Wednesday, April 11, 2018

This Day In History: Bob Dylan Plays His First Major Gig

Photo here is of Dylan at Newport two years later. Not an
attempt to suggest that this was Gerde's.
I once posted a short list of things I learned in college, one of which was learning to play the harmonica. Early in my first semester at Ohio U a bunch of guys were sitting or lying around talking, getting acquainted by sharing stories, interests, and whatever else guys talk about. One fellow happened to be a guitar player, and as it later turned out he had a brother in Cincinnati who played harmonica. He suggested it would be easy to pick up and encouraged me with the admonition, "Chicks really dig harmonica."

Whether this be true or not, I will never know. What I do know is that people always seem to enjoy harmonica. It's like an accent that adds flavor to any piece of music being played.

After becoming as familiar with harp as I was able on my own, the next piece of advice was this: "Go listen to John Lee Hooker and learn some riffs."

On this day in history, April 11, 1961, Bob Dylan got his first major gig in New York City, as opening act for John Lee Hooker at Gerde's Folk City. Whether Gerde's made Dylan famous, or vice versa, I can't say. The moment seems to have been mutually beneficial.

Three Dylan tunes come to mind when I read about this period in Dylan's life and career. The first mournfully begins, "I was young when I left home // and I been out a-ramblin' round // but I never wrote letter to my home..."

The second, one of the two songs he wrote and recorded on his first album, was titled Talkin' New York, which gives a hilarious glimpse at Dylan's blending of observation and pointed humor. Notice, especially, all the ups and downs in the song.

Talkin’ New York 

Ramblin’ outa the wild West
Leavin’ the towns I love the best
Thought I’d seen some ups and downs
’Til I come into New York town
People goin’ down to the ground
Buildings goin’ up to the sky

Wintertime in New York town
The wind blowin’ snow around
Walk around with nowhere to go
Somebody could freeze right to the bone
I froze right to the bone
New York Times said it was the coldest winter in seventeen years
I didn’t feel so cold then

I swung onto my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
Greenwich Village

I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block
Got on the stage to sing and play
Man there said, “Come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly
We want folk singers here”

Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play
Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day
I blowed inside out and upside down
The man there said he loved m’ sound
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound
Dollar a day’s worth

And after weeks and weeks of hangin’ around
I finally got a job in New York town
In a bigger place, bigger money too
Even joined the union and paid m’ dues

Now, a very great man once said
That some people rob you with a fountain pen
It didn’t take too long to find out
Just what he was talkin’ about
A lot of people don’t have much food on their table
But they got a lot of forks ’n’ knives
And they gotta cut somethin’

So one mornin’ when the sun was warm
I rambled out of New York town
Pulled my cap down over my eyes
And headed out for the western skies
So long, New York
Howdy, East Orange


Copyright © 1962, 1965 by Duchess Music Corporation; renewed 1990, 1993 by MCA

* * * *
A third song about his journey to the East was called Hard Times in New York Town, which no doubt circulated in bootleg collections and was later released on Bootleg Series #9: The Witmark Demos, displaying his familiarity with the Big Apple, as well as the creativity and earnestness of a very young Dylan. There's a live version, also, on Rare & Unreleased.

What I get a kick out of, besides the storytelling, is how the rhythm of the lyrics fits so neatly into Flatt & Scruggs' Beverly Hillbillies theme song from the TV show, 1962-1971

Hard Times In New York Town
Come you ladies and you gentlemen, a-listen to my song
Sing it to you right, but you might think it’s wrong
Just a little glimpse of a story I’ll tell
’Bout an East Coast city that you all know well
It’s hard times in the city
Livin’ down in New York town

Old New York City is a friendly old town
From Washington Heights to Harlem on down
There’s a-mighty many people all millin’ all around
They’ll kick you when you’re up and knock you when you’re down
It’s hard times in the city
Livin’ down in New York town

It’s a mighty long ways from the Golden Gate
To Rockefeller Plaza ’n’ the Empire State.
Mister Rockefeller sets up as high as a bird
Old Mister Empire never says a word
It’s hard times from the country
Livin’ down in New York town

Well, it’s up in the mornin’ tryin’ to find a job of work
Stand in one place till your feet begin to hurt
If you got a lot o’ money you can make yourself merry
If you only got a nickel, it’s the Staten Island Ferry
And it’s hard times in the city
Livin’ down in New York town

Mister Hudson come a-sailin’ down the stream
And old Mister Minuet paid for his dream
Bought your city on a one-way track
’F I had my way I’d sell it right back
And it’s hard times in the city
Livin’ down in New York town

I’ll take all the smog in Cal-i-for-ne-ay
’N’ every bit of dust in the Oklahoma plains
’N’ the dirt in the caves of the Rocky Mountain mines
It’s all much cleaner than the New York kind
And it’s hard times in the city
Livin’ down in New York town

So all you newsy people, spread the news around
You c’n listen to m’ story, listen to m’ song
You c’n step on my name, you c’n try ’n’ get me beat
When I leave New York, I’ll be standin’ on my feet
And it’s hard times in the city
Livin’ down in New York town
Copyright © 1962, 1965 by Duchess Music Corporation; renewed 1990, 1993 by MCA

Lyrics for the songs were absconded from BobDylan.com. I believe there's a book by that name, Steal What You Love. If not, there ought to be.

Meantime, life goes on... (which is echoed in The Beatles' Ob La Di Ob La Da, which is itself of Kurt Vonnegut's refrain, "And so it goes."

And so it does.

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