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A Half Century on from Dylan’s First Record

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Guest Blogger: Liz Thomson, editor of No Direction Home by Robert Shelton


A half-century on from Bob Dylan’s first record, there’s diamonds and only a little rust …

As Bob Dylan once reminded us, “the past is close behind”. This week it seems close indeed, but also another lifetime.

On Saturday, St Patrick’s Day, I went to see Joan Baez play the second of two dates at London’s Royal Festival Hall, three-quarters of the way through a month-long UK tour. She’s 71 now, and while her cropped hair is an elegant silver, the “spun-gold tone” of her voice has given way to a burnished bronze, the lower registers deliciously warm and sonorous but her trademark upper range diminished by age and use.  She’s as charismatic as ever, chatting easily with the audience and sharing snapshots from a career that dates back to 1959.

Last year’s news, which was not news to me, that she’d had a relationship with Steve Jobs has served as a reminder of how cool Baez remains, though she’s always described herself as “a square”, largely because she’s never done drugs. (Neither does she drink very much.) Her unwillingness to “turn on, tune in, drop out” was one reason, she suggested the other night, that she found herself cast to the outer circle on Dylan’s madcap tour of Britain in 1965. As Don’t Look Back shows, Dylan pretty much ignored her (he sort of apologised in the Scorsese documentary) and Baez, at least partly in pique, went off with Donovan. She sang “Catch the wind”, the song he wrote around that time. (Dylan, of course, mocked him.)

Dylan wasn’t much mentioned from the stage but then Baez didn’t need to name him. Rather, she just sang “With God on our side”, as topical and resonant as it was back in 1963, as well as “Love is just a four-letter word,” which Dylan wrote while staying with her in Carmel , tossing the lyric into the wastepaper basket, from which Baez rescued it, and, as an encore, “Blowin’ in the wind”. In 1963, and sporadically since, Dylan and Baez sang together, performances that were often as rough-hewn (Dylan was “allergic” to the idea of rehearsing she later said) as they were powerful. I’d have walked a million miles to see them together.

And today, 19 March, it’s fifty years since Dylan released his debut album. As with Baez, who he heard at her unannounced Newport debut in 1959, noting all that spun gold, it was Robert Shelton who wrote the New York Times review, on 29 September 1961, that played a key role in launching Dylan’s career. Indeed, it’s said that John Hammond signed him to Columbia on the strength of it, without having heard him sing a note – though he did meet Dylan within days of the review, at a Carolyn Hester session on which he was playing harmonica.

In any event, Dylan recorded his first album over the course of three sessions in November 1961, his girlfriend Suze Rotolo by his side in the studio, able to lend her lipstick case for bottleneck guitar effects. It included just two original compositions, “Talkin’ New York” and “Song to Woody”, an elegy to his first (and last) idol, Woody Guthrie, whose life and legend had lured the student Robert Zimmerman to New York just a few months earlier. Shelton was sent a test pressing in order that he could write the liner notes, which he did under the pseudonym of Stacey Williams. To prepare, musician and critic met at Shelton’s Waverly Place apartment, midway between Gerdes Folk City and the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan and Shelton often drank with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. (What great craic it must have been there Paddy’s Day!)

In his biography, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, Shelton wrote that Dylan was “still not prepared to go far in discussing his early days”, though he allowed that he’d graduated from high school in Hibbing, “way up by the Canadian border” and that, while he’d gone to the University of Minnesota on a scholarship, he left after just six months because “I didn’t agree with school”, though “I read a lot, but not the required readings”.

Shelton asked him if he anticipated stardom: “Dylan looked as modest as a hobo with a nickel in his pocket. ‘I never thought I would shoot lightening through the sky in the entertainment field’.” And how did he write? “Either the song comes fast, or it won’t come at all… Some songs marinade for a long time. I just jot down little phrases and things I overhear’.”

