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Bob Dylan: In His Own Words (Vol 1)
Bob Dylan's own unfiltered words, talking about how he started out and how became who he is, taken from 60 years of interviews.
Part of a continuing series
I had no idea of what a city was like. And I think it probably made me who I am today. The country where I came from—it’s pretty bleak. And it’s cold. And there’s a lot of water. So you could dream a lot. The difference between me now and then is that back then, I could see visions. The me now can dream dreams.
I was born in Duluth, Minnesota. For the most part my base has been in upper Minnesota. Almost to the border. Hibbing, Minnesota – that’s a mining town – lumber town. I was there off and on ever since I was about seven to seventeen. You can stand at one end of Hibbing on the main drag and see clear past the city limits on the other end. Hibbing, was just not the right place for me to stay and live. There really was nothing there. The only thing you could do there was to be a miner, and even that kind of thing was getting less and less. The people that lived there – they’re nice people. I’ve been all over the world since I left there, and they still stand out as being the least hung-up. The mines were just dying, that’s all; but that’s not their fault.
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You’re pretty much ruled by nature up there. Especially when it freezes over. Indians come out. Fur trappers. You have to sort of fall into line with that, regardless of how you’re feeling that day or what you might want to do with your life, or what you think about. And it still is like that, I think. In the winter, everything was still, nothing moved. Eight months of that. You can put it together. You can have some amazing hallucinogenic experiences doing nothing but looking out your window. There is also the summer, when it gets hot and sticky and the air is very metallic. There is a lot of Indian spirit. The earth there is unusual, filled with ore. So there is something happening that is hard to define. There is a magnetic attraction there. Maybe thousands and thousands of years ago, some planet bumped into the land there. There is a great spiritual quality throughout the Midwest. Very subtle, very strong, and that is where I grew up.
Everybody about my age left there. It was no great romantic thing. It didn’t take any great amount of thinking or individual genius, and there certainly wasn’t any pride in it. I didn’t run away from it; I just turned my back on it. It couldn’t give me anything. It was very void-like. So leaving wasn’t hard at all. It would have been much harder to stay. I didn’t want to die there. As I think about it now, though, it wouldn’t be such a bad place to go back to and die in. There’s no place I feel closer to now, or get the feeling that I’m part of, except maybe New York City. But I’m not a New Yorker. I’m North Dakota-Minnesota-Midwestern. I’m that color. I speak that way. I’m from someplace called the Iron Range. My brains and feelings have come from there. I wouldn’t amputate on a drowning man. Nobody from out there would.
My family settled in Hibbing I think in about ‘46 or ‘47. We had a big family, like a big extended family. My grandmother had about 17 kids on the one side, and on the other side about 13 kids. So there was always a lot of family-type people around. There weren’t too many Jews in Hibbing, and we never thought much about it one way or the other. Most of them I was related to. When I was young, my life was built around the family. We got together all the time. Our family was close, but not narrow: One uncle married a Catholic, another married an Egyptian. No one else in the family made music, but they didn’t make it hard for me. I played music for as long as I can remember, first the piano, then harmonica and guitar.
The town didn’t have a rabbi, and so when it was time for me to be bar mitzvahed, suddenly a rabbi showed up under strange circumstances for only a year. He and his wife got off the bus in the middle of winter. He showed up just in time for me to learn this stuff. He was an old man from Brooklyn who had a white beard and wore a black hat and black clothes. They put him upstairs of the café, which was the local hangout. It was a rock n’ roll café where I used to hang out, too. I used to go up there every day to learn this stuff, either after school or after dinner. After studying with him for an hour or so, I’d come down and boogie. The rabbi taught me what I had to learn, and after he conducted this bar mitzvah, he just disappeared. The people didn’t want him. He didn’t look like anybody’s idea of a rabbi. He was an embarrassment. All the Jews up there shaved their heads and, I think, worked on Saturday. And I never saw him again. It’s like he came and went like a ghost. Later I found out he was Orthodox. Jews separate themselves like that. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, as if God calls them that. Christians, too. Baptists, Assembly of God, Methodists, Calvinists. God has no respect for a person’s title. He doesn't care what you call yourself.
