What It Was Like to See Bob Dylan Play Before He Was Famous

Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan. Getty Images

Here on the river’s edge between Vermont and New Hampshire, they play back old vintage clips from the Newport Folk Festival from the early ’60s on PBS stations during the lengthy fundraising season. One favored clip is of Joan Baez in her simple dress and wooden guitar when she suddenly stops singing and asks, “Is Bobby here?” That would be Bob Dylan, who climbs up from the audience to play with her.

I was there, too, right there in the audience. I remember it distinctly as my friends and I had never heard of him before. Probably everyone in the audience remembers it: when we entered the concert we were one kind of people—and when we exited we were different.

A year or so later he would famously trade his classic wooden folk guitar for an electric guitar and got booed off the stage in Newport. The spirit of the ’60s, it’s been widely reported, were born at that moment.

When he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature earlier this fall, many commented that Dylan was master of the vast and varied idioms of the American journey; a dharma path, a truth path to a future still yet to be determined began to appear from behind the veil. The first truth about Dylan is that he is today and always was an American poet.

“Is there anything more American than America?” he asked in a two-minute Chrysler ad he made for the 2014 Super Bowl. “So let Germany brew your beer, let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone,” he said, adding definitely, “We will build your car.”

Suggested American nativism. “America firsters” might come to mind. It came to my mind. Yet it should be considered as elementary to his work as his first passionate pleas for civil rights like the heart-wrenching The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll in the old Newport days.

“Popular songs,” he told Playboy in 1965, “are the only form that describes the temper of the times. The only place where it’s happening is on the radio and records. That’s where the people hang out. It’s not in books; it’s not on the stage; it’s not in the galleries. All this art they’ve been talking about, it just remains on the shelf. It doesn’t make anyone happier.”

Why should the idiosyncratic American poet not make Chrysler ads for the Super Bowl? The world came to Dylan and came to America. Dylan did not go to the world—not in the ’60s, not ever. And thus, the American song was his song from beginning to end.

Historian Dan Carter has written an important book titled The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the new Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics, about Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s rise to political influence as a parallel event to the ’60s. He writes that when the civil rights movement expanded in the 1960s to inspire the woman’s rights movement, the antiwar movement, the politics of sexual liberation, Wallace knew “instinctively—intuitively—that tens of millions of Americans despised the civil rights agitators, the antiwar demonstrators, the sexual exhibitionist as symbols of a fundamental decline in the traditional cultural compass of God, family and country.”

The “new conservatism” would stem from these events.

Dylan can well be seen as the Trickster figure and catalyst for this ’60s metamorphosis, although in his 2004 memoir Chronicles he claims to have despised much of the ’60s. (Yes, and when he sang “Everybody must get stoned,” in 1966 he claimed much later in a 2012 Rolling Stone interview to have been referring to the Book of Acts.)

Maybe Dylan had thrown us a life preserver in a sea adrift. Maybe not. The force that Carter chronicles rises today to a high pitch in which fierce political passions have become regionalized. One or the other may soon fade and roll back into the sea. Or not. America may today be engaged in a counterpoint of equal and opposite historic counter forces that will not go away, but will rise in contention, the one feeding the other and driving America to a difficult and angry future. It could run a long time. It could mark the millennium.

Either way, when historians look back, they will find the beginnings come when an engaging feminine spirit with a pure voice called Bob Dylan to stage to sing with her. It awakened a generation.

Always obscure and mercurial (“I can tell if people like Ricky Nelson by the way they hold their cigarettes,” he told Playboy) Dylan might most fairly be seen as a poet, indifferent and apart—as in the story of Krishna, who lights a cigarette and the ages rise and fall in its ashes.

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What It Was Like to See Bob Dylan Play Before He Was Famous