By the time the album was released (in the UK, it slipped out in May or June), Dylan regarded it as a piece of juvenilia that should have remained in the bottom drawer – Shelton describes it as “the last will and testament of one Dylan and the birth of a new Dylan”.

In the months that followed, Dylan wrote like a demon, many of the songs born of the sadness of separation from Suze, who was in Italy studying art, and of his involvement with the civil rights movement. “Blowin’ in the wind”, “Masters of war”, “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall” and “Girl from the north country” would appear on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, laid down towards the end of 1962 and released in July 1963, by which time Peter, Paul and Mary had taken “Blowin’ in the wind” to the top of the charts.

Then came the Newport Folk Festival: Dylan arrived “an underground conversation piece, and left a national star”, wrote Shelton. There, in a Friday afternoon workshop, Dylan and Baez sang together publicly for the first time, their duet on “With God on our side” preceding Dylan’s scheduled solo debut. The Festival closed with Baez, who brought Dylan on, and the weekend concluded with the world’s most famous singalong, the two singers joined by Pete Seeger, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Freedom Singers.

Back in London last weekend and towards the end of the concert, Baez sang “Diamonds and rust”, her poignant 1975 reflection on her affair with the kid she describes as “the original vagabond… the unwashed phenomenon”. The melody line was recast to accommodate her changed voice, and so was at least one of the lines: “Fifty years ago I bought you some cufflinks…”

No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, written by Robert Shelton, edited by Liz Thomson and Patrick Humphries

Today, everything Bob Dylan does guarantees saturation media coverage, and a new edition of No Direction Home is long overdue. This new edition, published to coincide with Dylan’s 70th birthday on May 24, 2011, restores significant parts of Shelton’s original manuscript and also includes key images of Dylan throughout his incredible, enduring career, alongside updated footnotes and bibliography, and a new selective discography, making it a must for all Dylan aficionados.

50 Years On, A Reason to Look Back

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Guest Blogger:  Elizabeth Thomson is the editor of No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan by Robert Shelton.


Fifty years ago today, 29 September 1961, a review appeared in the New York Times which can be said, without exaggeration, to have changed the course of popular music history. “Bob Dylan – A Distinctive Folk Song Stylist” – a four-column headline, with a picture of Dylan in the Huck Finn cap he would make famous, and wearing a tie – probably didn’t please the night’s headline act, a well-known and not untalented bluegrass trio named the Greenbriar Boys. They were accorded four brief paragraphs at the end of Shelton’s story. The gig took place at Gerde’s Folk City, situated just off Washington Square, which was the hub of the New York folk revival. Gerde’s Monday night hoots, short for hootenanny, offered a platform to aspirant young singers and had been launched by the club’s Italian owner, Mike Porco, at Shelton’s suggestion.

Shelton’s review made Dylan’s career, according to the singer’s then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, with whom he is famously photographed on the cover of Freewheelin, his second album, released in 1963. She recalled how the two of them walked to the newspaper kiosk on Sheridan Square, bought a first edition of the Times and went to a nearby deli to read it over a coffee. Then they went back and bought a dozen more copies. Within a few days, Dylan had a contract with Columbia Records, signed by the legendary John Hammond, who reportedly hadn’t even heard him sing.

A chubby-faced kid, who looks in that photo as though he was scarcely able to grow a beard, the former Robert Zimmerman had dropped out of college to come to New York City in search of his idol, Woody Guthrie, arriving amid the fiercely cold winter of 1961. He’d been captivated by his book, Bound for Glory, lent to him by a fellow student in Minneapolis. But the Guthrie Dylan did indeed meet in New York was but a shadow of the rambling man he’d once been, reduced to a shell by Huntingdon’s Chorea, a wasting disease he’d sadly inherited.

That Guthrie was slowly dying did not diminish Dylan’s enthusiasm and one of the songs he sang that night in Gerde’s was his own “Song to Woody”, which also paid tribute to “Cisco and Sonny and Leadbelly too/And to all the good people that travelled with you”, all of whom influenced Dylan, whose first New York gig is thought to have been at the Gaslight.

