The first time we heard Bob Dylan named as nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature was in 2004, the same year Simon & Schuster published his Chronicles, Vol I. Ed Bradley mentioned this candidacy in an instantly-famous 60 Minutes segment: Dylan’s first TV interview in almost 20 years. Of course, The Enigma had been lying to — and/or playing with — the press since the beginning, yet this particular interview immediately distinguished itself from the rest. Shocks began with Bob’s first and most terse admission to being washed up as a songwriter. Technically, the statement was inaccurate. Yet in a more profound sense it, along with numerous other revelations, indeed proved and remain true (or as true as anything else in the hall of mirrors constituting Dylan’s life story). So while steering clear of references to BD’s religious beliefs, which shift and reshape themselves, pertinent sections from this unique interview appear periodically, in italics, throughout this overview.
“Some people get born you know to the wrong names, wrong parents, I mean that happens…”
Dylan’s earliest visits to Woodstock were in the company of Peter Yarrow, whose family owned a summer cabin at the base of Hill 99. Here two up-and-coming folk singers practiced and taught each other songs. Yarrow has not, to our knowledge, attached an exact date to their first such sojourn, but 1962 is an excellent guess. What we do know is that at 19, Robert Zimmerman — shunning that given name —arrived in Greenwich Village on Jan 24, 1961; that he immediately visited his ailing idol, Woody Guthrie, in Greystone Park hospital in NJ, where it’s said he performed part of what would become his “Song to Woody,” herewith leaping over numerous devotees to become Guthrie’s last and greatest protégé.
Bob had already experimented with rock ‘n roll as a boy back in Minnesota, but found it lacking the poetry of folk music. Elsewhere it was the blues, particularly Woody’s style of “talking blues” which appealed to him. His subsequent adoration/impersonation of Guthrie is important because “writing a folk song” was, then, as unacceptable, as say writing a new book in the Bible is today. It was perfectly acceptable, however, that Woody Guthrie as a social activist traveled the country writing “protest songs.” So, it was perhaps less the case that Bob sincerely wanted to change the world; and more the case that he wanted to become the greatest songwriter of all time, and so started writing what songs he was allowed to write, which utilized his poetic gift but — most crucially of all — would be popular. Woodstock proved to be that creatively fertile but musically neutral Petri dish. Which exploded.
“I don’t know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written…”
Early friend and cohort of Dylan’s Village days as well as long-time Woodstocker and folk legend himself, Happy Traum recognized Bob’s songwriting genius instantly. “We were playing one night at Gerde’s Folk City… must have been in February, 1962. Bob walked in for the late set — there were about 12 people in the audience — so we invited him onto stage. He’d just written ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,’ and he played it for that tiny house for the first time. I’d never heard anything like it and nobody else had either.
“The first original of Bob’s I ever heard…?” Happy pauses. “….Would probably be ‘Song To Woody,’ but you should know this, too. The New World Singers — which I was a member of then — recorded ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ before anybody. Before Peter [Yarrow], Paul and Mary made it a huge hit, and before Bob put in on his second album. The reason being that Bob heard Delores Dixon from our group perform ‘No More Auction Block For Me’ — and that song inspired, ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’ We started performing it immediately and then recorded it on our Folkways recording, Broadsides, which included Dylan (as Blind Boy Grunt), Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Mark Spoelstra, Peter LaFarge and the Freedom Singers.” Happy and his wife Jane, and the deeply-missed Artie Traum, soon followed Dylan, moving to Woodstock themselves circa ‘66 (as did the late great John Herald, and eventually, songwriter-giant in his own right, John Sebastian.)
Dylan was a champion couch-surfer, known to have crashed in numerous primitive locations in Woodstock — most famously above Bernard and Mary Lou Paturel’s “Cafe Espresso” in the winter of ‘63-’64 — even while sporadically living the high life at Albert Grossman’s palatial “Striebel house” in Bearsville.
Bob was back at the Yarrow place with Peter, that night in June of ‘63 when Medgar Evers was shot and killed. That’s where Dylan wrote, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” on the spot.
Woodstock supplied inspiration for dozens of Dylan’s songs, but then — most everything did. (Don’t know if the critics agree, but I always saw Bernard Paturel as the “immigrant” Dylan pitied, for example.) The town became unique, certainly, in bringing Bob the great love of his life in 1964. Sara Lownds, whose summer cabin in Byrdcliffe placed her “and them” but a few hundred yards from their future home and its unforeseeable, all but unimaginable fame. They were wed at the Algonquin hotel in NYC in November of 1965.
Dylan’s Chronicles reads: “My wife when she married me had no idea of what she was getting into…” and the author later ruminated: “Well, she was with me back then through thick and thin you know? [But] It wasn’t the sort of life that she had ever envisioned for herself. Anymore than the kind of life that I was living I had envisioned on my end.” Yet this latter statement — placed against others made by Dylan — rings only partially true.
Decades after leaving Woodstock, in this first (and so far, only) volume of his memoirs, and especially in the remarkable conversations with Ed Bradley, Dylan confessed to early childhood premonitions of an astounding fame awaiting him. “It’s a feeling that you know something about yourself nobody else does…the picture you have in your mind of what you’re about…Will…Come…True. It’s kind of a thing you kind of have to keep to your own self because it’s a fragile feeling and you put it out there somebody’ll kill it, so it’s best to keep that all inside.”
