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How Bob Dylan Turned Into Bob Dylan

October 2019

Forty-five years ago today, a scrappy-looking character with wild, kinky hair, tattered work clothes, and a round baby face that looked even younger than his 19 years, took the stage at Gerde’s Folk City, a popular bar at 11 West 4th Street, just two blocks from Washington Square, in the heart of Greenwich Village. It was a seminal moment in music history.

Only months before, Gerde’s had been a small Italian restaurant. The neighborhood, once a mainstay of New York’s Italian community, was changing fast as young students, artists, and musicians steadily replaced—some would say displaced—the aging immigrants whose small, tidy apartments and nearly identical eateries lined the narrow streets of the Village.

Gerde’s owner, Mike Porco, had been struggling to make the place pay, but luckily for him, and for posterity, he was a quick study. He had no great liking for folk music, but he noticed that a lot of the young people gravitating to the Village loved it. In an era of seeming suburban bliss and consumer conformity, they were hungering for an ever-elusive sense of authenticity, and in some vague way they imagined that souped-up, harmonized versions of traditional music—slave spirituals, work songs, English ballads, Irish melodies—might be the answer.

So Porco struck a deal with Izzy Young, the proprietor of the Folklore Center, a local clearing house for sheet music, records, and subculture gossip. Young would supply the talent, and Porco would supply the venue. With its red-checkered tablecloths and maroon walls, Gerde’s, a small storefront roughly 35 feet across and 50 feet deep, soon became the main gathering place of America’s rising folk elite.

By the time Bob Dylan took the stage to play his first paid act as a folk soloist, the club had become one of America’s leading stages for a new urban music scene that was quickly gaining popularity among well-heeled college and city crowds. Carolyn Hester, Cynthia Gooding, Ed McCurdy, and Peter, Paul and Mary all played there regularly. So did the Weavers, the first of the great folk-revival groups.

Bob Dylan wasn’t inaugurating a new cultural movement. He was trying desperately to climb aboard a fast-moving train. Born Robert Zimmerman, he was a native of Hibbing, Minnesota, a working-class town in the heart of the state’s famous Iron Range. His childhood was entirely conventional. Raised in a tan, two-story stucco house, he had grown up in a close-knit Jewish family. His father, Abraham Zimmerman, sold furniture and appliances; his mother, Beatty, was a clerk at Feldman’s Department Store. A solitary child, Dylan spent his early years writing and reading poetry and crooning along to radio broadcasts of his idol, Hank Williams. When rock ’n’ roll became the rage, he traded Williams for Elvis. When he discovered his first Woody Guthrie albums—probably just before or during his brief stint at the University of Minnesota—he turned to folk music.

A master at self-reinvention, Dylan would later concoct implausible stories about his journey to stardom. He told one interviewer that he had been a traveling circus performer. He told a record company executive that he had arrived in New York by freight train. “You mean a passenger train?” the incredulous executive asked.

“No, a freight train.”

“You mean like a boxcar?”

“Yeah, like a boxcar. Like a freight train.”

Of course he had done no such thing. Woody Guthrie had crossed the country multiple times by boxcar. He was the original vagabond. But Guthrie, the godfather of American folk music, was wasting away at a New Jersey hospital, a victim of Huntington’s Disease, for which there was (and is) little known treatment. Dylan worked in overdrive to appropriate Guthrie’s legacy.

Years later he would admit, “I hadn’t come in on a freight train at all. What I did was come across the country from the Midwest in a four-door sedan, ’57 Impala—straight out of Chicago, clearing the hell out of there—racing all the way trough the smoky towns, winding roads, green fields covered with snow, onward, eastbound. . . . My mind fixed on hidden interests . . . eventually riding over the George Washington Bridge.”

Neither was Dylan the only ambitious Jewish kid to play his hand at the Guthrie act. Elliot Adnopoz, the Brooklyn-born son of a middle-class doctor, had the good fortune to be a few years older than Dylan. Adnopoz actually did travel the country with Woody Guthrie in the 1950s, by freight train, learning from the master himself hundreds of folk tunes and cultivating Guthrie’s ways of walking, talking, and singing. By the time his young protégé rechristened himself Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Guthrie, who knew all too well that Huntington’s was in the process of eating him alive, remarked, “He sounds more like me than I do.”

But if Jack Elliot had timing—and an uncanny talent for flat-picking—on his side, Dylan had gumption. He was everywhere and anywhere when the folk scene beckoned. In the wake of his act at Gerde’s, he talked his way into a stint playing backup harmonica for the folksinger Carolyn Hester, who was recording an album for Columbia Records. This led to a contract of his own, and a rather forgettable first album featuring new versions of mostly old songs (“Gospel Plow,” “Pretty Peggy-O,” “Man of Constant Sorrow”).

“I can’t say when it occurred to me to write my own songs,” he later admitted. “I couldn’t have come up with anything comparable or halfway close to the folk song lyrics I was singing to define the way I felt about the world. I guess it happens to you by degree.”

Clearly it happened some time in late 1961 and 1962. Taking his cue from Guthrie, who himself stole, borrowed, revised, and invented from whole cloth “folk” songs that assumed a disingenuous level of authenticity, Dylan set about writing his own ballads. He even managed to get a few audiences with Guthrie, who took a shine to “the boy.” “That boy’s got a voice,” the elder singer remarked, in what would later prove one of the all-time great miscalculations in music criticism. “Maybe he won’t make it with his writing, but he can sing it.”

By 1963 Bob Dylan was writing and recording many of the songs he would become famous for—“Blowin’ In the Wind,” “Girl from the North Country,” “Don’t Think Twice. It’s Alright,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

Was he still a folk performer? It depended on how one defined folk music. Like Woody Guthrie, Dylan was appropriating traditional melodies and traditional themes but working them into new anthems for the age. He’d later claim to resent the burden that was foisted on him. “All I’d ever done was sing songs that that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities,” he wrote. “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.”

Be that as it may, something changed when Bob Dylan ascended to center stage 45 years ago at Gerde’s. A man who already played fast and loose with authenticity was—by design or unwittingly—assuming its mantle. At least in the public’s eye. And, characteristically, he would spend the next four decades steadfastly denying it was so.