The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait

[19 May 2011]

By Daniel Mark Epstein

Excerpted from Chapter 1 of The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein. Available from HarperCollins. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Lisner Auditorium,
December 14, 1963

The frail-looking young man with tousled brown hair entered the auditorium from stage left, strumming his guitar while people were still getting settled in their seats.

A triple row of folding chairs had been hastily arranged in a semicircle upstage behind the performer’s spot to handle the last-minute overflow. Now these latecomers were sitting down, applauding as he passed them. He wore a pale blue work shirt, blue jeans, and boots. It was as if he had come from some distance and had been singing all the while to himself and whatever group he could gather on street corners and in storefronts, his entrance was so casual and unheralded.

cover art

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait

Daniel Mark Epstein

(HarperCollins; US: May 2011)

He moved toward his spot center stage next to the waist-high wooden stool. On the round seat was a clutter of shiny Marine Band harmonicas. Scarcely acknowledging the applause, mildly embarrassed by it, he lurched toward his place onstage wearing a steel harmonica holder around his neck that made him look like a wild creature in harness, blinking at the floodlights, hunching his shoulders to adjust the guitar strap that held the Gibson Special acoustic high on his slender body.

He was in our midst before we knew it and already performing. He stood and strummed. The houselights dimmed but remained on. The applause that began from the spectators behind him was warm but brief because we did not wish to interrupt the singer or miss any of his words. He sounded the simple melody on the mouth harp. The song he chose to sing first was unfamiliar but it was an invitation promising familiarity, like so many old ballads where the bard invites folks to gather round so he can tell them a tale: Come all ye fair and tender maidens, or Come all ye bold highway men.

There were fifteen hundred seats in the sold-out Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University that night in December, and fewer than half of those were taken by college students. The steeply banked rows were filled with the faithful members of the Washington folk music community. The concert in fact had not been sponsored by the university but by the National Folk Festival, founded in the 1930s with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and the novelist Zora Neale Hurston. Men in goatees or full beards, wearing plaid lumberjack shirts, dungarees, and horn-rimmed glasses, sat shoulder to shoulder with long-haired women in peasant blouses with banthe-bomb buttons; scholarly types in tweed or corduroy jackets with leather elbow patches; a few middle-aged beatniks in black turtlenecks. There was more philosophy than conscious style, in boots and sandals, a rejection of button-down fashion and shoelaces that cut across generations during the Cold War.

My sister, Linda Ellen, age thirteen, was probably the youngest person in the building. My best friend, Jimmy Smith, and I had just turned fifteen and could not legally drive so my mother, thirty-seven, had driven us from the Hyattsville, Maryland, suburbs down Connecticut Avenue to the edge of campus, Twenty-first and H streets, N.W., to hear Bob Dylan in concert. She had purchased our seats in advance at the box office—she always got the best—and so now we sat in the center of the fifth row, close to the lip of the stage apron, a few feet above and not ten yards away from Bob Dylan. When he finally stopped blinking and opened his eyes to the audience we could see how blue they were.

We heard the guitar first, a powerful sound that was percussive, modal, and clarion. He was strumming a full G chord with a flat pick in moderate tempo, 3/4 time. What made it distinctive and commanding was the force of the first stroke of the measure, and that the guitarist had added a high D on the second string to make a perfect fourth with the G next to it. That was the trick, the special magic that transformed the chord from a simple major triad to a mystical, ancient strain, Celtic perhaps, medieval or Native American, a mood transcending time.

Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam

And admit that the waters around you have grown

And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone.

This was a call to the barricades if not to arms. It was a reveille, a wake-up to the living and dead and the half dead that the times are changing. The composer had been clever enough to write the tune in waltz time so that no one drunk or sober would ever march to it. (He’d write a drunken march someday—all in good time.) The song as performed and phrased had an incantatory voodoo power to alert, transfix, caution, and alarm us; stanza by stanza it singled us out: writers and critics, senators and congressmen (just around the corner here), mothers and fathers (my mother sat at attention), each being warned in turn that there would be hell to pay if they did not “heed the call.” The well-traveled road will not be viable, he was telling us, the old order is fading, the wheel of change is spinning, the battle is already raging, and if it hasn’t rattled your windows yet it will soon.

