When he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, President Obama said of Bob Dylan, “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music.”
Hailed as the voice of his generation, Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 but his greatest achievement may be his influence on musicians that have included the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen, who said Dylan “changed the face of rock and roll forever.”
In the first of a series, Rock Cellar asked some of the most respected artists in rock, folk and blues to share their recollections of the first time they heard Dylan perform. Interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Judy Collins: When I was working at the Gilded Garter – this was in Central City, Colorado and it was 1959 and it was my second professional gig, this guy used to come around and see me. He was homeless and he was badly dressed, even for the ’60s. He was trying to get a job, his name was Robert Zimmerman and he was sort of pathetic, you know? He was pathetic, there’s no other word for it.
And that’s where I met him. He would come in, sit down and listen to all the songs. But then when I came to New York two years later for the first time, I was at Gerde’s Folk City and he was singing these old Woody Guthrie blues and I dismissed him. He was like all these other raunchy boys with long hair and guitars. He wasn’t terribly attractive and, you know, he was homeless [Laughs]. He was singing at the round robins and in the hootenannies. He still couldn’t get a job.
Roger McGuinn (the Byrds): I first saw him at Gerde’s Folk City. It was shortly after he moved to New York and he hadn’t signed with Columbia Records yet. He was still just an itinerant folk singer.
He did a lot of Woody Guthrie stuff, covers, and kind of looked and sounded like Woody. But what was interesting about him was that most folk singers, like Cisco Houston, would get up and do a set and everybody would applaud.
But when Dylan played at Gerde’s Folk City in the open-mic hootenannies, the girls would scream like he was a teen idol. That was different from what other folk singers evoked from an audience.
He wasn’t doing a lot of original material, he wasn’t doing his topical protest songs at that point. He was a good folk singer, he could carry a tune and he had the attitude and he was good at it.
He knew his song well before he started singing.
Judy Collins: I picked up a copy of our bible, which is a magazine called Sing Out!, and I saw, with the music printed, this song called “Blowin’ in the Wind.” And I read it and I thought, “Christ, that has to be …” He had changed his name to Bob Dylan. He explained to me who he was. He said, “You remember me. I sat at your feet in Central City. My name was Robert Zimmerman. Now my name is Bob Dylan.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes or my ears! I mean, this song was sophisticated, to say the least. It was unique – I’d never heard anything like it.
David Crosby (the Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young): I was a young, not quite starving folkie in Greenwich Village, working in the basket houses. That’s where you sing a set and then you pass a basket. If you did a really good job, you might be able to get that piece of pizza for dinner. Maybe. And you gotta be really good to get it.
And it’s humiliating and humbling to have to stand in front of people with a basket and say, “Would you please give me a dollar?” It’s a good lesson.
OK, so I hear about this guy Bob Dylan, gonna play at Gerde’s Folk City. And everybody was talking about him. I didn’t know why.
So I snuck in, got in close, and the first reaction I had was very egotistical: “Well, shit, I can sing better than that!” And then I started listening to the words. And I nearly quit right then.
The guy’s such a good poet. He’s such a good poet, holy shit, is he a good poet. And I was pretty stunned.
I walked out of there very confused, because I knew I could sing better and I knew that I just had to up my game about words a thousand percent.
He was a terrific inspiration to me in the sense that I knew I had to become a much better poet. And so I tried my best to do that.
Judy Collins: [Dylan’s manager] Albert Grossman called me one day, out of the blue, and he said, “I’m gonna send you over a tape of this guy, Bob Dylan, I want to know what you think. I’m taking this tape around now to all the companies and I’m getting a lot of flak because they say he can’t sing.” And I said, “Albert, who cares? Who cares if he could sing? A lot of people can sing.” And of course, I love to hear him sing. I think those early records of him singing are just spectacular, singing his own songs. By the way, he was very clear, every single word was understandable. To me, that’s the estimate of whether one is singing well. If you can understand the words, you’re batting a million!
I thought he was the most brilliant thing I’d ever seen. I was just blown away, I was just totally – flabbergasted. I immediately started recording. I recorded “Fare Thee Well” and “Masters of War” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” I was swept off my feet, like everybody was. I mean, these poor guys in the Village, all these folk singers trying to get a job and write a song and get a record deal, and they just were flummoxed. All of them. No wonder.
David Crosby: Judy’s totally right. She and I and everybody else were just stunned. We didn’t know you could do that. We were used to people writing songs, I mean, we were fans of the Weavers. We had listened to Odetta, God bless her, and Josh White, people who were really good at tellin’ the tale, but we had never seen anything like that.
