The Ballad of Bob Dylan

A Portrait

by Daniel Mark Epstein

19 May 2011


A Choir Boy with a Grenade in His Pocket

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 in 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.

Six months later I was grazing the record bins in our local music store, the small folk section, and I saw the face that Shelton described in the newspaper review. It was the face of a boy who appeared to be about my age, with wide-set eyes, soft cheeks and chin, and a perfectly formed mouth, his curls pressed under the black cap, wearing a sheepskin coat, hands laced around the upright neck of a Martin guitar. There was something sly about him. He was a choir boy with a grenade in his pocket.

I read the liner notes, which included Shelton’s review, and put the album back in the bin. There was only one copy, but I did not buy it that day. I returned several times to look at the portrait of the sly, calm-looking boy, and reread the liner notes before I had saved the two dollars to purchase the LP. That was in April 1962. I bought one of only five thousand copies of the album titled Bob Dylan. Produced by the prescient John Hammond, the record sold so poorly his colleagues at Columbia Records called it—and the artist he had signed—“Hammond’s Folly.”

I had never heard Bob Dylan’s voice, or heard him play until that day in the spring of 1962 when I dropped the vinyl onto the turntable of a Westinghouse portable record player in the privacy of my bedroom. My expectations were high, and the experience was not altogether pleasant. This must be an acquired taste, I thought, like cigarette smoking or whiskey. It seemed unnatural to me that such a young man should sound, or try to sound, like an old man. I liked the choppy, wailing harmonica on the fast Jesse Fuller number “You’re No Good.” Dylan had learned some things from the blind blues harpist Sonny Terry. But the way he shrieked the refrain, “You give me the blues, I guess you’re satisfied / You give me the blues, I want to lay down and die,” made my skin crawl. His voice was all over the place.

The singer began to settle into his skin—so it seemed—in the second cut of the album, a Woody Guthrie–inspired “talkin’ blues” called “Talkin’ New York,” which was described in the liner notes as “a diary note set to music.”

Ramblin’ outa the wild West,

Leavin’ the towns I love the best,

Thought I’d seen some ups and downs,

’Til I come into New York town.

People goin’ down to the ground,

Buildings goin’ up to the sky.

This was good poetry, the play on “ups and downs,” and Dylan was speaking in a natural voice, although perhaps the western accent was somewhat exaggerated. The wandering minstrel told of his arrival in New York in the freezing cold, his landing downtown in Greenwich Village, his first job in a coffeehouse playing harmonica for small change, joining the musicians’ union and paying his dues. He quoted a famous line from the master of the talkin’ blues, Woody Guthrie, who wrote in “Pretty Boy Floyd” that “some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.” Now, toward the end of the song that owed so much to Guthrie, Dylan quoted the verse “some people rob you with a fountain pen,” adding that it did not take long to understand Woody’s meaning: there are those who don’t have much food on their table, “But they got a lot of forks and knives / And they gotta cut somethin’.” This was poetry sure enough, lines as memorable as Guthrie’s own. Had Dylan been robbed, by the club owners or the musicians’ union? Had he himself robbed Woody Guthrie with his fountain pen, swiping his verse form and style in order to put food on the table?

By the time I got to the third track, the familiar song “In My Time of Dyin’ ” by Blind Willie Johnson, I had begun to settle into this world of sounds. Dylan’s slide guitar on the haunting blues was mesmerizing, and his voice had the right tone for the subject.

In my time of dyin’

Don’t want nobody to moan.

All I want you to do

Is just take my body home.

His voice followed the lead of the slide guitar, high and low. The song has a range of more than an octave, and a driving rhythm. He was playing a role, the role of an old blues master; somehow he managed to inhabit it persuasively.

