Madison in the Sixties – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan, age nineteen, his direction still unknown, blows into town in early January, 1961 and falls in with the leftist/folkie/theater crowd. He’s got the number for Socialist Club president and banjoist grad student Ron Radosh, but his apartment at 444 Hawthorne Ct. is too small for Dylan to stay there. So Radosh sends him over to freshman Danny Kalb, the exceptional young folk and blues guitarist who would later found the blues-rock group The Blues Project.
Kalb puts Dylan up in his Huntington Court rooming house for a day or two until the housemother kicks him out. That night, Kalb takes Dylan to a party, where two couples— Fred Underhill and poet Ann Lauterbach and Jennifer Warren and Fritz DeBoer – take Dylan under their collective wing and back to their flat at 430 W. Johnson St., where Dylan crashes for about a week.
They’re quite a quartet; Lauterbach, a poet, is a future recipient of Woodrow Wilson, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Fellowships; Underhill is charismatic and complex. Warren is an actor who would win a Theater World award for her Broadway debut in 1972 and an Academy Award in 1989 for coproducing the short documentary You Don’t Have To Die; DeBoer would spend 34 years as a professor of theater at Wesleyan University, focusing on Asian performance and Balinese dance. There’s another important political and musical link – Lauterbach, Warren and Radosh all had Pete Seeger as their Greenwich Village music teacher.
“I’ve been broke and cold,” Dylan writes friends back in Minneapolis, and was lucky to meet a “bunch of New York people” in Madison. Dylan spins tales of a made- up past, predicts his wondrous future, but mainly talks about and plays a lot of Woody Guthrie. His closest relationship is with Kalb, eighteen, who teaches him Dave Van Ronk’s version of “Poor Lazarus” in the Johnson Street kitchen and takes him to Marshall Brickman and Eric Weissberg’s place at 1028 Clymer St., the local stop on the folk music underground railroad.
Brickman would share an Academy Award for the screenplay to Annie Hall in 1977; Weissberg would win a Grammy for the banjo solo in the movie Deliverance. In 1975, Dylan hired Weissberg and his band, named after the movie, to back him on the album Blood on the Tracks, but dismissed all but the bass player them after two days.
For a few nights at the beatnik coffeehouse the Pad, Dylan blows harmonica while Kalb sits atop the old upright piano, playing the blues, and they collect a few coins. Someone records the two at a party, with a setlist that includes three Woody Guthrie songs, one by Hank Williams, and several traditional blues.
No one’s really knocked out by Dylan’s incessant performing, but he’s forming a clear personal style. Socialist Club stalwart Fred Ciporen chides him at a party one night for playing, unbidden, while people in his small and crowded apartment just want to talk politics and hang out.
After Dylan’s been in town about ten days, Underhill offers him a spot as a relief driver in a car headed for New York. It’s just what Dylan’s been waiting for. Arriving uptown on a brutally cold January 24, they hop the subway to Greenwich Village, where Dylan is soon onstage at the Cafe Wha?
Dylan returns to Madison as he’s turning twenty in May, taking over Warren’s room on West Johnson Street— taking being the operative word— for another freeloading week or two. Then he spends a few more days at Kalb’s pad, where he meets Paul Breines, soon to become a Freedom Rider in Mississippi, where he’ll be arrested and sent to the notorious Parchman Farm.
By now, Dylan’s aura is starting to grow; he’s gigged around the Village and spent time with the hospitalized Guthrie (and written “Song to Woody,” which he’ll record in November for his debut album). Young women are calling and coming on to him when he hangs out behind the Union— he even gets in some time on the piano at Grove’s Women’s Co- op— and kids are calling him King of the Folkies.
He isn’t, not yet, but when he plays Guthrie’s “New York Town” with Radosh at the Pad, or sings with Kalb and the crowd on a Mifflin Street balcony, some see signs of the transcendent artist soon to emerge. And then he’s gone, back to New York and his destiny— taking Underhill’s guitar case with him.
The next time Dylan visits Madison, he is the King of the Folkies. It’s November 19, 1964, and he’s got a gig at the Orpheum Theater on State Street. in black leather jacket and pointy boots, silent between songs, he draws about 500 people and mixed reviews for a setlist featuring classics old and new, including what is perhaps his greatest synthesis of surrealistic poetry and leftist politics, Chimes of Freedom. Ever challenging his audience, he performs three majestic compositions —“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” and “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”— that would not even be not recorded for another two months.
Alas, the greatness of the future Nobel laureate was largely lost on two of the three critics who published reviews. “Bob Dylan Songs Don’t Entertain,” declared the headline in the Capital Times over a review in which Joe Harrand waxed sarcastic. “this reviewer was unaware of Dylan’s importance and mistook his whining and mumbling for poor entertainment until someone pointed out we were witnessing social commentary at its greatest. I was going to pass this along to some other non-collegians sitting next to me, but they left during intermission.” “A vocal style resembling an 80-year-old man with a nasal condition,” sniped Robert A Davis in the Wisconsin State Journal. “He comes across as sincere, but never really succeeds in sincerely coming across.”
Only John Gruber in the Daily Cardinal got it. “Even his voice sometimes approaches a gentleness and mellowness which soothes minds immersed in a world which they never made but for which they are somehow responsible,” he wrote. “After Dylan has sung, nobody can say it any better or differently. His is the voice of conscience, and we can only ask ourselves if we feel the same way.”
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, vaccine-taking, and Dylan-birthday-celebrating WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Alice Ochs photo of Bob Dylan, Mark Spoelstra, Danny Kalb, and Gil Turner July, 1961