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command…

Invoking the Old Testament prophets as well as the Gospels (Mark 10:31, “Many that are first will be last”), a singer born in the year the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor was proclaiming to my mother and everyone her age and older that there was a generation gap—and the phrase had not yet been coined—and anyone who dared to stall or stand in the way of reform would be hurt. I am not sure what my mother thought of this opening salvo of the concert. After all, she had purchased the tickets, and driven us to the brick-and-limestone theater from West Hyattsville in her green Nash sedan. I suppose we were all more or less startled. But there was something about the young man’s simultaneous authority and humility that was disarming—the biblical, archaic tone, the passionate plea for everyone to join the movement, not to stand in the way but to heed the call, lend a hand.


Bob Dylan had been in the capital for the great civil rights March on Washington back in late August 1963. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial he and Joan Baez had performed his songs “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” The duet as well as the romance between the beautiful folksingers received considerable notice in the press that year, although he was not a celebrity. His songs were far more famous than he was.

In the autumn he had played three recitals: Carnegie Hall in New York, Jordan Hall in Boston, and the University Regent Theatre in Syracuse, New York. After John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, Dylan had appeared only twice in concert, in Princeton and Newark, New Jersey. Now this concert at the Lisner Auditorium would be his sole appearance before Christmas. The only publicity was a small poster showing the singer playing guitar and harmonica on the left side of a split format with his name and the concert specifics printed on the right, and tiny display ads in the amusement sections of the Washington Post and the Evening Star. The tickets, $4.00 for orchestra and $3.50 for the parterre, could be purchased at the Willard Hotel, Learmont Records in Georgetown, and at the YMCA in Alexandria, Virginia.

As of Friday night, seats had still been available. It was evidence of the rapid momentum of Dylan’s reputation that by the time we got to the auditorium the show was sold out and the management was unfolding chairs onstage to seat the late arrivals.

How did Jim, Linda, and I happen to be there, in these seats purchased weeks in advance, three minors in a crowd of adults mostly in their twenties and thirties? Jim and I were folksingers, card-carrying members of the Washington Folk Music Guild. We attended concerts, open-mike events, sing-outs, and hootenannies all over the city. We heard fiddling contests in gymnasiums and barns, fretless banjo masters in church basements, and barefoot blues pickers and jug bands in abandoned houses. We heard old Mississippi John Hurt at Ontario Place, Judy Collins and Donal Leace at the Cellar Door, and Carolyn Hester, Paul Clayton, and Josh White at the Showboat Lounge. We saw Harry Belafonte at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. Elizabeth Cotten, the former housekeeper of Pete and Mike Seeger’s parents, who wrote “Freight Train” and played the guitar upside down and left-handed, still lived in town. She was in her mid-sixties. We used to go and visit Miss Libba in her little row house at 625 Fifth Street, N.E. She played for us, sitting in the front parlor, and taught us songs like “Ain’t Got No Honey Baby Now”; she would teach us as much of her picking style as we could learn by screwing our heads around until our necks were stiff. Then she would serve sugar cookies.

Mike Seeger, in his twenties, grew up in the area, and we saw quite a lot of him, too. Mike played guitar, banjo, autoharp, jew’s harp, fiddle, and harmonica—often a couple of these instruments at once. He encouraged us to do the same. John Fahey, the legendary guitarist, had graduated from our high school a few years ahead of us. Recently we had gone to hear Joan Baez and Pete Seeger at the Uline Arena; it was there, in the 7,000-seat coliseum, that we first heard Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” performed after a glowing introduction by Pete himself, the polestar of folk music. He announced that a young poet had arrived on the scene with some important things to tell us.

We already knew that. The first time I heard Bob Dylan’s name was in 1961 at a hootenanny near the University of Maryland, College Park, outdoors at the Duck Pond on Adelphi Road. There was a very skillful, tall blond guitarist in a Hawaiian shirt and sandals who had attracted a group of admirers by playing a rendition of the Reverend Gary Davis’s “Cocaine Blues.” As part of his patter between verses he told us, “This is the way Bobbie Dylan does it,” and then played a figure with some hammered-on notes on the fret-board. But he pronounced the name Die-lyn, “this is the way Bobbie Die-lyn plays it.” The guitarist had just come down from New York, where he had heard Dylan playing in some Greenwich Village club; Dylan’s reputation was growing so rapidly his name—or at least the proper pronunciation—couldn’t keep up. The blond guitarist whose name I can’t remember spoke Dylan’s name with such forceful admiration I never forgot it. I made a mental note to look out for this Bobbi Dylan because he must be a man worth listening to.

