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Virtual Museum: Handbill for Bob Dylan at Gerde’s Folk City: The Most Important Shows of His Career?

Here’s a handbill advertising arguably the most important shows in Bob Dylan’s long career; his two-week stand opening for The Greenbriar Boys at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. The first of these shows, on September 26, 1961, resulted in a rave review in The New York Times—the first article ever written about Dylan—and his signing to Columbia Records.

Howard Sounes writes in his Dylan biography Down the Highway: [Folk singer] Carolyn Hester decided to use backup musicians on her debut Columbia record and she suggested to [producer] John Hammond that Bob Dylan play harmonica.   Hammond independently asked the advice of Paddy Clancy [of the Clancy Brothers], who agreed he should give Bob a chance.  A rehearsal was arranged at an apartment in the Village.  “We were all seated around a kitchen table and John was seated next to Bob,” says Hester.  “Bob starts in on the harmonica and John turns and looks at him and couldn’t take his eyes off this character.”  When Hammond discovered that Bob wrote his own material, he said he would like to hear him.

Fortuitously Bob was about to play an important two-week residency at Gerde’s Folk City [opening for] John Herald’s bluegrass group, The Greenbriar Boys.  Robert Shelton had already decided to review the show for The New York Times… Many of Bob’s supporters were in the audience the opening night and he received such an enthusiastic reception he upstaged the more experienced Greenbriar Boys.  Afterward Bob went into the kitchen and gave [Sheton] his first press interview.   

The article was published in the Times on Friday, September 29, 1961, together with a photograph of Bob looking like Huckleberry Finn, under the headline BOB DYLAN: A DISTINCTIVE FOLK-SONG STYLIST.  It was an unprecedented plug for an unknown folksinger in the most influential newspaper in America, the very newspaper Bob’s father read.   

Shelton, almost ignoring the headlining Greenbriar Boys, began his review A bright new face in folk music is appearing at Gerde’s Folk City.  Although only twenty years old, Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play in a Manhattan cabaret in months…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….Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty.  He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his porch. All the ‘husk and bark’ are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs…Dylan’s highly personalized toward folk songs is still evolving.  He has been sopping up influences like a sponge…. His music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth.  Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedent and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.”

Biographer Anthony Scaduto picks up the story in Bob Dylan:  The review simply amazed everyone, and it created some jealousy in folk circles.  None of the singers who’d been knocking themselves out had ever been treated to such an effusive bit of puffery by Shelton.  The critic was friendly with all the folkies in the Village, yet had never given any of their careers the boost he gave to Dylan…There was a good deal of backbiting about the review, but Dylan didn’t let that bother him.  He was totally ecstatic about it and carried it around in his pocket until it was falling to pieces. 

Carolyn Hester: The day of my recording session was the day the review was printed, and Dylan brought it with him.  He was absolutely delighted with it.  He would laugh and sort of shyly say something like he didn’t expect it and was so new in town and wasn’t that a bitch and wasn’t he lucky…And Hammond saw it.  We were in the studio working every day and I could see Hammond was getting more and more interested in him…the more Hammond saw of him the more impressed he got.

Hammond: So he came in and made some demos…and when I heard him I flipped.  I told him I wanted him to record for Columbia, and I had the contract drawn up.

And, as the cliché goes, the rest is history.

The exceptionally rare handbill also advertises a run of shows by blues legends Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey.  Dylan wrote in Chronicles about learning a unique style of guitar from Johnson, while he recorded with Spivey and Big Joe Williams in March 1962.  Dylan used a photograph of himself with Spivey from those sessions on the back of his album New Morning.

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