Chronicles insists that young Bob was convinced “Destiny was looking right at me and nobody else.” Furthermore, the plain-spoken Ed Bradley somehow put Dylan at such ease, the legendary songwriter was heard to state regarding “Destiny”: “I made a bargain with it, you know, a long time ago.” Whether Dylan shared such prescience with his bride — or if he did — whether she completely believed him, of course, remains unknown.
Sara gave birth to the of first of her four children with Dylan (he adopted a daughter from Sara’s previous marriage) in January of ‘66. The young family stayed first at the cabin at the Grossman estate, until quickly resorting to the un-insulated Yarrow place. (Describing that winter at Yarrow’s, a good friend of Sara’s recently admitted: “I’ve never known such cold in my entire life.”) Finally, the Dylans were told about the possibility of buying a grand Byrdcliffe house by Shirley [Mrs. Milton] Glaser. Undreamt of luxury followed. Bob hired Bernard Paturel — who’d hosted him upstairs at the Cafe Espresso — as his “valet and driver.” Numerous hangers-on hung out and hung in until summarily dismissed.
One strange and heartwarming backstory occurred tangentially to all this as Bob, at first somewhat casually, began studying painting with a charismatic neighbor, Bruce Dorfman. The mentorship deepened as “normal relations” with the world at large became impossible, while the Dylan and the Dorfman families grew fond of each other.
Though by “conventional” standards the large house (designed by local Ben Webster) sat well off an obscure country lane, there was soon nothing “conventional” about the fame of Bob Dylan. Flocks of admirers (a few of them unbalanced, to put it mildly) sought out their prophet at his sanctuary-no-longer; the resulting paranoia of those sequestered within, hardly qualifying as “paranoia” at all. Bruce Dorfman assisted in protecting Dylan from unwanted visitors, until old friends felt pushed away, too. What so admirably emerged from a somewhat petty power struggle involved Bruce’s stepson, a talented pre-adolescent guitar student of Happy Traum’s named Johnny Dorfman [today: John Brandt], who unknowingly became the unknown hero of half the youth of America. Johnny was a moody loner who’d hole up for hours at a time with his guitar to — of course — learn Dylan songs, among others. Whether Bob actually saw himself in the boy or merely sought to curry favor with Johnny’s step-father, the painter, is unknown. Either way the result was the same. Dylan brought John presents. Among them: his own records, harmonicas and a metal holder for such. He even listened to the boy’s first attempt at a song, influenced dramatically — of course — by himself. Furthermore, Bob was kind. And so while slick intellectuals struggled to defend themselves against Dylan’s lethal wit, shy little Johnny Dorfman was treated to the gentle side of a thorny genius. The likes of George Harrison evoked tenderness from Dylan, too, as well as the love of Sara and the birth of their children. The Dorfman story, however, soon ended in tragedy, around the time a Triumph motorcycle was said to have nearly taken Bob’s life, as well.
As Woodstock drew old friends of Bob’s to town he availed himself of their trustworthy talents, though often turning these upside down. Bob cryptically suggested Happy Traum learn the bass. Bemused, the famous guitar player complied, but it wasn’t until several years later that Bob called him into the studio to play bass guitar, guitar, banjo and sing harmony on his album, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2.
Grossman had not yet built his legendary recording studio, so the records upon which Dylan’s most lasting fame are based, the ever-more-incendiary: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde on Blonde” (with “John Wesley Harding” signaling Dylan’s emergence from hyper-seclusion following the “motorcyle accident” of ‘66) were all recorded at Columbia studios in New York and Nashville.
All except what Dylan’s most erudite champions consider the unlikeliest masterpieces of his entire 55 year, 60 album career. Recorded and in partial collaboration with that mostly Canadian back-up band, soon to spin Music From Big Pink from the same magic loom, The Basement Tapes, are today considered not only American rock’s first great bootlegs, but by far the most important of such “underground recordings” in the history of our music.
Locals have hundreds of stories; my family has their share. Through Dylan we learned that legend is a mushroom growing in moonlight and fame is a bomb ticking in a one of all those guitar cases, with famine residing in the rest.
Then so much went down in our soon famous little town!
Robbie Robertson — Dylan’s most darkly gifted disciple — lead and finally perhaps betrayed The Band through further homespun-if-deadly glory; Dylan finally broke free of Albert (who nevertheless spawned a label, a hamlet, and a mini-empire, soon to include Janis Joplin and Todd Rundgren.) Dozens of musicians and composers followed Dylan to Woodstock. Some great, some awful, most somewhere between. Naturally all this proved grist for various mills, including most recently Barney Hoskyns’ book Small Town Talk.
But occasionally, in all honesty, it still amazes us. Much as Woodstockers must have been amazed back in 1902 when the arts first came to town with the lightning fast building of Byrdcliffe, itself. While at the end of the era in “our” moment of history anyway, it all leads back and boils down to a man who named himself “Dylan,” after the most lyrical poet anyone anywhere ever heard; a name roughly translated as, “the wild sea.” And now, as this elegy-like honor is bestowed upon Woodstock’s Magus — still forging forth in his “never ending tour”…this honor which therefore presages the goodbye we’ll all need to make one day soon when Bob Dylan’s never ending tour finally ends, and he roams this Earth no more.
Still we can’t help but imagine that even Bob would finally agree that humanity…despite heinous sins, hypocrisies, and nothing less than apocalyptic flaws…at last properly recognized his genius. When, in the year of our Lord 2016, the Nobel committee finally voted to award Bob Dylan the most coveted prize in the world of the word, itself.