That was the late summer of 1961, just before Dylan played Gerde’s Folk City in Manhattan as a warm-up act for the Greenbriar Boys, a bluegrass ensemble. Robert Shelton wrote it up in the New York Times on September 29, 1961, praising Dylan so extravagantly that the twenty-year-old folksinger would never again know what it was not to be known, to be recognized in certain circles, admired and envied.

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.

The Poet’s Stark Presentation of the Problem

We bought the record as soon as we could get it, and so did a lot of other people. My uncle, a World War II hero, a teacher who read Walt Whitman and Hart Crane and had an amazing collection of blues and folk albums—78-rpm records of Leadbelly and Sonny Terry, Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family, and the Golden Gate Quartet—was the first person in my family to own Dylan’s second album. This veteran, whose opinion I valued above all others, gravely pronounced that Bob Dylan was the real thing, a genuine poet, prophet, and folksinger.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, with its cover picture of the poet and his adoring girlfriend Suze Rotolo linked arm in arm on a snowy street, its enchanting melodies and lyric poetry, was far more approachable than the first album. When the popular folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary released “Blowin’ in the Wind” in July of that year as a single, and it shot toward the top of the Billboard charts, many people became curious about the folksinger who had written the enigmatic anthem. Nearly as many were even more curious about the “prophet” who had written the apocalyptic “Hard Rain” during the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Yet even after his triumphant performance at the Newport Folk Festival that summer, Dylan did not have so many fans in Washington that he could easily sell out a medium-size recital hall. My other friends, who would kill for seats to see the jazz musicians John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, or Thelonious Monk, were not particularly interested in going along with us. So my mother and sister and I, and my best friend, sat in the fifth row, surrounded by strangers, listening to Bob Dylan.


That night at Lisner Auditorium the applause erupted as soon as the last harmonica blast and triple-time guitar strokes signaled the end of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It was as much for the prophet’s message as for the song itself. No one in that place wanted to find himself on the wrong side of the argument for change.

He smiled warmly, looking up at us, squinting from the lights, turning his back to bow to the people clapping behind him. Pulling the harmonica rack over his head, he set it on the stool as the applause faded and the hall grew silent in anticipation. He began retuning the guitar, the low E string down to D. Dylan would have little to say to us between songs. Now he just said this is a true song and launched into the rapids of the “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” a song in D minor, in driving 2/4 time that sounded familiar though we had never heard it, a relentless horror story of a man in such desperate poverty he cannot bear the sight of his hungry children.

Your baby’s eyes look crazy

They’re a-tuggin’ at your sleeve (repeat)

You walk the floor and wonder why

With every breath you breathe

Hollis Brown looks for work and money, sees the rats eating his flour and his mare die of disease; he prays to God for a friend to save him. At last, when Brown’s wife’s screams are stabbing him, his well is dry, and his grass has turned black, he spends his last dollar. On shotgun shells. This was the Book of Job seen through the lens of Hitchcock and in the mood of Edgar Allan Poe, as Dylan built the suspense and volume to a climax. He had cast the tale in the second person, so that the “you” who was Hollis Brown eventually became every member of the audience.

There’s seven breezes a-blowin’

All around the cabin door… (repeat)

Seven shots ring out

Like the ocean’s pounding roar.

When the deed is done the song is all but over—no moral or commentary apart from the chilling observation that there are seven people dead on that farm and somewhere, faraway, another seven would be born. And then the double-time strumming that signaled the end of the song, an uneasy silence in the auditorium, and finally the rippling and swelling of applause.

I don’t believe that any of us was prepared for the questions raised by that bleak South Dakota landscape, the harsh “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” But now we stood warned and ought to be ready for anything. Another performer with Dylan’s range of themes might have gone for comic relief but he was not ready to let us off the hook. In March the Cuban boxer Sugar Ramos had knocked out the featherweight champion Davey Moore in the tenth round of the title fight in Dodger Stadium; Moore fell into a coma and died. Weeks later Dylan premiered a song in the form of “Who Killed Cock Robin” called “Who Killed Davey Moore?”

