On May 6, 1961, 19-year-old Bob Dylan travelled to the Indian Neck Festival, held at the Montowesi Hotel in Branford, Connecticut to perform a small set. Just a year earlier, he’d dropped out of the University of Minnesota and journeyed to New York City to make it as a folk singer. After performing in Greenwich Village clubs for a few months, he began touring around, which is how he ended up at the festival that summer. His short set ended up being the earliest known recording of Dylan, and, in turn, a pivotal moment in history, which you can listen to below.
That day, Bob Dylan performed three songs with the help of fellow folk-singer Mark Spoelstra. The songs were: ‘Talkin’ Columbia,’ ‘Hangknot, Slipnot’, and ‘Talkin’ Fish Blues.’ With his unique nasal tone and harmonica apparatus, he caught the eye of Bob Neuwirth, a folk-singer who would later become a close friend.
“Bob and I met at the Indian Neck Folk Festival, put on by a bunch of Yale students,” Neuwirth recalled.”I remember running into Dylan because he was the only other guy with a harmonica holder around his neck.”
He continued: ”I remember standing around the beer barrel, and Kweskin and Robert L. Jones and I were singing some Woody Guthrie song. Bob came up and started playing along with it, and he had another Woody Guthrie song, and it went from there until dark — obscure Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams songs.”
It seems a lot of soon-to-be Dylan connections stemmed from this performance of covers, including none other than folk-legend Eric Von Schmidt. He remembers, “The first time I heard about Dylan was through Robert L. Jones, who was my brother-in-law. Robert was a good singer, and he was invited down to the Indian Neck Folk Festival that year, and when it was over, he came back, and he said: ‘Hey, there’s this guy down there you really gotta hear. Bob Dylan, he sounds like Woody Guthrie, and he sings these funny songs.’
“So, sometime in June,” continued Von Schmidt, “Dylan showed up in Cambridge with Jones. Dylan was young and puppy-like and sweet and just real live, open and warm. I felt that very much. We got together at my apartment on Boyleston Street, and I played some stuff like He Was A Friend Of Mine … “
Now known as the ‘Indian Neck Tape,’ it showcases a rare side of Dylan before he’d adopted his now-signature tone and style. Music journalist and Dylan expert Paul Williams says of Dylan’s performance, “He’s surprisingly self-assured [and] his confidence is particularly evident in his timing. All the songs on the tape are talking blues, a difficult medium in which timing and rapport with the audience are everything.”
He continued: ”His guitar and harmonica are as full of personality as his voice, and serve as a rhythmic drone that pulls in any portion of anyone’s attention that might be straying so that all the energy of the crowd stays focused on the performer. We know from contemporary accounts and later performances that Dylan alternated between stage fright and tremendous poise; here he offers an example of the latter.”
Listen back to the first-ever recorded concert for Bob Dylan below.