There are certain folk songs with an almost eerie timelessness about them, as though they hark back through eternities and dip a toe into the streaming future. That is how Bob Dylan once saw the old folk songs that inspired him. In 1961, he was stirred by the old Dust Bowl singers like Woody Guthrie to leave university and walk the roads to Greenwich Village like Jack Kerouac and his beat disciples had done before him.
Therein there was somehow so many folk singers crammed into one borough that it’s hard to understand just how it sustained itself. There were quite literally a thousand gingham-clad troubadours, all quite literally singing the same songs, and all suffering the same downbeat tropes of the genre which Dylan referred to when he said: “To me, folk is just a bunch of fat people.”
It is that infamous line and the strange period of history that the Greenwich Village folk revival represented that prompted the Coen Brother’s to comedically depict it in the film Inside Llewyn Davis. As Ethan Coen said about Dylan’s quote, “That kind of disavowing the shit that you actually love is interesting and really real and human.”
While authenticity was the buzzword of the village, Dylan had something even more personal and human in mind. “I always kind of wrote my own songs but I never really would play them. Nobody played their own songs, the only person I knew who really did it was Woodie Guthrie,” he once said.
This individualism caught Dylan’s attention, thus he decided to try his hand in homage. “Then one day,” he continues, “I just wrote a song, and it was the first song I ever wrote, and it was ‘A Song for Woodie Guthrie’. And I just felt like playing it one night and I played it. I just wanted a song to sing and there came a certain point where I couldn’t sing anything, I had to write what I wanted to sing because what I wanted to sing nobody else was writing, I couldn’t find that song someplace. If I could’ve I probably wouldn’t have ever started writing.”
This transition to introspective songwriting meant that the folk songs of old were put on the back burner, including the classic ‘House of the Rising Sun’. Ultimately, Dylan only played the classic song live eight times, and only twice in the ’60s. It is believed that this rare recording took place either on April 12 or April 18, 1963; although the exact date is disputed. It sees Dylan play in lend it a fingerpicking style and he imbues it with a befitting careworn atmosphere.
The song itself tells the world-weary tale of an ambitious life gone awry in the city of New Orleans, however, with its roots believed to be in traditional English folk music, the geographical placement of the tale likely comes from a later permutation. The fact that the song remains to this day of unknown authorship only adds to its timeless appeal, but most likely, it was just crafted by “a bunch of fat people”.