Before Bob Dylan established himself as a folk musician, he was a rock ‘n’ roll man through and through. From the tender days of his youth, he would play the piano as his main instrument; he would perform standing at the keys and sing in his school band emulating his hero Little Richard in attempts to woo the girls in his class. His attraction to folk music would come in the late 1950s just after leaving school for university in Minnesota. Dylan would ultimately drop out of university to follow his preferred path of becoming a musician, but it was around this time that he fell under the spell of Woody Guthrie.
Dylan has been described to have had a mind like a sponge in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, listening to as many live gigs and records as he could, all the while emulating the chord structures and lyrics of his beloved folk forebears in intimate gigs of his own. His particular interest in Woody Guthrie would draw him to New York in the early 1960s where he managed to meet and befriend his idol in the final years of his life. He would sit at Guthrie’s bedside, where he was tragically dying from Huntington’s disease, and play some of his songs to him.
While most of Dylan’s music we’re well acquainted with now came from his own pen, he did have a helping hand in the early days from some of the oldest names in the folk tradition. Early on, his small coffee house gigs would be littered with Guthrie covers and a spattering of other folk classics, including ‘Dink’s Song’, an old folk classic. The origin of ‘Dink’s Song’ isn’t entirely known, but the earliest historical record of the song came from ethnomusicologist John Lomax in 1909. He explained that the song originated from the 1800s and was sung by an African American woman called Dink, who told the story of washing her husband’s clothes in a camp of migratory levee-builders on the bank of the Brazos River, near Houston, Texas.
As with many of Dylan’s early recorded tracks, the lyrics were taken from ancient folk tradition. On his first album, he released his cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’, a classic folk tale of a life lost to sin in New Orleans. On Dylan’s 1963 second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, he had shown a marked improvement in songwriting skill showing all the best elements of the folk tradition that he had learned and innovated to produce some of his greatest early original material. The album features Dylan’s song ‘Girl from the North Country’ which he developed from the traditional English folk ballad ‘Scarborough Fair’ which he learned while visiting London in 1962. The song contains the lyrics “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme/Then she’ll be a true love of mine”. The song was since popularised by Simon and Garfunkel who released their version of ‘Scarborough Fair’ in 1966, which was famously used in the soundtrack for the 1968 film The Graduate.
By 1964, Dylan was recording his third studio album The Times They Are a-Changin’, he had decided that after soaking up as much of the giant’s genius on whose shoulders he stood, he was now ready to release his first album consisting of all original material. The album showed the artist take a turn from the more light-hearted and jovial manner of his previous albums toward something a little more morose. The songs display his untouchable songwriting talent and appear to exhibit all of the greatest teachings of his folk odyssey of the past five years. Of all the tracks on the album, Dylan appears to display his talent for interweaving threads of his own genius with the teachings of the ancient folk tradition best in ‘North Country Blues’.
Watch Bob Dylan perform ‘North Country Blues’ at Newport Folk Festival in 1963 below.