Judy Collins: From then on, it was a musical and lyrical revolution. Every moment of which was a surprise. I could have gone on recording nothing but Dylan for a long time.
Manfred Mann (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band): I first heard Dylan in the very early 1960s. I liked the songs and also there was an element of social comment, but it was poetic rather than hectoring. I also like the fact that Dylan himself never really went for explanations, he just let the songs do the job.
I have gotten very tired of people who happen to be able to sing and write well, telling me what to think and what I should be concerned about. As far as I am aware Dylan never did this.
The songs are able to be changed and interpreted in different ways; this would not be true of Elton John or other great writers. Also the songs are often quite simple pop songs, but when he does them they don’t sound that way.
Roger McGuinn: When I first heard “Mr. Tambourine Man” I was blown away by the imagery in it. We collected the verse about the boot heels because the Beatles wore those cool Cuban boots and it kind of reminded us of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, it had that kind of bohemian flavor to it.
But I think my favorite verse in “Mr. Tambourine Man” is “To dance beneath the diamond sky / With one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea / Circled by the circus sands /With all memory and fate / Driven deep beneath the waves / Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” That imagery is just incredible.
He was really a wonderful wordsmith. And his technique was great. He did inside rhymes, which was difficult. There’d be rhymes not just at the ends of sentences but inside the sentences. A sentence would have a rhyme in the middle of it that would rhyme with the middle of the next sentence. And then the ends would rhyme as well. So it’s kind of doubling up on rhyming.
John Kay (Steppenwolf): I was living in Buffalo, N.Y. and during that time I had befriended some of the local folkies because, this being ’63, the folk music revival was in full swing. Buffalo did have a small folk community and a couple of coffeehouses.
One of the fellows there that I became friends with said, “Have you heard this new album by Bob Dylan?” And I had not. It was the second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I had not heard Dylan at that point. On the advice of this friend I went and got the album. I put it on, I had not heard Dylan’s voice before and I was not immediately terribly impressed with the vocal quality.
But having invested the money I played the album several times and with the repeated playing, I realized that it was the whole package here. It was not just a singer’s singer voice but a guy with a style and obviously some major songwriting chops.
And Masters of War – that was so powerful that it alone caused me to re-listen to this album more and more. “Girl From the North Country” was on there and some other tunes that I really took to as time went on.
Henry Paul (the Outlaws): I remember buying his early vinyl and studying those records in finite detail. Learning those songs and performing them in the privacy of my own bedroom. I would close the door and I would learn those songs. I’d figure them out on guitar and I would take “Desolation Row” and I would play it at a senior assembly for my high school class. And they would look at me like, “What in the fuck are you talking about?”
So I took a rogue and deeply committed affection and commitment to his work. My affection for him came from Freewheelin’, Times They Are A-Changin’, Highway 61 Revisited and Bringin’ It All Back Home. At that point, I was good. And I lived in it.
John Mayall (John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers): I first met up with Bob Dylan when he made his first tour of England and I was surprised he’d heard of me and wanted to meet me. It apparently was because he’d been very impressed with my first single “Crawling Up a Hill” even though it didn’t make any inroads into the realm of hit record-making. He and his entourage including the lovely Joan Baez were staying at the Savoy Hotel in London and I believe I was the first person he wanted to meet.
It was quite a thrill to mingle with him and his entourage and I became the one he turned to to get contact with other British artists including my friend Marianne Faithfull. After his tour got underway I can be seen sitting between him and Joan in a taxi traveling the north of England in the documentary film made of his visit.
Marianne Faithfull: I think I first heard Bob in 1964. It was “Gates of Eden” or maybe it was the record with Suze Rotolo on the cover [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan].
I just loved his voice, I loved everything Bob did immediately.
I loved everything about them, everything. The philosophy, the lyrics, the humor, everything. I can’t even define it.
I just hope when I do play his songs, I always hope he likes it.
What can I say except that I admire him, I think he’s incredibly great.
Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad): The first time I saw him was on television. I don’t remember the program but he had the harmonica around his neck, he was playin’ and singin’ and playin’ that harp and I was just in awe because of his style.
I wasn’t thinking, “wow, what a fantastic guitar player” or “what a great singer,” just the whole thing all together. There was an anointing on the boy.
John Kay: In ’64 before leaving Buffalo for good a friend and I hitchhiked with our guitars down to Newport, R.I. for the folk festival. And we saw Dylan there for the first time live. And at that point he was really into full-force writing; the Civil Rights movement still very much in the forefront of the folk community. Certainly the draft interested every young male who might be called up to join the armed forces, certainly made them interested in what was going on in Vietnam.
