In September 1961, at the height of the folk music resurgence, Robert Shelton at the New York Times sat in on an early Bob Dylan performance and was inspired to write a review on how he sized up the long-haired kid on the stage. He starts by saying:
“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 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.”
He goes on to deconstruct some of Dylan’s songs and tries to offer some interpretation in the meanings of the elusive words. He did a fairly good job and what he wrote set the stage for a career spanning 60 years!
So, when I read Bobby has just turned 80, I began to reflect back on my own life living in the same world with this guy all these years. The first Dylan song I heard was “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Coming out of the silent generation of the 1950s what with Eisenhower, McCarthyism, ubiquitous track housing, the Korean War, HUAC, and all the rest, I was really unprepared to comprehend what Dylan was singing about—that was about to change. It was around the time I picked up a guitar playing bluegrass with my brother-in-law from Tennessee. As I memorized the words of “Blowin’ in the Wind” it dawned on me that it was a PROTEST song. What? Who would have guessed?
After that hit song, we all listened to Dylan like he was our teacher. We followed his performances and eagerly bought his LP records in the hope of finding answers to the moral and ethical problems of the day. Dylan did not disappoint. “Masters of War” sort of became our theme song. Written in 1963, it was a precursor to the avalanche, just getting started, of songs against the Vietnam build-up. “You that have never done nothin’ but build to destroy, you play with my world like it’s your little toy.” Strong tonic that was for us 20-year-old kids raised on Pat Boone’s vapid love songs.
But of course, Dylan didn’t just write protest songs. His music dealt with all kinds of human conditions, successes, and failures. “Positively 4th Street” struck me as a great way to snipe back at the person who loved you and now totally ignores you. Who hasn’t been in those shoes?
Just think of the messages in songs like “Don’t Think twice,” “I Shall be Released,” “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” and my own favorite that I often sing at open mics, “Forever Young.” You can catch a version of it on YouTube when he’s playing with The Band at their farewell concert.
Since Dylan’s 1961 NY debut, he’s written so many songs, poems and essays that I couldn’t find a number to put to them. I imagine something well over a thousand but that’s a guess. His incredible output boggles the mind. Let’s be honest, though, and admit that not all of his creativity hit the mark. There were some attempts to rise above his own early fame that didn’t resonate very well. And don’t forget the catastrophe they fell on him when he abandoned the acoustic and picked up an electric guitar to sing. To his credit, wining the Nobel Prize brought him back into focus after some declining years and gave a younger generation a reason to look him up and investigate the powerful messages in the songs.
Bob Dylan is back on the road, I understand. Despite his age, he’s cranking up the tours again. Here’s what’s happening:
“The Bob Dylan 2021 concert tour begins June 4, 2021, in Bend, Oregon, and hits twenty-four North American cities including Virginia Beach, Irving, Texas, Glendale Arizona, Las Vegas, New York, as well as Los Angeles. The average Bob Dylan setlist is made up of an average fifteen to twenty songs during his set which usually includes some of his biggest hits “All Along the Watchtower,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” as well as “Blowin’ in the Wind.” On average a Bob Dylan set is two hours fifteen minutes long.”
Happy 80th Birthday Bob Dylan. Stay forever young.
See you down the road.
By Jerry Scott