What was it like growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota, in the Fifties?
You're pretty much ruled by nature up there. You have to sort of fall into line with that, regardless of how you're feeling that day or what you might want to do with your life, or what you think about. And it still is like that, I think.
Were you aware of any anti-Semitism there when you were a kid?
No. Nothing really mattered to me except learning another song or a new chord, or finding a new place to play, you know? Years later, when I'd recorded a few albums, then I started seeing in places: "Bob Dylan's a Jew," stuff like that. I said, "Jesus, I never knew that." But they kept harping on it; it seemed like it was important for people to say that — like they'd say "the one-legged street singer" or something. So after a period of time, I thought, "Well, gee, maybe I'll look into that."
I don't know. I never noticed it occurring with any other artists; I mean, I've never seen it about Barbra Streisand or Neil Diamond. But it has occurred with me. As a kid, though, I never felt anything, like, I had to fight my way through schoolyard crowds, you know. As long as I had a guitar, I was happy.
Was Hibbing an oppressive place? Did it just make you want to get out?
Not really. I didn't really know anything else except, uh, Hank Williams. I remember hearin' Hank Williams one or two years before he died. And that sort of introduced me to the guitar. And once I had the guitar, it was never a problem. Nothing else was ever a problem.
Did you get to see any of the original rock & roll guys, like Little Richard, Buddy Holly?
Yeah, sure. I saw Buddy Holly two or three nights before he died. I saw him in Duluth, at the armory. He played there with Link Wray. I don't remember the Big Bopper. Maybe he'd gone off by the time I came in. But I saw Ritchie Valens. And Buddy Holly, yeah. He was great. He was incredible. I mean, I'll never forget the image of seeing Buddy Holly up on the bandstand. And he died — it must have been a week after that. It was unbelievable.
Late at night, I used to listen to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Howlin' Wolf blastin' in from Shreveport. It was a radio show that lasted all night. I used to stay up till two, three o'clock in the morning. Listened to all those songs, then tried to figure them out. I started playing myself.
How did you take to the guitar?
First, I bought a Nick Manoloff book. I don't think I could get past the first one. And I had a Silvertone guitar from Sears. In those days, they cost thirty or forty dollars, and you only had to pay five dollars down to get it. So I had my first electric guitar.
I had a couple of bands in high school, maybe three or four of 'em. Lead singers would always come in and take my bands, because they would have connections, like maybe their fathers would know somebody, so they could get a job in the neighboring town at the pavilion for a Sunday picnic or something. And I'd lose my band. I'd see it all the time.
That must have made you a little bitter.
Yeah, it did, actually. And then I had another band with my cousin from Duluth. I played, you know, rock & roll, rhythm & blues. And then that died out, pretty much, in my last year of high school.
And after that, I remember I heard a record — I think maybe it was the Kingston Trio or Odetta or someone like that — and I sorta got into folk music. Rock & roll was pretty much finished. And I traded my stuff for a Martin that they don't sell anymore, an 0018, maybe, and it was brown. The first acoustic guitar I had. A great guitar. And then, either in Minneapolis or St Paul, I heard Woody Guthrie. And when I heard Woody Guthrie, that was it, it was all over.
What struck you about him?
Well, I heard them old records, where he sings with Cisco Houston and Sonny [Terry] and Brownie [McGhee] and stuff like that, and then his own songs. And he really struck me as an independent character. But no one ever talked about him. So I went through all his records I could find and picked all that up by any means I could. And when I arrived in New York, I was mostly singing his songs and folk songs. At that time, I was runnin' into people who were playing the same kind of thing, but I was kinda combining elements of Southern mountain music with bluegrass stuff, English-ballad stuff. I could hear a song once and know it. So when I came to New York, I could do a lot of different stuff. But I never thought I'd see rock & roll again when I arrived here.
Did you miss it?
Not really, because I liked the folk scene. It was a whole community, a whole world that was all hooked up to different towns in the United States. You could go from here to California and always have a place to stay, and always play somewhere, and meet people. Nowadays, you go to see a folk singer — what's the folk singer doin'? He's singin' all his own songs. That ain't no folk singer. Folk singers sing those old folk songs, ballads.
I met a lot of folk singers in New York, and there were a lot of 'em in the Twin Cities. But I ran into some people in England who really knew those songs. Martin Carthy, another guy named Nigel Davenport. Martin Carthy's incredible. I learned a lot of stuff from Martin. "Girl From the North Country" is based on a song I heard him sing — that "Scarborough Fair" song, which Paul Simon, I guess, just took the whole thing.
Could folk ever become big again?
Well, yeah, it could become big again. But people gotta go back and find the songs. They don't do it no more. I was tellin' somebody that thing about when you go to see a folk singer now, you hear somebody singin' his own songs. And the person says, "Yeah, well, you started that." And in a sense, it's true. But I never would have written a song if I didn't play all them old folk songs first. I never would have thought to write a song, you know? There's no dedication to folk music now, no appreciation of the art form.
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