My father had polio when I was very young. There was a big epidemic. He lost his job in Duluth and we moved to the Iron Range and moved in with my grandmother Florence and my grandfather who was still alive at the time. We slept in the living room of my grandma’s house for about a year or two, I slept on a roll-a-way bed, that’s all I remember.
Two of my uncles, my father’s brothers, had gone to electrical school and by this time had gotten electrician licenses. They had moved from Duluth to up here where they operated out of a store called Micka Electric, wiring homes and things.
My father never walked right again and suffered much pain his whole life. I never understood this until much later but it must have been hard for him because before that he’d been a very active and physical type of guy. The brothers took him in as a partner, my uncle Paul and my uncle Maurice, and this is where he worked for the rest of his life. Later, they bought the store and started selling lamps, clocks, radios, anything electrical and then much later TVs and furniture. They still did wiring though and that was their main thing. I worked on the truck sometimes but it was never meant for me. This was not a rich or poor town, everybody had pretty much the same thing and the very wealthy people didn’t live there, they were the ones that owned the mines and they lived thousands of miles away.
I don’t remember much about Duluth really, except the foghorns. I saw Buddy Holly there, actually, two or three nights before he died. I saw him in Duluth, at the armory. He played there with Link Wray. I don’t remember the Big Bopper. Maybe he’d gone off by the time I came in. But I saw Ritchie Valens. And Buddy Holly, yeah. He was great. He was incredible. I mean, I’ll never forget the image of seeing Buddy Holly up on the bandstand. And he died – it must have been a week after that. It was unbelievable.
I saw a few bands in Duluth, but there weren’t that many clubs happening. People who played back then usually just did it in their house. Back then it was mainly polka bands. If you went to a club it was more like a tavern scene, with a polka band. People’d come flyin’ out into the street doin’ the polka. Accordions would come flyin’ out. They were singin’ in somethin’. Swedish maybe. Some language. But you know how you don’t need to know the language when it’s music. You understand the music no matter what language it’s in. Knife sharpeners would come down the street, and the coal man too, and every once in a while a wagon would come through town with a gorilla in a cage or, I remember, a mummy under glass. People sold food off of carts, and it was a very itinerant place – no interstate highways yet, just country roads everywhere. There was an innocence about it all, and I don’t recall anything bad ever happening. That was the Fifties, the last period of time I remember as being idyllic There was country music, too, that I remember. My girlfriend, Echo, was her name – Echo Helstrom – her father played guitar.
Late at night, I used to listen to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf blastin’ in from Shreveport. It was a radio show that lasted all night. I used to stay up till two, maybe three o’clock in the morning. Listened to all those songs, then tried to figure them out. I started playing myself. The songs I wrote at that age were just four chords rhythm and blues songs. Based on things that the Diamonds would sing, or the Crewcuts, or groups like this, the uh, the, you know, In The Still Of The Night kinda songs, you know. But I don’t know, you know, whatever hit me.
Henrietta was the first rock n’ roll record I heard. Before that I’d listen to Hank Williams a lot. Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell kind of things. Hank Williams had just about, had just died and I started playing sometime around there. I tried to sing everything he would sing. Hank Williams was the first influence I would think. Before that, Johnny Ray. He was the first singer whose voice and style I totally fell in love with. There was just something about the way he sang When Your Sweetheart Sends A Letter... that just knocked me out. I loved his style, and wanted to dress like him too, that was real early though. I ran into him in the elevator in Sydney, Australia late in ‘78 and told him how he impressed me when I was growing up. I still have a few of his records.
I listened to a lot of pop stuff, but it never really influenced what I was doing to any great degree. It had earlier or the earlier stuff did, like the really earlier stuff, the old Hillbilly stuff or when rock n’ roll came in after Elvis, you know, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, those people.. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, that stuff influenced me and all those people faded away. Yet, nostalgia to me isn’t really rock n’ roll. Because when I was a youngster the music they were playing... the music I heard was Frankie Lane, Rosemary Clooney, Denis Day? Your Hit Parade. Or Dorothy Collins and the Mills Brothers, all that stuff. You know, when I hear stuff like that it always strikes a different chord than all the rock n’ roll stuff does. The rock n’ roll stuff I had a conscious mind at that time, but ten years before that it was like Mule Train, you know, and... Johnny Ray knocked me out, Johnny Ray was the first person to actually really knock me out.
