I thoroughly enjoyed writing this book. It flowed from my mind. All the stories and anecdotes gelled together to create one long novel that told the whole story. It was like a tapestry unfurling. It was fun.
I hope you enjoy it half as much as I did writing it.
Churches were burning in the South. Attempts to get black voters registered were meeting heavy resistance. This wasn’t just the Klu Klux Klan, this was the Mayors, the Sheriffs and the authorities. They were actively undermining all efforts. People were being killed and ending up in the bayous. Marches, sit-ins and attempts to break segregation in eating places, buses and schools were being met with intimidation and violence.
The black leaders were under constant threat. Their lives were in danger.
Then Medgar Evers was shot. He’d been active in the movement. He had driven home to his family, parked his car in the drive and some cowardly sniper skulking in the bushes had shot him in the back.
Emmett Till was a young fourteen year old boy from the North who was visiting family in the South. He did not appreciate the way the south worked. On visiting a grocery store he had talked to the white store-owners wife in a casual way that was judged to be flirtatious. A group of men grabbed him off the street and took him to a barn where they beat and tortured him for hours. His piteous screams were ignored. They ended up shooting him in the head and throwing his body in the river like a bag of trash.
The injustice had been going on for an age. I was in the Gaslight Club in Greenwich Village. Mississippi was a long way off. Yet on that evening those events became a lot closer with a greater urgency to do something about it.
Sitting in the corner was a young couple. The girl was pretty with laughing eyes and long light-brown hair. The boy was fresh-faced, scruffy with a light brown jacket, checked work-shirt and shock of dark wavy hair. They were in a world of their own, laughing and joking.
When Bob Dylan was called to the mic a wave of expectation went round the room and a burst of applause. I watched with curiosity. I had heard the name Dylan mentioned in awed tones but I’d never seen or heard him play.
Bob shuffled to his position, looking round nervously blinking and grinning at the packed room. He adjusted a wire harmonica holder round his neck, strummed and tuned his guitar. He glanced round nervously with jerky mannerisms like a down and out Charlie Chaplin. When he was happy with the way the guitar sounded he started strumming. His head tilted to one side. The fun dropped from his face and he began to sing ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’. As those words tumbled out a chill went through my blood. He was telling it as it was. He was putting it into words that exploded in the middle of my head. Glancing round the room I could see that it was the same for everyone else.
Then Dylan started talking about how he was going to do a bunch of songs that said a bit more than I love you and you love me lets raise a happy family. He then launched into a number called ‘Blowing in the Wind’
By now I was on the edge of my seat and straining forward to catch every word. How many roads did we have to walk down?
Bob did a couple of Woody numbers and an old Blues number before launching into ‘Only a Pawn in the Game’.
The goosebumps rose on my arms. I’d never heard anything like this. The words were bullets. This was music but it was music plus. Dylan was saying things like nobody ever had before. I’d heard a number of ‘meaningful’ songs. Apart from Woody and Pete there was Leadbelly’s ‘Bourgoise Blues’ and Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ that had impacted on me but what this young kid was doing was in a different universe.
Over the next month I became a regular, ravenously seeking him out and sitting close so that I could catch every word. ‘Masters of War’, ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’. This was no one off. Bobby Dylan had a catalogue of genius. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Let Me Die in my Footsteps’, ‘God on Our Side’, ‘John Birch Society Blues’, ‘Chimes of Freedom’. There was no end to the lexicon of protest. War, civil rights, injustice, social protest. He was hitting out at those targets that we were all thinking about. He was articulating what was in all of our heads and he was putting in poetic images that were making it real.
One evening I noticed a young kid with long curly hair sitting with Bob and his girlfriend Suzie. Someone told me it was Arlo Guthrie – Woody’s son.
I was enthralled. That was Woody’s son.
I’d been doing my own little sets. Bob gave me some kind words of praise and I found myself sitting there at the table while Phil Ochs played.
I could see Bob watching him shrewdly. He took Phil seriously. Phil was a rival.
‘He’s a journalist more than a poet,’ Bob mumbled unkindly.
He was right when comparing Phil to Bob’s own prestigious talent But I still loved Phil’s more political pose. He had a different edge to Dylan. Bob was a master of that snide put-down. It wasn’t his most endearing quality but it was a streak that came out in some amazing songs. You had to accept it as part of his persona.
Afterwards we went back to Bob’s apartment, drinking and talking, playing until dawn. By the end of the evening I had discovered that Woody was ill with some terrible disease called Huntingdon Chorea and that he was here in New York. Not only that but Bob regularly visited him.
When Bob discovered that I knew Woody from way back it was set that I’d accompany Bob when he went to visit Woody next time.
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