As you may have heard, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this morning, which came as a shock to just about everyone. He is the first musician to be awarded the honor, and while he has long been seen as the leading figure in post-war music in America, this catapults his reputation to "a whole 'nother level."
We have a chapter about Dylan's New York in Footprints in New York, which includes a good precis of his time in the city.
As we write in the book, Dylan was
born as Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941; he grew up in the tight-knit Jewish community in Hibbing, his mother’s hometown. After graduating high school in 1959, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota but only lasted one year. While he was there, he tapped into the burgeoning folk scene and began consistently using the stage name Bob Dylan. Having been a rock and roller, Dylan’s musical trajectory changed around this time when he was introduced to the music of Woody Guthrie, which, in Dylan’s words, “made my head spin.”
In January 1961, he arrived in New York City determined to do two things: perform in Greenwich Village, the center of America’s folk music revival, and meet Woody Guthrie. By the end of his first week, he’d done both. Dylan probably got to the city January 23, the day the front page of the New York Times proclaimed it the “coldest winter in seventeen years,” a line Dylan would borrow for one of his earliest compositions, “Talkin’ New York.” In No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Dylan’s early career, the singer remembers that first day: “I took the subway down to the Village. I went to the Cafe Wha?, I looked out at the crowd, and I most likely asked from the stage ‘Does anybody know where a couple of people could stay tonight?’”
Singer-songwriter Fred Neil presided over the bar’s eclectic all-day lineup. Dylan showed his chops by backing up Neil and singer Karen Dalton on the harmonica and was hired to “blow my lungs out for a dollar a day.”
Immersing himself in the music scene, Dylan soaked up everything he heard, from live acts in the bars and coffee houses south of Washington Square to the records he’d spin at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center down the street from Cafe Wha?. In the meantime he continued to embellish his back story. In No Direction Home, Izzy Young recalls Dylan telling him, “I was born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, moved to Gallup, New Mexico; then until now lived in Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, North Dakota (for a little bit). Started playing in carnivals when I was fourteen, with guitar and piano. . . .”
Later, newspapers picked up the fake biography, writing about the cowboy singer from Gallup. Stretching all the way back to the city’s Dutch pioneers, people have come to New York to reinvent themselves, to cast off their old identities and strike out in new directions. Dylan’s fanciful back story may have been an extreme case, but it was effective.There's much more in the book -- pick up a copy today!
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