Nobody really teaches themselves guitar and harmonica, when you don’t know anything first. You get a book or something and you learn. I always wanted to be a guitar player and a singer. Since I was ten, eleven or twelve, it was all that interested me. That was the only thing that I did that meant anything really. I saved the money I had made working on my daddy’s truck and bought a Silvertone guitar from Sears Roebuck. In those days, they cost thirty or forty dollars, and you only had to pay five dollars down to get it. So I had my first electric guitar. What I remember is I learnt a couple of chords out of some books and then just going out to watch people to see how they’re doing it, how they’re playing those chords and wherever people are playing you don’t really go so much to hear them, you just go to see how they’re doing what they do, try to get up as close as you can and just see what their fingers are doing.
Basically, I’m self taught. What I mean by that actually is that I picked it all up from other people by watching them, by imitating them. I seldom ever asked them to take me aside and show me how to do it. I started out as a travelling guitar player and singer, it had nothing to do with writing songs, fortune and fame, that sort of thing. You know what I mean. I could always play a song on a concert-hall stage or from the back of a truck, a nightclub or on the street, whatever, and that was the important thing, singing the song, contributing something and paying my way.
The most inspiring type of entertainer for me has always been somebody like Jimmie Rodgers, somebody who could do it alone and was totally original. He was combining elements of blues and hillbilly sounds before anyone else had thought of it. He recorded at the same time as Blind Willie McTell but he wasn’t just another white boy singing black. That was his great genius and he was there first. All he had to do was appear with his guitar and a straw hat and he played on the same stage with big bands, girly choruses and follies burlesque and he sang in a plaintive voice and style and he outlasted them all. You don’t remember who else was on the bill. I never saw him. I only heard his records.
In that early stage it’s more a learning thing, and that sometimes can take many years. I picked it up quickly, but I didn’t really play with that much technique. And people didn’t really take to me because of that, because I didn’t really go out of my way to learn as much technique as some other people. I mean I know people that made a complete profession and livelihood out of playing John Lee Hooker chords, just hammering on, you know, on the E string, and that was all, and they could play it in such a beautiful way it looked like a ballet dancer. You know, and everybody had a different style, you know, they had styles and they had techniques, especially in folk music. There was your Southern Mountain banjo, then flat picking, there’s your finger-picking techniques, and just all of these different runs, different styles of ballads.
I had a couple of bands in high school, maybe three or four of’em. Lead singers would always come in and take my bands, because they would have connections, like maybe their fathers would know somebody, so they could get a job in the neighbouring town at the pavilion for a Sunday picnic or something. And I’d lose my band. I’d see it all the time. And then I had another band with my cousin from Duluth. I played, you know, rock & roll, rhythm & blues. And then that died out pretty much, in my last year of high school.
And after that, I remember I heard a record – I think maybe it was the Kingston Trio or Odetta or someone like that – and I sorta got into folk music. The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. That was in ‘58 or something like that. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson. I learned all the songs on that record. It was her first and the songs were—Mule Skinner, Jack of Diamonds, Water Boy, Buked and Scorned. Rock & roll was pretty much finished. And I traded my stuff for a Martin that they don’t sell anymore, an 0018, maybe, and it was brown. The first acoustic guitar I had. A great guitar. And then, either in Minneapolis or St Paul, I heard Woody Guthrie. And when I heard Woody Guthrie, that was it, it was all over.
As soon as I got out of high school, I went to Minneapolis. I knew I had to live as an artist, but I didn’t know where to go to do it, so I headed for there. When I started out there wasn’t any money in folk music, and I didn’t expect there would ever be. Being an artist was the thing.
And after that, I remember I heard a record – I think maybe it was the Kingston Trio or Odetta or someone like that – and I sorta got into folk music. The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. That was in ‘58 or something like that. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustic guitar, a flat-top Gibson. I learned all the songs on that record. It was her first and the songs were—Mule Skinner, Jack of Diamonds, Water Boy, Buked and Scorned. Rock & roll was pretty much finished. And I traded my stuff for a Martin that they don’t sell anymore, an 0018, maybe, and it was brown. The first acoustic guitar I had. A great guitar. And then, either in Minneapolis or St Paul, I heard Woody Guthrie. And when I heard Woody Guthrie, that was it, it was all over.