So it was a very heady time during which those such as Dylan, who were following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie and writing about the here and now had a huge impact on our group of his contemporaries.
That was my first exposure to hearing him live. As it turned out a year later, I would be back for the Newport Folk Festival ’65 and now of course was the time when he, together with some of the members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, started doing his electric work. Having been a rock and roll junkie from early on, I was perfectly fine with it but there were lots of people who were seeing their literary giant be somehow overcome by the less than desirable electric and rock elements.
Roger McGuinn: He went through phases. He went through the protest phase and was the voice of the generation and he didn’t really buy into that himself [Laughs]. He didn’t continue it, he didn’t buy into it as a lifestyle that he was going to continue for the rest of his life. I’m not saying he was insincere because I believed “Masters of War” and all the protest songs.
And then the Beatles and the Stones came out and the Byrds got a number one hit with “Mr. Tambourine Man” and he said, “Ah! I can be a rock star!” [Laughs] So he developed into a rock and roll star. But that wasn’t too far from his beginnings, he’d already been into rock and roll as a kid.
John Kay: Shortly after the ’64 visit to the Newport Folk Festival, I migrated to the West Coast, getting my thing together as a journeyman folk acoustic blues solo performer, hanging out in places like the Troubadour.
In a club called the New Balladeer, where I would perform myself, I ran into people like David Crosby and the then still-named Jim McGuinn, who of course changed his name to Roger McGuinn and I basically witnessed the formation of the Byrds. Once they were formed and had an album out with Tambourine Man, a friend of mine, Morgan, who was the manager of the New Balladeer, he and I would go up to Sunset Strip to Ciro’s. When the Byrds were formed, they played there for a week at a time, sometimes two weeks, several sets a night. So we would go because it was a very happening scene.
One night while we were there – well, lo and behold who walks out onto the stage with the Byrds – Dylan. And he started to play harmonica. Now I did not get to talk to him, it was just something that blindsided us. I said God, there he is, playing harmonica.
I like so many others stayed with him in terms of his musical progression through the various albums that followed that one that I had initially purchased, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
By the time he got into Bringin’ It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited and then finally Blonde on Blonde, we were all really into those albums because it had tons and tons of really cool stuff to listen to.
Henry Paul: Now, when he stopped – and when I say stopped, when that whole rush, whatever it was that propelled him through Highway 61 Revisited, Bringin’ It All Back Home – when I went out and got Blonde on Blonde, for me it came to an end. Blonde on Blonde did not do for me what Bringin’ It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited did for me.
A lot of the sneer and a lot of the attitude was a little bit harder to find in that.
But I was very, very connected to him from the standpoint of a poetic, musical disciple. And that’s what drove me to New York to launch my career.
Leslie West (the Vagrants, Mountain): I didn’t appreciate how great he was when I was with the Vagrants. I didn’t really listen to his early albums. I wasn’t a fan of his voice but I sure liked his lyrics, my God.
After I played Woodstock, I was going to buy a house in Woodstock. I got my first big royalty check. So I buy a Bentley and I go into this big driveway and in the distance about a quarter of a mile up the driveway, I see this gigantic log cabin. It was more like a mansion.
I had no idea whose house it was. And I go inside and on one of these screened-in porches I see a strip of photos. You know those photo booths where you can take four pictures for a dollar? I see a strip of John and Yoko.
I said, “whoa, it’s not their house, they don’t live here.” And I go in the living room and on the whole wall is the picture of Bob Dylan from Nashville Skyline. Holy shit, it must be Bob’s house. I got so scared and nervous, I ran out of the house, got in the car and drove away.
I was traveling in Europe with Mountain years later and I hear Neil Young doing a version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” with violins. And I said, “Man, I think I can do that.” So I started fooling around with it and recorded it. And then we tried another song, “Positively 4th Street” and “Tambourine Man.” I tried to do it the way I would do it. You know, heavy.
That’s why we did the whole album of his songs, Masters of War. I was so enthralled by it, I had Ozzy Osbourne sing “Masters of War” with me. And there’s just something about him. He’s the poet of the 20th century, that’s the way I look at him.
John Kay: I have a complete playlist on my iPod of nothing but my favorite Dylan songs. So he continues to be a musical touchstone and something that I have absorbed over time that I consider to be something I still value to this day.
Marianne Faithfull: I’m so pleased he got the Nobel Prize for Literature. I think he deserved it.
Roger McGuinn: I’ve always said that knowing him is like knowing William Shakespeare. He was like a Shakespeare of songwriters.