’s funny and childish remarks in a notebook, one of those now in the Guthrie archives, entitled ‘Cathy Says’.

By the late 1940s, Woody’s health was declining, and his behaviour becoming erratic. In 1952 it was finally determined that he was suffering from Huntington’s disease .  Increasingly unable to control his muscles and bodily functions, Woody was hospitalized from 1956 until 1966.  Nora described how her mother and the children would visit Woody in hospital  every Sunday, until finally the visits became too distressing and it was decided to bring Woody home at weekends.  She talked as well about the first time that the young Bob Dylan turned up at their house to see the songwriter who had inspired him (she turned him away, but Arlo invited him in).  Dylan later wrote (in Chronicles) what Guthrie’s songs meant for him:

The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.

Woody died on October 3, 1967.  ‘I’m a common-ist’ is how he used to describe himself, believing that people working together were a more powerful force than one.

After Nora Guthrie’s presentation, musicians took to the stage to perform songs by Guthrie and other writers.  Emma Runswick and Josh Cartwright sang  a cracking verse by a poet I’d never heard of before – Aaron Kramer.  ‘In Contempt’ was written in 1950 when people were being jailed for refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, on charges of being ‘in contempt of Congress’.  The words are as relevant today as when they were written.  Here, for example, they are used as counterpoint to a report on the Israeli ‘security fence’.

Build high build wide your prison walls
That there be room enough for all
Who hold you in contempt build wide
That all the bad be locked inside

 The birds who still insist on song
The sunlit streams still running strong
The flowers a-blazing every hue
All are in contempt of you

When you have seized the gallant few
Whose glory casts a shade on you
How can you now go home with ease
Jangling your heavy dungeon keys

The parents dreaming still of peace
The playful children, the wild geese
Who still must fly the mountains to
All are in contempt of you

When you have seized both moon and sun
And jailed the poems one by one
And trapped each trouble-making breeze
Then you must throw away your keys

So let us hope the day will come
When man adores the rising sun
Empty jails and free to do
With no one in contempt of you

Then it was the turn of Lonnie Donegan’s son, Pete, who gave us powerful renditions of Guthrie’s ‘Grand Coulee Dam’, ‘Vigilante Man’ and ‘Worried Man Blues’, followed by a trio of Leadbelly songs – ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘Midnight Special’ (with Nora called on stage to join in the choruses). On these songs, many popularised in Britain in versions by Lonnie Donegan, Pete sounded uncannily like his father.

In a resounding finale, all the night’s performers joined forces for a rousing version of ‘Union Maid’.  It had been a great show – absolutely unmissable.

Centennial poster by Shepard Fairey

See also

Bob Dylan: 50 years of hard travellin’

Fifty years ago today, on 9 March 1962, Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album was released.  Dylan had arrived in New York only 14 months earlier and was still three months short of his 20th birthday. The songs on Bob Dylan  consisted of familiar folk, blues and gospel material combined with two original compositions. The album made little impact, selling only 5,000 copies in its first year, just enough to break even.  Dylan had been signed to Columbia Records by the legendary producer John Hammond, and some at the company began referring to Dylan as ‘Hammond’s Folly’ suggesting that Dylan’s contract should be ended.

I swung onto my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
Greenwich Village

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 singers 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
– ‘
Talkin’ New York’

Yesterday in an article in The Observer marking the anniversary, Ed Vulliamy wrote:

The immediately astonishing impact of the album, by any measure, is the contrast between the image of the unsmiling but fresh-faced lad in his cap and the depth of feeling and range in the singing between love, rage, sorrow and a fixation with death. The core of the album is ‘Fixin’ To Die’, sung as though he were pleading for the life he is about to lose, such is Dylan’s understanding of the intentions of its author, the great Delta blues master Booker T Washington – aka “Bukka” – White.

This is Dylan performing the song on a radio show and being interviewed by Cynthia Gooding on 11 March 1962:

Assessing the significance of the debut album, Vulliamy notes that

The estimable British writer on Dylan, Michael Gray, argues interestingly that the real value of the album is not only that it showed “more than a hint of a highly distinctive vision”, but also “served as a fine corrective for Greenwich Village: it was the opposite of effete,” he says, “in the context of what was happening at the time – American folk culture all but obliterated, and a stagnating ‘folk’ cult established as if in its place.”