Minneapolis was the first big city I lived in if you want to call it that. I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the beat scene, the Bohemian, BeBop crowd, it was all pretty much connected... St. Louis, Kansas City, you usually went from town to town and found the same setup in all these places, people comin’ and goin’, nobody with any place special to live. You always ran into people you knew from the last place.
Grass was everywhere in the clubs. It was always there in the jazz clubs and in the folk- music clubs. There was just grass and it was available to musicians in those days. And in coffeehouses way back in Minneapolis. That’s where I first came into contact with it, I’m sure. I forget when or where, really. Being a musician means—depending on how far you go—getting to the depths of where you are at. And most any musician would try anything to get to those depths, because playing music is an immediate thing—as opposed to putting paint on a canvas, which is a calculated thing. Your spirit flies when you are playing music. So, with music, you tend to look deeper and deeper inside yourself to find the music. That’s why, I guess, grass was around those clubs. I know the whole scene has changed now; I mean, pot is almost a legal thing. But in the old days, it was just for a few people.
Psychedelics never influenced me. I don’t know, I think Timothy Leary had a lot to do with driving the last nails into the coffin of that New York scene we were talking about. When psychedelics happened, everything became irrelevant. Because that had nothing to do with making music or writing poems or trying to really find yourself in that day and age.
By that time, I was singing stuff like Ruby Lee by the Sunny Mountain Boys, and Jack O’Diamonds by Odetta and somehow because of my earlier rock n’ roll background I was unconsciously crossing the two styles. This made me different from your regular folk singers, who were either folk song purists or concert-hall singers, who just happened to be singing folk songs. I’d played by myself with just a guitar and harmonica or as part of a duo with Spider John Koerner, who played mostly ballads and Josh White type blues. He knew more songs than I did. Whoa Boys Can’t Ya Line ‘M, John Hardy, Golden Vanity, I learned all those from him. We sounded great, not unlike the Delmore Brothers. I could always hear my voice sounding better as a harmony singer. In New York, I worked off and on with Mark Spoelstra and later with Jim Kweskin. Jim and I sounded pretty similar to Cisco and Woody.
The first Woody Guthrie song I heard was probably called Pastures Of Plenty. Pastures Of Plenty and Pretty Boy Floyd and another song. He used to write a lot of his songs from existing melodies. They just really impressed me because they were original. They just had a mark of originality on them, well the lyrics did. I just learned all those songs. I heard them and I learned them all, all the songs of Woody Guthrie that I could find. Anybody that had a Woody Guthrie record or that knew a Woody Guthrie song. So I went through all his records I could find and picked all that up by any means I could. And in St. Paul at the time, where I was, there were some people around who not only had his records but that knew his songs. So I just learned them all. Some of the best records that I heard him make were these records that he made on the Stinsom label, with Cisco Houston and Sonny Terry. I don’t know if Leadbelly was on there or not. I learned Leadbelly too. I learned a bunch of his stuff and learned how to play like that.
Anyways I just got up one morning and left. I’d spent so much time thinking about it I couldn’t think anymore. Snow or no snow, it was time for me to go. I made a lot of friends and I guess some enemies too, but I had to overlook it all. I’d learned as much as I could and used up all of my options. It all got real old real fast. When I arrived in Minneapolis it had seemed like a big city or a big town. When I left it was like some rural outpost that you see once from a passing train. And I had done about as much as I could there in Minneapolis.
I stood on the highway during a blizzard believing in the mercy of the world and headed East. I didn't have nothing but my guitar and suitcase. That was my whole world. I went to Chicago first and stayed there. Then I went up to Wisconsin, which was more or less the same general scene as it was at the school in Minnesota.
