The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portraitby Daniel Mark Epstein
Drawing on revelatory interviews, a rich analysis oflyrics, and a lifelong study of one of the greatest songwriters of our time,Daniel Mark Epstein delivers a singular, nuanced, and insightful examination ofBob Dylan—the poet, the musician, and the man. Interweaving in-depthconversations with Dylan collaborators and contemporaries, including Eric Andersen,Tom
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Drawing on revelatory interviews, a rich analysis oflyrics, and a lifelong study of one of the greatest songwriters of our time,Daniel Mark Epstein delivers a singular, nuanced, and insightful examination ofBob Dylan—the poet, the musician, and the man. Interweaving in-depthconversations with Dylan collaborators and contemporaries, including Eric Andersen,Tom Paxton, Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora Guthrie, Ramblin’Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, Maria Muldaur, John P.Hammond, and many others, Epstein crafts a vivid and unforgettable portrait ofthe inimitable poet and performer. Readers of Christopher Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions of Sin, the Dylanautobiography, Chronicles, or Sean Wilentz’s Dylan inAmerica, as well as fans enthralled by expository musician stories, such asKeith Richards’ Life and PattiSmith’s Just Kids, will be captivatedby Epstein’s unprecedented and incisive look at Bob Dylan, music’s mostineffable creator.
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The Ballad of Bob DylanA Portrait
By Daniel Mark Epstein
HarperCopyright © 2011 Daniel Mark Epstein
All right reserved.
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 semi-
circle 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.
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 Washing-
ton 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 ban-
the-bomb buttons; scholarly types in tweed or corduroy jackets with
leather elbow patches; a few middle-aged beatniks in black turtle-
necks. 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 officeshe always got the bestand 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 somedayall 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
gapand the phrase had not yet been coinedand 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
humility that was disarmingthe 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 harmonicaoften 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 nameor at least the
proper pronunciationcouldn'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
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 itand the artist he had
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.
Excerpted from The Ballad of Bob Dylan by Daniel Mark Epstein Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Mark Epstein. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Daniel Mark Epstein has written more than fifteen books of poetry, biography, and history, including the award-winning Lincoln and Whitman and The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, named one of the top ten books of the year by the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Sun-Times.
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