The traditional folk tunes on the record were not unpleasant but very eccentric in their rendering. I had heard Mike Seeger perform “Man of Constant Sorrow” many times with his autoharp, simply and sadly; I had heard Judy Collins sing “Maid of Constant Sorrow” with a brilliant guitar accompaniment. Dylan’s version was an athletic exhibition; he meant to show us how long he could hold the first note of the chorus. “I ... am a man of constant sorrow ... I ... ’m goin’ back to Colorado ...” and then the harmonica would imitate the voice, wailing the first note for several measures, until one could imagine the player turning blue for lack of air. “Pretty Peggy-O” was a brash spoof on the earnest folk performances of the classic “Fennario,” full of whoops and hollers and acrobatic harmonica passages. There was a soulful “House of the Rising Sun,” a song Odetta sang, with an intriguing descending progression of bass notes on the guitar; there was a humble and tender tribute to Woody Guthrie, the only other original composition on the record.

Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song

’Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along.

Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn,

It looks like it’s a-dyin’ and it’s hardly been born.

He sang this homage in 3/4 time, strumming the simple three-chord accompaniment to a tune Guthrie himself used for his “1913 Massacre,” a tune that was already three hundred years old when Guthrie cribbed it from “The Soldier and the Lady,” a sixteenth-century ballad.

The track that knocked me out was “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” a bright, up-tempo rendition of “Mama, Let Me Lay It on You,” a song that bluesmen knew from a 1930s recording of blind Reverend Gary Davis. But Dylan’s chording, finger-picking style, and harmonica accompaniment were unique, precise, altogether perfect while maintaining a natural spontaneity. The song came with a little introductory patter, as the guitarist was picking out the melody line.

This was the first glimpse I had of the real person behind the voice that had morphed through so many roles in the course of half an hour: “I first heard this from Ric Von Schmidt. He lives in Cambridge. Ric’s a blues guitar player. I met him one day in the green pastures of Harvard University.” Dylan’s midwestern speaking voice was natural and pleasant, full of humor—the joke was on the folk music purists. Musicologists like Alan Lomax went out into the fields of rural America to bring back the authentic treasures of the American songbook. Meanwhile, younger folk like the painter/bluesman Eric Von Schmidt and his protégé Bob Dylan were doing their collecting in the greenswards and city parks of Boston and New York.

An act of generosity to the older blues artist Von Schmidt, Dylan’s acknowledgment is a little misleading. Dylan had transformed “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and made it his own. “House of the Rising Sun,” on the other hand, he had stolen, latchkey, walls, and rafters, from the playing of his best friend Dave Van Ronk. Van Ronk forgave him but never quite got over the theft of an arrangement he meant to record himself.


I discovered the Dylan album in April 1962, and by the end of the year had learned to play most of the songs on it, with harmonica. The guitar riffs and the harmonica accompaniments were not too difficult to copy, but the singing was impossible. Dylan was doing things with his voice (or had done things to it) that no one in their right mind would want to emulate. My father, whose favorite singers were Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, said that it was the most god-awful racket he had ever heard in his life. My mother, more curious and broad-minded, was the one who first exclaimed over how peculiar it was that such a young man should choose to sound like an old man, but she was intrigued, sharing my interest in the tradition of blues and folk music Bob Dylan represented.

About the same time I purchased his record, Bob Dylan wrote the song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He later claimed that he wrote it in twenty minutes prior to a Monday night hootenanny at Gerde’s Folk City, at the corner of West Fourth and Mercer streets, in Greenwich Village. Arriving at the club with the song in his head, he sang it to folksinger Gil Turner and taught him the chord changes. Turner taped the lyrics to the microphone and premiered the song at the hootenanny, wasting no time in getting the piece from the composer to the public. The stout, kindly Turner was also a founding editor of Broadside. In May we read “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the pages of that groundbreaking magazine.

In September 1962 Dylan wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in a boiler room and a sitting room, spaces under and over the Village Gate coffeehouse, where he first performed the epic. We did not hear it until Pete Seeger played the Washington Coliseum early in 1963, the night Joan Baez sang “Blowin’ in the Wind.” From April 24, 1962, until April 24, 1963, Dylan was in and out of Columbia Studio A on Fifty-fourth Street in New York on eight different dates, recording more than thirty songs. Thirteen of these would make up The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which came out in late May 1963. During that time he wrote more than a hundred songs. He said he was afraid to go to sleep at night for fear he would miss one.

Topics: bob dylan

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