The first ride I got, you know, was from some old guy in a jalopy, sort of a Bela Lugosi type, who carried me into Wisconsin. Of all the rides I’ve ever gotten it’s the only one that stands out in my mind. People hitch-hiked a lot back then, they rode the bus or they stuck out their thumb and hitchhiked. It was real natural. I wouldn’t do that today. People aren’t as friendly and there’s too many drugs on the road. And from there I went to New York. That was quite a trip... another guitar player and myself got a ride with a young couple from the campus whose parents were from Brooklyn. They were goin’ there and wanted some more drivers, so we just drove. They needed two people to help drive to New York and that’s how I left. Me and a guy named Fred Underhill went with them. Fred was from Williamstown or somewhere and he knew New York.
Where I came from there was always plenty of snow so I was used to that, but going to New York was like going to the moon. You just didn’t get on a plane and go there, you know. 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 to, and anybody who did go never came back. And when I arrived in New York, I was mostly singing Woody’s songs and folk songs. At that time, I was runnin’ into people who were playing the same kind of thing, but I was kinda combining elements of Southern mountain music with bluegrass stuff, English-ballad stuff. I could hear a song once and know it. So when I came to New York, I could do a bit of different stuff. But I never thought I’d see rock & roll again when I arrived here.
I never lived in a city that was more than 15,000 people, I was very stupid at the time. I was with a friend of mine, and I played Cafe Wha, and they flipped. They were having a hootenanny and that kind of stuff and I asked if they would give me some money to play, and he looked at me and he said he would. “I’ll give you a dollar.” So he gave me a dollar to play in the hootenanny. No, in fact, it came to a dollar–fifty. And I played there and they flipped. They really did.
I figured if they liked me so much that maybe someone would have a place to stay that night ‘cause I didn’t have a place to stay that night. So I asked from the stage and about four hands went up. So my buddy and I, we sort of went and checked ‘em all and picked out a fellow. He was with a girl. And my buddy says to me, “You don’t look so hot”, that’s what he said. He said, “He looks pretty gay”. And I said, uh, I didn’t really know anything about that kind of stuff. Well I knew, anyway, he was with a girl. And so we went up with him and the girl got off at 34th Street and we got off at 42nd street. Well, we went in a bar first before we went to find a place to stay and we met his friend Dora. Dora was his friend who stayed with him. And we all went to a party. And that was my first night in New York.
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 nothing to get/Instead of being drawn for money you were drawn for other people…It is ‘f these times that I remember most sadly/For they’re gone/And they’ll not never come back again.
Peter, Paul and Mary‘s 1963 LP In The Wind
When I came to New York, all I played was Woody Guthrie songs. I’d play in Cafe Wha, and it always used to open at noon. It opened at noon and closed at six in the morning and it was just a non- stop flow of people. Usually they were tourists, you know, who were looking for beatniks in the Village. There used to be maybe five groups that played there. I used to play with a guy called Fred Neil, who wrote the song Everybody’s Talking the song that was in the film Midnight Cowboy. Fred... I don’t know where he was from... I think he was from Florida.
He had a songwriter to deal with in Nashville so he used to make that scene, from Coconut Grove to Nashville to New York. And he had a strong, powerful voice, almost a bass voice. And a powerful sense of rhythm. And he used to play most of the songs that somebody like Josh White would play and I would just play harmonica with him once in a while, and get to sing a song. You know, when he was taking a break or something and so I’d get to sing a song once and play harmonica the rest of the time. That was his show. He would be on for maybe half an hour and then a conga group would get on, called Los Congeros, with twenty conga drummer players and bongos and steel drums. And they would play for maybe a half hour. And this girl, I think her name was Judy Rainey, she used to play sweet Southern Mountain Appalachian ballads, with electric guitar and a small amplifier. And then another guy used to sing on there named Hal Waters who used to sort of be a crooner. He used to sing sorta like Leon Bibbs, remember him? He used to sing and then there’d be a comedian and he’d go up for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, then an impersonator.
And that’d be the whole show, that’d be like all the... this unit would just go around non-stop so you’d know when you went on after whoever it was. And then you could eat there, you got fed there, which was actually the best thing about the place.
