Fifty Years Ago Today: Bob Dylan Arrived In New York

'I didn't know a single soul in this dark freezing metropolis,' Dylan wrote in 'Chronicles.' 'But that was all about to change - and quick'

January 24, 2011 8:50 AM ET
Bob Dylan performs at New York City's the Bitter End, 1961.
Bob Dylan performs at New York City's the Bitter End, 1961.
Sigmund Goode/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

While it's next to impossible to confirm the exact date, it's widely agreed upon that today is the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan's arrival in New York City. The 19-year-old folk singer (who had recently dropped out of the University of Minnesota) had spent the past 24 hours driving east with fellow folksinger Fred Underhill and a young couple.

"The big car came to a full stop on the other side [of the George Washington Bridge] and let me off," Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume 1. "I slammed the door shut behind me, waved good-bye, stepped out onto the hard snow. The biting wind hit me in the face. At last I was here, in New York City, a city like a web too intricate to understand and I wasn't going to try."

Early Bob Dylan Photos

New York's winter of 1961 was the city's coldest in 28 years. "The cold was brutal and every artery of the city was snowpacked, but I'd started out from the Frostbitten North Country," Dylan wrote in Chronicles. "I didn't know a single soul in this dark freezing metropolis but that was all about to change — and quick."

Bob Dylan In Black and White: Photographs From The 1960s and 1970s

In a 1961 interview Dylan said they got off at 42nd Street before heading down to Greenwich Village. In 1966 he expanded on the story to biographer Robert Shelton. "We hustled for two months," Dylan said, in one of the most fantastical lies he ever told. "Sometimes we would make $150 or $250 a night between us, and hang around in cars. Cats would pick us up and chicks would pick us up. And we would do anything they wanted, as long as it paid. It was very cutthroat...I almost got killed."

The Artwork of Bob Dylan

What actually happened is that Dylan immediately trudged down about 40 blocks to Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. There he met the club's MC Fred Neil — five years before he recorded his signature song "Everybody's Talkin." "He asked me what I did and I told him I sang, played guitar and harmonica," Dylan wrote in Chronicles. "He asked me to play something. After about a minute, he said I could play harmonica with him during his sets. I was ecstatic. At least it was a place to stay out of the cold. This was good."

Manny Roth (uncle of Van Halen's David Lee Roth) ran Cafe Wha? and he took a liking to Dylan, making him a regular on the afternoon shift. "You never really did get popular because nobody knew you on the outside," Dylan said in a 1984 interview. "Nobody was billed on the outside. You passed the basket. That's why I started wearing hats." 

On the album jacket to Peter, Paul and Mary's 1963 LP In The Wind Dylan described his earliest days in the city. "Snow was piled up the stairs an onto the street that first winter when I laid around New York City/It was a different street then/It was a different village/Nobody had nothin/There was nothing to get/Instead of being drawn for money you were drawn for other people...It is 'f these times that I remember most sadly/For they're gone/And they'll not never come back again."

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