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Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography, Part One

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Bob Gleason and his wife Sid had been fans of Guthrie since the Thirties and when they heard he was in Greystone they went to visit him. Guthrie complained about being confined to the hospital and the Gleasons persuaded hospital officials to let them take Guthrie around Morristown for the day. While wandering around the town, Gleason asked Guthrie if he'd like to spend weekends at their place if the doctors would agree, and Guthrie said he'd love it. The hospital director gave his permission, so long as Guthrie was back at night for special medication. The next Sunday — Mother's Day, 1959 — the Gleasons picked up Guthrie at the hospital and drove him to their apartment in East Orange, New Jersey.

Over the next two years the Gleasons brought Woody to their apartment every weekend, missing only two weekends in all that time. The Gleason apartment in East Orange became a center of folk activity, filled every weekend and frequently during the week with "every stumblebum in creation," as one of them affectionately said of the loose crowd, all come to spend time with the greatest figure in modern folk music. Pete Seeger would come, with his wife, Toshi, and their children. Peter La Farge, part-Indian, cowboy, folksinger, author of "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," weaver of tall tales, Cisco Houston, Jack Elliott and dozens more. They would eat and drink and swap tall tales, and play music. Much of the playing was laid down on Bob Gleason's tapes, some of the most marvelous and priceless tapes around.

When he visited Guthrie, Dylan was told that the Gleasons were bringing him to their home every weekend and the next day Dylan hitchhiked to the Gleasons' apartment. Mrs. Gleason remembers that first meeting:

"He came, and he said little except that he loved Woody and wanted to spend time with him. He looked like an archangel almost, like a choir boy, with that little round face and the beautiful eyes. His hair in those days was long and curly and he wore that dark Eton cap. He had a pair of boots that was two sizes too big; everything that child had was either too small or too big."

Mrs. Gleason apparently (she doesn't recall exactly) told Dylan that Woody would be at her apartment the following Sunday ,which was January 29th from the available evidence, and that she expected a few of Woody's friends to show up. And, she added, Bob would be welcome if he cared to make the trip.

Bob began visiting Woody at the hospital several times a week, and he showed up at the Gleasons practically every weekend over the next few weeks. By the second weekend Woody was asking for Bobby, and he would ask for him all the time: "Is the boy coming today? When is the boy coming back?" Something grew between them, between the dying originator of modern folk and the boy who was imitating him, idolizing him, and who would soon surpass him. On one of those first Sundays, Bob played "Song to Woody" for him, privately, in the corner, and everyone in the room stopped to listen. And, someone remembers, Woody's face broke into a broad smile of joy, and he said: "That's good, Bob. That's damned good." After everyone left, Woody told the Gleasons, "That boy's got a voice. Maybe he won't make it by his writing, but he can sing it. He can really sing it."

He also said, "Pete Seeger's a singer of folk songs, not a folksinger. Jack Elliott is a singer of folk songs. But Bobby Dylan is a folksinger. Oh, Christ, he's a folksinger all right."

Ramblin' Jack Elliott, as he's long been known, is able to see Dylan from some special vantage points. He had himself become so totally hooked on Guthrie ten years earlier that he imitated his music and his style. The Guthrie magnetism so completely attracted him that he eventually became known as "the son of Woody Guthrie." And, in Dylan's first few months in New York, playing with Elliott at folk clubs and in private parties, Dylan began to absorb some of Elliott's tricks and mannerisms, and folkies would describe Dylan in those earliest months as "the son of Jack Elliott and the grandson of Woody Guthrie" with just a little bit of scorn, at first.

Jack Elliott, on Bob Dylan and Jack Elliott: "Bob was kind of shy, that first day. He had a lot of strong feelings about things. I could tell he liked Woody a lot, and Woody liked him. He was talking a lot like Woody. In fact I told him so one time," You sound like Woody," and he explained he picked it up from an old black street singer he met down in New Mexico, who speaks like that. I used to imitate Woody all the time, and I saw Dylan imitate me direct, doing things that were pure Jack Elliott. He'd already been doing it quite a bit before he got to New York, from my records. A girl friend of his from back in Minneapolis, Bonnie Beecher, the last time I saw her she said,'Bob used to play all your records before he came to New York. He was fond of your voice and he listened to your records and picked up your style,' and I was tickled about that. And then in Gerde's Folk City, he used to get up on stage and sing things like me. I didn't know it was some of me, at first. I thought he was doing it Woody Guthrie style, in the Guthrie Cisco Houston school. I was tickled to see somebody doing it well 'cause I was really bored with all the other folksingers. There was not another son of a bitch in the country who could sing until Bob Dylan came along. Everybody else was singing like a damned faggot.

"Some of the people around were turned off a little bit because Bob was playing the hobo role. I thought that he was maybe a little too young to pull it off in the style in which he was doing it. He was trying to sound like an old man who bummed around eighty-five years on a freight train, and you could see this kid didn't even have fuzz on his face yet. But I was charmed by it. He was a rough little pixie runt with a guitar. He was headed in the right direction and he had great taste — the words he was singing, the gestures and the mannerisms. Like he was not quite bringing it off, the way he was trying, it wasn't perfected yet. He was very rough. I thought sometimes he had a lot of nerve trying to get away with that bullshit. At the same time I felt unofficially like a coach, teaching him a little bit, in a very loose way. So, secretly, I felt a lot of pride about him every once in a while picking up on something I did.

"I saw him one time, I don't know what it was that I was doing, some kind of gesture I didn't know about and must have just got started on, but he got up on stage right after I did and sang songs and did the same things I'd just done. He had a great ability to pick things up quickly, but more from hanging out — not a calculated thing.

"There was something else about Bob. He had the same kind of magnetism as James Dean. Dean was the first cat I ever met with that kind of thing, the magnetism and the feeling he was running too fast and was going to get himself killed because he was running too fast. And Bob was the second I ever met."

* * *

Dylan was singing before Village audiences every chance he got, hitting the coffee houses primarily. No one would hire him at first, and he was forced to sing for nothing more than the exposure, getting up on the stage of the coffee houses in the afternoons and evenings, before the paid professionals would come on, singing for a sandwich and some coffee, mostly. He seldom shared in the donation baskets, even.

Dylan sang at the Commons, the Gaslight, and the Wha?, and occasionally when he backed someone who was getting paid he would share in the wages. But usually he got just a dollar or two. Freddy Neil was one of the first to recognize Dylan's talents and had Bob accompany him as often as he could, but the pay wasn't much. Paul Clayton, who came from the old whaling town, New Bedford, Massachusetts, and who sang sea chanties, went around singing Dylan's praises to any who would listen. "Bobby worshipped Pablo Clayton artistically," one of the folksingers from those days recalls." And Pablo became absolutely fixated on Bobby. Bobby could talk about nothing else but Woody Guthrie, and Pablo could talk about nothing else but Bobby Dylan."

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