Now he retuned the guitar to the standard E tuning, fastened a capo on the third fret, and shouted out the question Who killed Davey Moore? at the high end of his vocal range. Everybody knew of the killing; the Vatican had called for an end of boxing; newspaper columnists debated the question. Dylan’s song was printed in the July 1963 issue of Broadside magazine. The poet poses the question, as a refrain, to the referee, the crowd, the manager, the gamblers who bet on the fight, the sportswriters, and finally Ramos himself, the fighter “whose fist / Laid him low in a cloud of mist.” Everybody has an alibi, and the singer articulates the half-dozen apologies, all sincere, all credible. The crowd? They just went to see a good fight: “We didn’t mean for him t’meet his death / We just meant to see some sweat…” The fighter’s manager? He claims he had no prior knowledge of the medical condition that doomed Moore. The gambler protests he bet on the boxer to win; the sportswriter says not to blame boxing—football is just as dangerous.

Fist fighting is here to stay
It’s just the old American way.

The most poignant response comes from the Cuban pugilist in the final stanza, who admits that it is true that he hit Moore, and that he was paid to do it.

Don’t say “murder,” don’t say “kill.”

It was destiny, it was God’s will.

And that’s the last word excepting the chorus, posing the question again, as coldly and heartlessly as any Elizabethan tragedian. No simple moral to be learned here, either.

The audience clapped louder than ever, although it is difficult to say why. The tune was not pretty. Some may have thought they were hailing a protest against the barbaric spectacle, the blood sport that claimed Moore’s life. And yet the song had broken down the social components of boxing, defending the human interests one by one. What we were applauding in fact was the vision of that tragedy from every human angle except for the feelings of the boxer’s wife and children. There was pathos, but no one in particular to blame. The social fabric is fatally flawed and all of us are complicit in the crimes of the social contract: war, boxing, starving children, legalized discrimination. We were applauding the poet’s stark presentation of the problem.

Fifteen minutes of the concert had passed and all three of the songs had been songs of protest, challenges in varying degrees of intensity. Now Dylan turned down the volume, softened his attack, smiling, picking out a delicate figure on the strings, double thumbing, anticipating the downbeat of the moderate 2/4 ballad. “This is called ‘Boots of Spanish Leather,’ ” he said, bashfully. Dylan blinked a good deal, as if his eyes were light-sensitive, or as if he struggled to control his emotions. “All it is, is ... is a ... kind of ... when you can’t get what you want you have to settle for less kind of song.”

This romantic ballad, already familiar to me in 1963, had caused me a memorable astonishment when I learned that Bob Dylan had written it in the middle of the twentieth century, in my lifetime.

Oh, I’m sailin’ away my own true love,

I’m sailin’ away in the morning.

Is there something I can send you from across the sea,

From the place that I’ll be landing.

The nine quatrains capture a dialogue between lovers, one departing. Although the melody never changes, stanza to stanza, the singer subtly distinguishes the voices. The woman is taking her leave, her voice ever-so-slightly stronger as she asks, again and again, if there is anything of silver or gold from the mountains or the coast of Spain that she might send her lover to assuage the pain of their long separation, to ease the passage of time. No, he answers, and again, no. He just wants her to return to him unspoiled. If he had the stars of the night, or the diamonds of the ocean (where diamonds are rare), he would forsake them, if he could, for one kiss from her. He wants nothing more.

Oh, how can, how can you ask me again,

It only brings me sorrow.

The same thing I want from you today,

I would want again tomorrow.

In the manner of all ancient ballads this one proceeds without a musical bridge, but that quatrain above marked a transition in narrative time.

The woman’s ship weighs anchor, and the last three stanzas are the words of the man left behind, yearning. He hears from her, on a lonesome day, that she does not know when she might return. He writes to her that, in that case, her heart is no longer with him but with the life ahead of her. With his heartfelt blessing and a warning to heed stormy weather, he lets her go. This gentle, mutual farewell could only come with time. Only now is he able to request the material gift that he had forsworn earlier. He mentions this in the final line almost as an afterthought, yet it is climactic because we have been wondering about it from the first, the song’s announced title. It is striking because he has withheld the words for the previous eight stanzas. In the woman’s physical presence, the notion of a material gift was repugnant. Now that they have let each other go he can accept her offer: he asks for the “Spanish boots of Spanish leather” that will carry him on his journey into the future.

This song brought down the house. It put everyone at ease. More than any other this lyric had revealed the singer’s vulnerability, and by now there was hardly a man, woman, or child in the space who was not captivated by Bob Dylan.


Dylan Used His Harmonica Like George Burns Used His Cigar

I have mentioned the fact that this song, perhaps above all others, surprised me because I could scarcely believe that the young man standing before me had written it. I cannot recall now when I first heard “Boots of Spanish Leather” (like “Sweet Betsy from Pike” or “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad”), although I feel certain it was not from his lips.