Bruce Eder, reviewing the album for Allmusic, pinpoints what made Dylan’s debut album differ from the rest of the folk revivalists of the time:

A significant portion of the record is possessed by the style and spirit of Woody Guthrie, whose influence as a singer and guitarist hovers over “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Pretty Peggy-O,” as well as the two originals here, the savagely witty “Talkin’ New York” and the poignant “Song to Woody” … But on other songs, one can also hear the influences of Bukka White, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Furry Lewis, in the playing and singing, and this is where Dylan departed significantly from most of his contemporaries.  Other white folksingers of the era, including his older contemporaries Eric Von Schmidt and Dave Van Ronk, had incorporated blues in their work, but Dylan’s presentation was more in your face … There’s a punk-like aggressiveness to the singing and playing here. His raspy-voiced delivery and guitar style were modeled largely on Guthrie’s classic ’40s and early-’50s recordings, but the assertiveness of the bluesmen he admires also comes out, making this one of the most powerful records to come out of the folk revival of which it was a part. Within a year of its release, Dylan, initially in tandem with young folk/protest singers like Peter, Paul & Mary and Phil Ochs, would alter the boundaries of that revival beyond recognition, but this album marked the pinnacle of that earlier phase, before it was overshadowed by this artist’s more ambitious subsequent work.

Harold Lepidus at says the album shines even more today:

It has often been dismissed as a minor album, with only one “major” original composition – “Song To Woody.” For many fans, it was a late addition, something the “complete” their collection.  Now, with a half-century of hindsight, the album comes across as a marvel. Dylan, who was twenty at the time, slams through the material with a reckless intensity, like a sort of folk punk, or an acoustic Billy Bragg. What many people don’t realize is that this was virtually unheard of at the time, especially on a major label.

Bob Dylan on a rooftop in New York, 1962

Roland Ellis at Pig River Records adds:

At this time the world had Pete Seeger to gauge the spirit of folk. The family loving, working class, song of the people, serious folk man. Dylan was a new breed – he took what he needed from the traditionals and left their slowly cooked polish at the door, he didn’t take Seeger and co’s folk ideals seriously, and most importantly he possessed a cheek, a personality, and a spark that hadn’t been present on the politically/culturally driven folk records of the past. Folk was serious and selfless music and from the beginning Dylan was something more. He wasn’t interested in passing on old wisdom from gen to gen, he was instead concerned with using this genre and the stories of America in order to deliver something far more introspective and entirely of his own.

It’s ‘Song To Woody’ though that really signifies the arrival of Bob Dylan the songwriter, and really lives on as the lasting landmark from his debut record. Lyrically insightful and adoring of his hero, ‘Song To Woody’ seems to lament the diminished state that Guthrie was in at the time, whilst at the same time reassuring him that it’s okay, someone has arrived to carry the dustbowl into a new world. That new world was indeed stumbling into existence in early 1962, and along with it was a man that would come to embody everything that the children of the revolution wanted from the 1960′s. Cometh the hour and cometh the boy from Minnesota on a freight train constructed in his own mind.

There are almost no Dylan originals on YouTube (his office must be exceedingly diligent in squashing any uploads), but if you search for ‘Song To Woody’, you do find this treasure: in May 1970, shortly after The Beatles broke up, Bob Dylan and George Harrison recorded this version in New York with Charlie Daniels on bass:

Apart from marking the release of his first album, 1962 was significant for young Bob Zimmerman in two other respects.  In August 1962 he legally changed his name to Bob Dylan, while a few weeks earlier he wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,  the song that would see him break through to a much wider audience.   In Down the Highway, Howard Sounes wrote:

Bob composed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in a matter of minutes sitting in a cafe across the street from the Gaslight Club. Although he thought ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ special, he did not understand the full significance of what he had done. ‘It was just another song I wrote.’ The melody was uncannily similar to the African-American spiritual ‘No More Auction Block.’ However, borrowing melodies, and even lyrics, was part of the folk tradition and thus perfectly acceptable. A more pertinent criticism of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ concerned the rhetorical lyrics. Many of the most distinguished folk artists in New York were underwhelmed when they first heard the song. There seemed no link between the relentless questions; and, at the end of three verses, none of the questions had been resolved, except to say the answer was blowing in the wind, an image so vague that, arguably, it meant nothing.

Pete Seeger did not regard it highly. ‘ “Blowin’ in the Wind” is not my favorite,’ he says. ‘It’s a little easy.’ Tom Paxton found it almost impossible to learn. ‘I hate the song myself. It’s what I call a grocery-list song where one line has absolutely no relevance to the next line.’ Dave Van Ronk thought it dumb. Still, within a couple of months of Bob performing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ at Gerde’s Folk City, Van Ronk noticed to his surprise that musicians hanging around Washington Square Park had invented irreverent parodies such as, ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ out your end.’ As Van Ronk says, ‘If the song is strong enough, without even having been recorded, to start garnering parodies, the song is stronger than I realized.'[His manager], meanwhile, knew Bob had created something extra­ordinary. ‘ “Blowin’ in the Wind” was the key to it all,’ he says. ‘That song made it all happen.’ …