I was lucky to meet Lonnie Johnson at the same club I was working at and I must say he greatly influenced me. You can hear it in that first record, I mean Corrina, Corrina... that’s pretty much Lonnie Johnson. I used to watch him every chance I got and sometimes he’d let me play with him. I think he and Tampa Red and of course Scrapper Blackwell, that’s my favorite style of guitar playing... the harmonica part, well I’d always liked Wayne Raney and Jimmy Reed, Sonny Terry... ‘Lil Junior Parker, ‘told you baby, bam bam bam bam, once upon a time, bam bam bam bam, if I’d be yours, bam bam bam bam (foottap) li’l girl you’d be mine... but that’s all right... I know you love some other man’... but I couldn’t get it in the rack like that or adjust the equipment to an amplified slow pace so I took to blowing out... actually Woody had done it... I had to do it that way to be heard on the street, you, now, above the noise... like an accordion... Victoria Spivey, too, oh man, I loved her... I learned so much from her I could never put into words, I could sing How High The Moon or If I Gave My Heart To You and it would come out like Mule-Skinner Blues.
But one of the biggest thrills I ever had actually was when I reached New York... whenever it was... I got to play with Cisco Houston. No... I didn’t really... I don’t know if I actually... yeah I did get to play with him at a party or something. But, I used to watch him; he used to play at Folk City, you know, the night club at Folk City. He was an amazing looking guy; he looked like Clark Gable. He was like a movie star. I think maybe the greatest of all those I ever saw was Cisco. He was in his last days but you couldn’t tell – he looked like Clark Gable and he was absolutely magnificent... I always like to think that there’s a real person talking to me, just one voice you know, that’s all I can handle – Cliff Carlysle... Robert Johnson, for me this is a deep reality, someone who’s telling me where he’s been that I haven’t and what it’s like there – somebody whose life I can feel... Jimmie Rodgers or even Judy Garland, she was a great singer... or Al Jolson... God knows there are so few of them, but who knows? Maybe there are just enough. I always thought that one man, the lone balladeer with the guitar, could blow an entire army off the stage if he knew what he was doing... I’ve seen it happen.
America was still very ‘straight’, ‘post-war’ and sort of into a gray-flannel suit thing, McCarthy, commies, puritanical, very claustrophobic and whatever was happening of any real value was happening away from that and sort of hidden from view and it would be years before the media would be able to recognise it, and choke-hold it and reduce it to silliness.
I had already decided that society, as it was, was pretty phoney and I didn’t want to be part of that. Also, there was a lot of unrest in the country. You could feel it, a lot of frustration, sort of like a calm before a hurricane, things were shaking up. Where I was at, people just passed through, really, carrying horns, guitars, suitcases, whatever, just like the stories you hear, free love, wine, poetry, nobody had any money anyway. There were a lot of poets and painters, drifters, scholarly types, experts at one thing or another who had dropped out of the regular nine-to-five life, there were a lot of house parties most of the time. They were usually in lofts or warehouses or something or sometimes in the park, in the alley wherever there was space. It was always crowded, no place to stand or breathe. There were always a lot of poems recited – ‘Into the room people come and go talking of Michelangelo, measuring their lives in coffee spoons’... ‘What I’d like to know is what do you think of your blue-eyed boy now, Mr. Death. T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings. It was sort of like that and it kind of woke me up.
Suzie Rotolo, a girlfriend of mine in New York, later turned me on to all the French poets but for then it was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti – Gasoline, Coney Island of the Mind... oh man, it was wild – I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness that said more to me than any of the stuff I’d been raised on. On The Road, Dean Moriarty, this made perfect sense to me... anyway the whole scene was an unforgettable one, guys and girls some of whom reminded me of saints, some people had odd jobs – busboy, bartender, exterminator, stuff like that but I don’t think working was on most people’s minds – just to make enough to eat, you know. Most of everybody, anyway, you had the feeling that they’d just been kicked out of something. It was outside, there was no formula, never was ‘mainstream’ or ‘the thing to do’ in any sense.
Anyway, I got in at the tail-end of that and it was magic. Everyday was like Sunday, it’s like it was waiting for me, it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley, Pound, Camus, T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, mostly expatriate Americans who were off in Paris and Tangiers. Burroughs, Nova Express, John Rechy, Gary Snyder, Ferlinghetti, Pictures From The Gone World, the newer poets and folk music, jazz, Monk, Coltrane, Sonny and Brownie, Big Bill Broonzy, Charlie Christian... it all left the rest of everything in the dust... I knew I had to get to New York though, I’d been dreaming about that for a long time.