The piece had been published in the summer 1963 issue of Sing Out! but I did not immediately read it there. Since Dylan began performing the song early that year it had spread virally from hand to hand and ear to ear, like a nineteenth-century broadside ballad. There may have been twenty folksingers like Gil Turner and Carol Hedin moving from city to city performing “Boots of Spanish Leather” with or without identifying the source. There was not a line in the lyric that marked it as contemporary; there were many lines that sounded timeless, like stones worn smooth in a riverbed from centuries of water coursing over them. The lovers in the ballad, their plight and their yearning, were as authentic as any in fact or fiction—at least since lovers have had a choice in their destiny. In short, the song sounded like it had been around for generations because it had all the qualities of a song that would be around forever.

Taped to the waist of Dylan’s guitar was a scrap of paper with a set list. Looking down at the list, at one point, he remarked that he had written several hundred songs. He mentioned this not proudly but rather as if it were an embarrassment of riches; sometimes, he admitted, he couldn’t recall all the words. “Boots of Spanish Leather” provided a needed mood change from high drama to romance. Now Dylan fumbled comically with the harmonica rack. The lights on-stage never varied, yet the performer signaled a shift of mood as sharply as if the atmosphere had changed from blue to gold.

He launched into the bright 2/4 time of the talkin’ blues, blasting away on the mouth harp a full sixteen measures before speaking.

Well, I was feelin’ sad and kinda blue

I didn’t know what I was a gonna do

Them communists was comin’ around,

They was in the air, they was in the ground…

So far this evening the poet had played a half-dozen roles, including a fiery prophet, a fight referee, a sportswriter, a gambler, a boxer, and two yearning lovers—all with deep conviction. Now he would play the buffoon, a new member of the ultraconservative John Birch Society. They were a favorite target of left-leaning folkies since the late 1950s when the “Birchers” cheered the witch hunt of the McCarthy era. During the Cold War, Joe McCarthy’s Senate committee had warranted that many entertainers, including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, were blacklisted for their beliefs.

Though we had heard about this “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” we had never heard anyone play it, and the song showed us a side of the folksinger we had not known—Dylan the humorist. Inhabiting the paranoid psyche of the John Bircher, he wrinkled his brow in mock seriousness as his character joins the society, gets his special membership card. He rushes home to commence the hunt for reds in his TV set, gets a 110-volt shock for his trouble—blames the Hootenanny television program. He accuses the mailman, who punches him out, and then he wonders about poor Betsy Ross, who sewed red stripes in the American flag! At last he decides to stay at home and investigate himself.

Dylan’s comic timing was spot-on. He used the harmonica the way George Burns, the stand-up comedian, used his cigar, to mark a punch line at the end of a story, hiding his smile behind it, then pulling a straight face so that we could do the laughing. As the story ended the applause was raucous, shot through with cheers and whistling.

Dylan hastily fastened the capo to the third fret of the guitar and silenced the audience with his pensive strumming. He spread out a languorous, loose 3/4 rhythm and began singing after a few measures.

Lay down your weary tune, lay down,

Lay down the song you strum,

And rest yourself ’neath the strength of strings

No voice can hope to hum.

He sang this song mostly with his eyes closed or half closed as if he were in a trance. The melody was familiar, a variation of the lovely Scottish tune “The Water Is Wide.” Hymnlike, back and forth the song moved from stanza to chorus, like sea waves lapping the shore.

On the beach at dawn the singer feels the morning breeze, sees the wild ocean, and hears the waves crashing. All of these sights and sounds in nature he compares to instruments in an orchestra: a trumpet, a drum, an organ, cymbals. Perhaps this was the most curious song of all. Traveling on the chassis of an old melody, the words, theme, and structure were strange—unlike any folk song. This was not a love song (though there was a reference to leaves that clung to a loved one’s breast) or a protest song, although the chorus did seem to ask the singer to put aside a particular tune in favor of a more cosmic muse. There was no drama of gamblers, murderers, shipwrecks, or star-crossed lovers. There was nobody at home here but the singer, contemplating nature and his song. It was like a Wordsworth ode, or a Wallace Stevens poem set to a Scottish air.

The manner of Bob Dylan’s performance, his strumming, metrically ambiguous, searching; his trancelike state, and the rambling length of the composition suggested a raga-like improvisation.

I stood unwound beneath the skies

And clouds unbound by laws.

