Geoff Howitt – reminiscences of Bob Dylan at Gerdes in New York.

I was on a trip to Brazil when I bumped into Geoff once again. He is an interesting guy. In the early sixties, as a student, he went off to New York. He was penniless and ended up at Gerdes where, due to his English accent, he was taken on to introduce acts. He introduced Robert Zimmerman, way back before he was called Bob Dylan, and chatted up Suze Rotolo while he played!

He kindly wrote me these reminiscences! They make for interesting reading.

Geoff Howitt

A memoir of reminiscences and name dropping in

New York City.

It all began in London in 1959 at my first full time teaching job teaching geography and PE in Haverstock comprehensive school in Kentish Town. There I met John Holly, a great guy, a great teacher and a folk singer. He got me playing a tea chest bass and three or four chords on a guitar. We sang for the kids and for charity each Xmas, singing modern carols round Hampstead’s many pubs. It was the time of Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor and one day they were to sing in a hall in Red Lion Square in Soho to raise money for the defense of Peter Seeger against McCarthy and the un-American activities witch hunt. We went to the concert which included Rambling Jack Elliot, Cisco Houston and others. I was completely sold on folk singing from then on. I even took my guitar with me when I went on my travels a year later.

I met Derek on the RMS Queen Elizabeth in 1960, both part of the “Brain Drain” of graduates to the USA. Eventually we shared a room in New York City. One evening we were broke, sitting in Washington Square at the southern end of 5th Avenue, reading a New York Times which had been left on a bench. I found an advert for “Jean Redpath-Scottish Folk Singer” at Gerdes Folk City just round the corner. “Let’s go” I said, “I love folk singing.” “Look we haven’t got a bean,” said Derek “We will even have to walk back to our room on 87th!” “Oh come on, it’s free to go in. As long as we move around nobody will notice we are not buying food or booze – let’s risk it. The worst they could do is to ask us to leave!”

Jean sang like an angel. When she sang the haunting “Song of the Seals” the audience of people eating or drinking was so mesmerized you could hear the traffic on 5th Avenue 10 blocks away! I got to talk with her and she too was a geography teacher who loved folk music. She died a few years ago with an OBE having researched and recorded two CDs of Robert Burns’s songs.

Her partner when I first met her was Bob Shelton, a music critic and writer for the New York Times and he had a room filled with wall to wall folk music LPs.

I went every night to Gerdes until eventually Tony, the owner, came up to me, “You are not buying any beer! But I will do you a deal – you introduce the singers, because an English accent will go down good, and I will give you a meal and some beer every time so then I won’t have to leave my bar”

I was in heaven and I announced singers who were almost gods to me. I had long conversations with singers like Jessie Fuller (San Francisco Bay Blues) Julie Felix, Bonny Dobson, Peter, Paul and Mary, Blind Reverend Gary Davis, Rambling Jack Elliot and many more. Some were, or became, household names and some never made it. One night Tony asked me to announce a local Greenwich Village poet and song writer called Robert Zimmerman. He couldn’t play the guitar very well or sing melodically but his girlfriend Sue was delightful and I chatted her up every night – to no avail. I didn’t think much to his act. We hardly talked and I think he was fairly high on drugs anyway. He did sing, rather badly, his own stuff and he mentioned Woodie Guthrie who had recently died. At the end of the week Zimmerman and Sue moved on to be replaced by other more straightforward singers.

I got a job with Crowell and Collier, a huge publishing company in Park Avenue South, writing geography and sports articles for an encyclopedia and I also found myself involved in helping produce a magazine called “Sing Out”. The main person was …………who wrote Morning Town Ride and other well-known songs. One evening I was going to her apartment in the village when a voice shouted “Hold the elevator “. It was a tall, slightly balding man In jeans, a check shirt and boots with a banjo case across his back- none other than Pete Seeger himself! ……….gave us coffee and cake (almost a ritual in New York City) and when he had finished them he just wandered off into the kitchen and washed his cup and saucer! No side there then. I got to know him and I found him modest, hugely talented and generous, and a great lover of America and Americans despite the way he was sometimes appallingly treated by some of his countrymen.

I remember once when he came to a late night party at the flat I shared on 14th St. I was being bugged by a woman from the office. She seemed to ring just about every hour and I never knew quite what to do about her. Pete observed my difficulty and asked me for the ‘phone and my guitar. I don’t know if she ever realised that it was Pete Seeger who sang her the whole of “Go to sleep you little hobo” down the ‘phone!

Some time later one of the singers (whose name I have sadly forgotten) got married and I was invited to the wedding reception up town. There l sat with The Blind Reverend Gary Davidson (who wasn’t totally blind) and kept him supplied with Great Lakes champagne which was on ice in big tubs. After a few glasses he growled to me “Ask that guy to sing will ya?” “But he can’t sing, and he’s not too good on the guitar either” I replied. Gary’s response was “Just you listen to what he is singing. Your friend Bob Shelton thinks he is really good. ” “OK I’ll ask him. I just hope he’s not too stoned”. I walked across to him and said, “Excuse me Mr. Zimmerman, Reverend Gary Davis would like you to sing”.

His reply was “Sure but my name ain’t Zimmerman any more it’s Bob Dylan.

  1. I only met Dylan one further time when he and Sue came to Gerdes for a photo session for one of the LPs he was recording by then. They eventually used a shot of Dylan with Sue in the snow just outside Gerdes. In the background is my blue Volkswagen van!

Sometimes I am asked what Dylan was like and what did he talk about? My answer has to be I hardly spoke to him and he never really spoke to me. I thought he was stoned on the few occasions we met.

When I returned to the UK in 1963 I got me a black and white TV set and who would I see in a strange play but Dylan playing his guitar at the top of some stairs?

Bob Shelton was indeed a great Dylan promoter in the New York Times and he also wrote the notes on the back of at least one of Dylan’s earliest albums. Bob unfortunately died soon after I got back to London because I would have loved talking over those early Dylan days with him. I did meet up with Jean a few times in London and I was aware of her work regarding Burns. I was shocked to hear she had died. She was just about the same age as myself, and so is Dylan. This is all a bit morbid but Sue also died a year or so ago.

I did bump into Pete Seeger a couple of times in London. The first was at a party of Ewan McCall’s just off the Grays Inn Road. I answered the door, as one sometimes does at these kind of parties, and there was Pete; denims, check shirt, boots etc. “You’re the guy who lived on 14th Street. Can you find me the fellow living with my sister?” Peggy came out then and looked after him. Both Pete and Ewan have since died but Peggy sang at the Ropetackle, our local Arts and Entertainment Centre just a few months ago.

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