Folk music was a world, but it was very split up. There was just a clique. Folk music was a strict and rigid establishment. If you sang Southern Mountain Blues, you didn’t sing Southern Mountain Ballads and you didn’t sing City Blues. If you sang Texas Cowboy songs, you didn’t play English ballads. It was really pathetic. You just didn’t. If you sang folk songs from the thirties, you didn’t do bluegrass tunes or Appalachian Ballads. It was very strict. Everybody had their particular thing that they did. I didn't pay much attention to that. If I liked a song, I would just learn it and sing it the only way I could play it. Part of it was a technical problem which I never had the time nor the inclination for, if you want to call it a problem. But it didn’t go down well with the right-thinking people. You know, I’d hear things like ‘I was in the Lincoln Brigade’ and ‘the kid is really bastardising that song’. The other singers never seemed to mind, though. In fact, quite a few of them began to copy my attitude in guitar phrasing and such.
Folk music creates its own audience. Because you can take a guitar anywhere, anytime. Most of the places we played in the early days were all parties – house parties, rent parties. Any kind of reason to go play someplace and we’d be there. What folk music is, it’s not depression songs and these kind of things... its foundations aren’t folk, its foundations aren’t ‘slave away’ and all this. Its foundations based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are just nothing but mystery and you can see it in all the songs, roses growing right up out of people’s hearts and naked cats in bed with spears growing right out of their backs and seven years of this and eight years of that and it’s all really something that nobody can really touch. There was a purist side to it. Many people didn’t want to hear it if you couldn’t play a song exactly the way that Aunt Molly Jackson played it, they didn’t wanna hear it. But I just kinda blazed my way through all that stuff. I just stayed up day and night just barnstorming my way through all that stuff. And then I heard Woody Guthrie, before I got to New York and then it all came together for me.
I started singing, writing my own songs some place or somewhere. When I started writing those kinds of songs, there wasn’t anybody doing things like that. Woody Guthrie had done similar things but he hadn’t really done that type of song. Besides, I had learned from Woody Guthrie and knew and could sing anything he had done. But now the times had changed and things would be different. He contributed a lot to my style lyrically and dynamically but my musical background had been different, with rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues playing a big part earlier on. Actually attitude had more to do with it than technical ability and that’s what the folk movement lacked. In other words, I played all the folk songs with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude. This is what made me different and allowed me to cut through all the mess and be heard. People with no definition of feeling and that sort of thing, and there were too many of them. I started writing because things were changing all the time and a certain song needed to be written. I started writing them because I wanted to sing them. If they had been written, I wouldn’t have started to write them. Anyway, one thing led to another and I just kept on writing my own songs, but I stumbled into it, really, It was nothing I had prepared myself for, but I did sing a lot of songs before I wrote any of my own. I think that’s important too.
Nobody played their own songs; the only person that I ever heard do that was Woody Guthrie. And then one day I just wrote a song, and it was the first song I ever wrote that I performed in public was the song that I wrote to Woody Guthrie. And I just felt like playing it one night. And I played it. “Song to Woody,” on my first record: I knew that no one had ever written anything like that before. I used to go across by bus to see him and I found it a sad thing, because he wasn’t mentally ill in any way he was the sanest person there, the only thing being that he had no control over his muscles. But I guess they couldn’t think of anywhere else to put him, and it was a very frightening place. He did appreciate me playing his songs for him though. I know he did, ‘cause he kept asking me to do more. It was difficult to communicate with him in any way, but I wasn’t really looking for that. I had nothing to tell him. I just wanted him to know that I was playing his stuff, and to get some kind of affirmation that I was doing it correctly. And he gave me that affirmation. It was all very overwhelming.
He had no idea who I was when I first turned up. But very few people were going to see him then. Hardly anyone even knew who he was, certainly not in the sanatorium. I never saw any other visitors there. I don’t think he was necessarily lonely, but he seemed to like my company. I must have gone to see him about a dozen times. I’d bring him cigarettes, play songs and we’d just talk about this and that. It was a terrible place; like an asylum really. I always found it very draining psychologically going there.