The cryin’ rain like a trumpet sang

And asked for no applause.

When at last he came to the end, he got a long and steady ovation for this rhapsody. No cheering or whistling, just admiring, sustained applause, as if he had made a bouquet of roses appear and vanish in the air, or lifted the lid off his guitar and produced a phoenix. We were convinced that Bob Dylan had invented this poem on the spot tonight for the crowd that had come to see him.


However spontaneous the individual performances appeared, the overall structure of the concert must have been carefully considered. “Blowin’ in the Wind” came next—the familiar song following the unfamiliar. By now this “anthem of the protest movement” could be heard on any jukebox, in covers by Peter, Paul and Mary, Chad Mitchell, or Bobby Darin. Even people with no interest in folk music knew the words—standard fare at hootenannies, peace vigils, campfire sings, and civil rights marches. Dylan sang slowly and emphatically, trumpeting the tune on the harmonica between stanzas.

After the final notes on the mouth harp and the firm triple-time strum that ended most of his flat-picked songs, came the ovation. Dylan quickly returned to the moderate 3/4 time of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and the same dreamy mood. Someone behind us stifled a cough. Again Dylan was singing about a singer, watching a beautiful woman move in and out of the shadows of the audience, a woman enraptured by his words.

My eyes danced a circle

Across her clear outline

With her head tilted sideways

She called me again

As the tune drifted out

She breathed hard through the echo

But the song it was long

And it was far to the end

The melody was like “Song to Woody” on his first album, simple and traditional, three chords. Now he used the tune to create a more complex rapport with the audience. Each of us was like that woman, wanting a personal connection with the singer beyond the barrier of the stage lights. Sensing that fervor the singer looks down, pretending that “of all the eyes out there” he can see none. Still this woman’s attention is magnetic, and he wants to move toward her. But—as the refrain reminds us at each stanza’s end—“the song was too long.” Upon this refrain he works gentle and humorous variations: first, he’d just begun; then there was more; it was far to the end; it must get done. At last when he finishes and puts down his guitar he goes looking for the mystery girl but she and her shade have vanished. So he jumps back onstage, picks up his guitar, and plays the next song.

The “Eternal Circle,” Dylan called it, the timeless story of the emotional loop between the singer and the audience, feeding on each other, one locked in the light, the other in the darkness of the theater, no one ever completely satisfied. The greater the performance, the more yearning there must be on both sides. Singing for an audience is a courtship, a seduction; now and then a musician will single out someone in the crowd, a pretty face, serenade her, and then run off with her after the encores. It has been known to happen. But the story Dylan told in “Eternal Circle” is a more accurate allegory of what transpires, song after song, night after night on the circuit. The audience is not an individual to be known, possessed, satisfied, but instead a creature with many faces that must always be left wanting more. The singer, onstage, is not really himself but a hero the audience has created in its excitement.

At some point during the first set Dylan turned his back on us so that he could face the forty or fifty people who were seated behind him. He made some funny remark about how much some folks had paid to see the back of him, then turned the microphone around and started strumming and blowing his harmonica. He sang an entire talkin’ blues to the cluster of people upstage, and we were as delighted as they were for the act of generosity. It was in keeping with the gentle and generous spirit that animated the performance all evening.

I believe the last song he sang before his break was a gloomy ballad about a boys’ reformatory, called “The Walls of Red Wing.” Sung in the words of an inmate, the song tells of the trials and abuses suffered by boys between the ages of twelve and seventeen, “Thrown in like bandits / And cast off like criminals” within cast-iron gates, where smiling guards wield clubs, waiting to catch a boy behind a wood piling and dust him up.

Was Bob Dylan a former inmate of the infamous Red Wing reformatory in Minnesota? He did not tell us, and so there was one more question that added to the singer’s mystique.

When he had sung the last verses, he bowed for the applause and ducked as he pulled the leather guitar strap over his head. Smiling sheepishly he nodded to us, holding the guitar by the neck, then turned and bowed to the people behind him. Suddenly he was gone, offstage through the curtains where he had come from more than an hour before; an apparition, leaving behind him the ghosts of a dozen vivid characters his songs had conjured before us.

Photo by Jennifer Bishop

Photo by © Jennifer Bishop

Daniel Mark Epstein has written more than fifteen books of poetry, biography, and history, including Lincoln and Whitman, which received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, named one of the top ten books of 2008 by the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Sun-Times. He lives in Baltimore.

© Daniel Mark Epstein

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