On July 30, 1962, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ the song that was the foundation stone of Bob’s career and a catalyst of the singer-songwriter revolution, was copyrighted to M. Witmark & Sons. The same day, [Dylan’s new manager Albert] Grossman signed what Bob later called ‘a secret deal’ with M. Witmark & Sons giving Grossman fifty percent of Witmark’s share of the publishing income generated by any songwriter he brought to the company. Now Grossman stood to earn a substantial slice of Bob’s publishing fees, over and above the [20 percent] cut he took for managing him. This backhanded deal was one of Bob’s primary com­plaints when he and Grossman were in legal dispute in the 1980s, although in fairness Grossman was getting an enhanced part of Witmark’s share, and not necessarily money Bob himself would have received. Bob claimed indignantly that he had known nothing of Grossman’s fifty percent deal with M. Witmark & Sons (Grossman insisted he had told him). Bob also claimed to have had no idea Grossman was given as much as $100,000 to advance to him for signing with M. Witmark & Sons, of which he received one percent. Bob’s attorneys asserted that Grossman had ‘willfully and maliciously’ concealed vital information. The secretiveness was what angered Bob who was, of course, a very secretive person himself.

However, this was not the end of Grossman’s machinations. The last part of his plan was, in fact, the cleverest. If Peter, Paul and Mary [a group Grossman had created] had a hit with a Bob Dylan-Witmark song, Grossman would earn fourfold. He had his management fee from the two acts, plus his twenty-five per­cent of Peter, Paul and Mary’s recording income from Warner Bros., plus fifty percent of the income Witmark earned from publishing a Dylan song. When Peter, Paul and Mary had a massive hit with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ and top-forty success with two further songs written by Dylan, Grossman became as rich as Croesus.  Suddenly, money had become very important.

Bob Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas Party in London, 22 December 22 1962.

In the first week of October 1962, the Beatles’ first single ‘Love Me Do’ was released, reaching number 17 in the UK charts.  I can clearly remember that, and in my memory the whole Beatles phenomenon precedes my discovery of Dylan.  I’m pretty certain that it was June 1963 before I registered the name of Bob Dylan, when Peter Paul and Mary released their hit version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  Then, a couple of months later listening to radio coverage of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, I heard Dylan sing probably for the first time.

Dylan had actually visited London in December 1962,  to appear in a BBC TV drama, The Madhouse on Castle Street. At the end of the play, Dylan performed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but I never saw that – we didn’t have a TV at the time. While in London, Dylan performed at several London folk clubs, and learned new songs from British folk singers such as Martin Carthy.  One of the songs he picked up from Carthy was the ballad Lord Randall’, on which Dylan based the tune of  ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, the standout track on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in May 1963.

Graeme Thomson, in a superb piece on the artsdesk website, ‘Bob Dylan: Fifty Years of Crooked Road‘, writes:

Fifty years ago today Bob Dylan released his first album, Bob Dylan, on Columbia. Within 12 months he was a rising star; twelve months more and he was the voice of the times; a little over a year later he had gone from saviour to Judas. And on it went. For half a century now successive generations have wrestled with Dylan’s mutations; mostly we pick and choose and settle for – at best – a partial understanding. At the age of 70, Dylan’s appeal is still wrapped up in mystery, mischief and contradiction.

Hailed initially as the king of folk-protest thanks to anthems such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, the enduring image of Dylan as the great liberal voice of the Sixties is a clear anomaly within the context of his 50-year career. His social conscience was largely a creative convenience (like most young men he wrote primarily to impress girls, in his case his politically engaged girlfriend Suze Rotolo) which swiftly turned into a millstone. He realised early on that deification by the liberal literati was a short road to fossilisation and swiftly resigned his post; the coruscating “Positively Fourth Street”, released in 1965, still stands as the greatest ever abdication note set to music. Instead, Dylan has preferred to stir the mind, heart and senses with opaque poetry rather than ideology.  […]

Since his critical and creative regeneration in the early Nineties – which began with two wonderful acoustic folk albums, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, and was sealed by the superb Time Out of Mind – Dylan has removed all traces of modernity from his work. His last four records have been composed entirely from the music of the earlier parts of the last century, touching on jazz, swing, country, Fifties rock’n’roll, folk and most often blues. His lyrics nowadays are an incongruous mix of sulphurous End Times impressionism, sly romance and sexual humour, all of which suggests that Dylan is having plenty of fun while simultaneously believing that the world has gone to hell in a handcart.

See also

Dylan arrives in New York

Dylan arrives in New York

Bob Dylan with Suze Rotolo, September 1961, New York

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
survive –
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
ourselves –

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

understand –
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
mornin –
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;
Greenwich Village.

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.