I remember when protest song writing was big, Phil Ochs came to town, Tim Hardin was around, Patrick Sky, Buffy St. Marie, but there never was any such thing. It was like the term ‘Beatnik’ or ‘Hippie’. These were terms made up by magazine people who are invisible who like to put a label on something to cheapen it. Then it can be controlled better by other people who are also invisible. Nobody ever said, ‘Well, here’s another protest song I’m going to sing.’... Anyway, the guy who was best at that was Peter LaFarge. He was a champion rodeo cowboy and some time back he’d also been a boxer. He had a lot of his bones broken. I think he’d also been shot up in Korea. Anyway, he wrote Ira Hayes, Iron Mountain, Johnny Half-Breed, White Girl and about a hundred other things. There was one about Custer, ‘the general he don’t ride well anymore’. We were pretty tight for a while. We had the same girlfriend. Actually, Peter is one of the great unsung heroes of the day. His style was just a little bit too erratic. But it wasn’t his fault, he was always hurting and having to overcome it. Johnny Cash recorded a bunch of his songs. When I think of a guitar poet or protest singer, I always think of Peter, but he was a love song writer too.
I signed a record contract with John Hammond, Sr., of Columbia Records in 1961. It was a big moment. I had been rejected by a lot of folk companies – Folkways, Tradition, Prestige, Vanguard. It was meant to be, actually. If those other companies had signed me, I would have recorded folk songs, and I don’t think they would have stayed with me. Most of those companies went out of business, anyway. Goddard Lieberson and John Hammond were big supporters of mine. Without those people like that I don’t think nothing would have happened for me. If I was to come along now, in this day, with all these people that are running the record companies now, they would see somebody like me and bar the door I think. But you had people back then that were more entrenched in individuality, or something. You know, they made decisions and it stuck. Now, I mean, it is like everybody chats with somebody else. It’s like well, I’ll tell you tomorrow. Call me back later. Yeah, we almost got a deal, stuff like that., you know like I said, they seemed to run things. You know, other people may have been talking under their breath or something, you know, behind their back, and things like that. But at this time their big acts were Mitch Miller, you know, and, er, Mitch miller was the biggest. Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis was big... I didn’t really begin to sell records anyway until the second record – I think the second record made the charts – went up the charts, the second record I did. They made some good records then, that were, you know, were good pop records. Not on Columbia though. Phil Spector was doing a lot of stuff at that time, and Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller I think were doing it; these are big.
I wasn’t tryin’ to get onto the radio. I wasn’t singin’ for Tin Pan Alley. I’d given up on all that stuff. I was downtown, you know? I wanted to make records, but I thought the furthest I could go was to make a folk-music record. It surprised the hell out of me when I was signed at Columbia Records. I was more surprise than anybody. But I never let that stop me. It wasn’t a thing that I’d wanted to do ever. I wanted just a song to sing, and there came a certain point where I couldn’t sing anything. I had to write what I wanted to sing ‘cause what I wanted to sing nobody else was writing. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I mean, what I felt like, what I felt was going on, nobody was writing, you know, I couldn’t find that song someplace. If I could I probably would have never started writing.
It was something I used to do, sit up and write, all night and write a song, or, in those days I used to write songs a lot of the times in cafes. Or at somebody’s house with the typewriter. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, I wrote in the basement of the Village Gate. All of it, the basement of the Village Gate at Chip Moncks’. He used to have a place down there in the boiler room, an apartment that he slept in...next to the Greenwich Hotel. But his place was literally in the basement of the Village Gate. He used to do the lights there, I think. And I wrote A Hard Rain ‘s A- Gonna Fall down there. I’d write ‘em at peoples houses, you know, or at peoples apartments, wherever I was, you know.
I didn’t know it at the time but all the radio songs were written in Tin-Pan-Alley, the Brill Building. They had stables of songwriters up there that provided songs for artists. I heard of it but not paid much attention. They were good song writers but the world they knew and the world I knew were totally different. Most of all the songs, though, being recorded came from there, I guess because most singers didn’t write there own. They didn’t even think about it Anyway, Tin-Pan-Alley is gone. I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now. They’re almost expected to do it. The funny thing about it though is that I didn’t start out as a songwriter, I just drifted into it. Those other people had it down to a science.
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