Sixty years ago, the times were a-changin’.
On Jan. 20, 1961, the dashing John F. Kennedy placed his hand on a Bible and duly became the 35th U.S. President, ending the drab Eisenhower years and ushering in the Swinging Sixties.
Locally, New York City, too, was making history, though of a more forgettable type, experiencing its roughest winter in 28 years.
Against this backdrop, on the late afternoon of Jan. 24, the book “Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan” related, a four-door Pontiac stopped on 62nd Street. A recent college dropout from the Iron Range in northwest Minnesota, Dylan grabbed his valise and guitar and jumped on the downtown subway to Greenwich Village. (Some Dylanologists insist he arrive at the George Washington Bridge and headed downtown from there.)
Like so many others, he was determined to make his mark in the Mecca of the burgeoning U.S. folk-music scene.
There was no fanfare, and nobody would forever circle the date for posterity. But it nonetheless a momentous occasion.
Bob Dylan, all of 19 years old and with ten bucks stuffed into his pocket, had arrived in New York City.
“I knew I had to get to New York,” Dylan mused to interviewer Cameron Crowe in 1985, when he was 44 years old. “I’d been dreaming about that for a long time.”
He told Crowe, in the booklet accompanying the box-set album Biograph: “You just didn’t get on a plane and go there, you know, New York. New York! Ed Sullivan. The New York Yankees. Broadway. Harlem ...You might as well have been talking about China ... It was some place which not too many people had ever gone, and anybody who did go never came back.”
Goodbye, Twin Cities
Dylan had recently left the University of Minnesota midway through his sophomore year, showing more interest in the Twin Cities folk community than his studies. But he quickly outgrew the small clubs and knew it was time to head East to meet his hero, Woody Guthrie, and test himself with the best in New York City.
Full of chutzpah, he managed to talk his way on to the stage his first night in town, in one of the Village’s pass-the-hat clubs. He was so unknown in town that he had to ask from the stage if anyone could let him crash somewhere that night.
He was not exactly an instant success right away. He had a lot to live down, dressed in rags, even by MacDougal Street’s casual standards. Further, folk-music purists initially dismissed him as yet another Woody Guthrie wannabe and scoffed that he sang like a hillbilly. Later, a critic would dismiss his voice as that of a dog who had its hind leg caught in a wire fence.
But Dylan was determined. He kept playing the clubs, sometimes earning only a dollar a day accompanying local bigshot Fred Neil, who some eight years later would make his name when he wrote “Everybody’s Talkin” for the film “Midnight Cowboy” (Dylan, a megastar by the late Sixties, had, it turned out, submitted his contribution to the movie, “Lay, Lady, Lay” too late for the producer’s deadline. But I digress.).
A few months after his arrival in the city, Dylan finagled a gig playing harmonica on the title track of the album “Midnight Special” by Harry Belafonte, then a major star. And in September 1961, Dylan opened for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerdes Folk City. He had a career-altering breakthrough and earned a rave review from music critic Robert Shelton, who wrote in The New York Times:
“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. ... Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty.”
A Simple Twist of Fate
In a simple twist of fate, Dylan was scheduled to play harmonica behind Carolyn Hester the day the Times review came out. The legendary music-industry executive John Hammond, who had furthered the careers of everyone from Bessie Smith to Count Basie, signed Dylan to a recording contract with Columbia Records, then a middle-of-the-road label known for fare like “Sing Along with Mitch.” (A decade later, Hammond would sign another distinctive ragamuffin, named Bruce Springsteen, who became known as “The New Dylan,” to the annoyance of Hammond, Springsteen and Dylan).
Released in March 1962, his first album, Bob Dylan, however, contained mostly cover songs and the album failed to sell well. (Naysayers at Columbia Records started calling Dylan “Hammond’s Folly”).
Things changed with the release in 1963 of Dylan’s second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” The record, featuring “Blowin in the Wind” and “Masters of War,” propelled Dylan to be anointed as the king of folk music. Freewheelin’ was so well received that when George Harrison heard it in Paris in January 1964 he sat John Lennon and Paul McCartney down to listen. They all promptly became Dylan converts.
Journalists and fans started calling Dylan The Spokesman of a Generation – a title he dreaded, because it reduced him to a symbol and made it harder for him to be accepted as a multi-dimensional songwriter and musician. He did go on to conquer rock and roll, western swing, country, gospel and blues music.
To his chagrin, he has never quite lived down the burdensome moniker of Spokesman for a Generation.
And it all started 60 years ago, on a snowy Tuesday afternoon in January 1961.