He had crossed paths with Shelton on a few occasions – the Village was as much a community, a state of mind, as a place. The New York Times man had heard Dylan when he’d played support to John Lee Hooker in the spring of ’61, and, in the summer, at an all-day hootenanny at Riverside Church, way up on Manhattan’s West Side, where Martin Luther King would later preach. That gig got Dylan his first name-check in the Times – Shelton had promised a proper review, when he had a proper gig. Which was how he came to be seated in Gerde’s that night, probably drinking Porco’s famously watered down whisky.

Shelton, who died in Brighton, England, in December 1995, never claimed to have discovered Dylan (“he discovered himself” he always said) though many less distinguished critics (and make no mistake about it, Shelton is the father of popular music journalism) have made bolder claims. From the outset, he recognised the magnitude of Dylan’s talent, unformed as it still was that night in 1961, and, from close quarters had watched him grow. They became friends, though both men respected the other’s position as artist or critic, and by the mid-Sixties Shelton was at work on a biography.

No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, available now from Backbeat Books

No Direction Home was a long time coming, because Shelton – almost from the outset – was determined to write a serious study of a man he believed should be spoken of in the same breath as Picasso and Welles, as one of the 20th century’s great cultural figures. His publishers wanted a potboiler, a sex-and-drugs-and-rock ’n’ roll chronicle of excess. Shelton refused – “I won’t sell off the relics of a friend” he inisted, even as he faced bankruptcy in the 1980s – and paid a terrible price, seeing his life’s work cut about by editors who didn’t understand it or the music or the milieu, and forced to accept a lower royalty. The version that was originally published, 25 years ago this month, was, Shelton always said, “abridged over troubled waters”. Still there were many people who appreciated it, understood it, but neither book or author were accorded the recognition they deserved. Over time, No Direction Home has come to be regarded as a classic, but Shelton didn’t live to see that, or to witness the return to form of the singer-songwriter about whose bright future he had written so presciently on 29 September 1961.

Shelton was a friend and mentor to me, encouraging me as I took my first faltering steps into journalism in the early Eighties and entrusting me with his manuscript to read and to comment on. When he died, I determined than one day, when the time was right, a version would be published that was closer to the book Robert Shelton had written. And this year, on 24 May – Dylan’s seventieth birthday – it was indeed published, in the States by Backbeat; in Britain by Omnibus Press; in Australia by Hardie Grant; in Germany by Edel; and in Brazil by Larousse. My “director’s cut” restores much background and foreground, placing Dylan and his circle in their proper context. Dylan’s voice, and the voices of Suze Rotolo and her sister Carla, of Joan Baez, of Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers, of Allen Ginsberg, are more distinct, the characters more present. And so too Robert Shelton, the teller of this extraordinary tale, a witness to history who was with Dylan at all the pivotal moments of his career: not just at Gerde’s, but at Newport, at the Woody Guthrie tribute, at the Isle of Wight… We listen to their conversation, as Shelton joins Dylan on his private plane, leaving Lincoln, Nebraska for Denver, Colorado at the break of midnight during the 1966 tour when Dylan, and the Band as they would soon become, battled to be heard. And we follow Shelton backstage at Earls Court in 1978, during the world tour that was such a triumph for Dylan. During the course of an emotional reunion, Dylan asked Shelton what happened to the Greenbriar Boys.

I hope Robert Shelton would feel proud of his book, which is also a beautiful object lovingly designed. His surviving family certainly is. It’s a great, great book – which I feel quite able to say because, though my name is on the jacket, I didn’t write it. Anyone who hasn’t read it should, because they will discover much about Dylan and his friends that they didn’t know. Because unlike every other biographer, Shelton was there.

Read it and you will be too.

Click here to hear editor Elizabeth Thomson interviewed at the Book Expo America.