Bob Dylan once said: “To me, folk is just a bunch of fat people.” And when referencing that quote, the filmmaker Ethan Coen quipped: “That sort of disavowing the shit that you actually love is interesting and real and human.” You see, the thing is, folk music was never meant to be huge, Bob Dylan never actually meant to change the world, Joni Mitchell should never have really made any more than a room full of drunken people in gingham cry.
There shouldn’t be any success stories from the eternal dive bars of dog-eared six strings and hard-luck tales. Even the origin of modern folk lies in the mystic no-mans-land of 200-year-old songs about star crossed lovers, framed murderers and wandering undesirables by artists unknown. It was Bond Street in London that messed this up, not Greenwich Village.
In 1957, Jack Kerouac had just encapsulated the zeitgeist with On the Road, and, in the process, told a million youthful pariahs that the true home for artistic periphery persons was actually in the heart of New York. On the jacket sleeve of modern copies, you will find the following testimony from Dylan himself: “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.” Thus, he wandered over to the Big Apple and set up shop in the Zip Code for the disenfranchised: Greenwich Village.
The issue was the bohemian New York suburb was literally swarming with fellow bohemians. There was a regional shortage of flannel, whisky and good fortune. Thus, you had a thousand artists playing the same songs in the same basement bars on the same nights, like some rolling Groundhog Day of whining “fat people”. Dylan, like many others, sensed he had to get out for a while. As Jackson C. Frank would harrowingly croon: “Take a boat to England baby… the blues are all the same.”
In the end, Dylan was actually invited across the Atlantic by the British TV executive Philip Saville. He had witnessed an early Dylan performance in one of the aforementioned dive bars and sought to bring him over to the growing London scene to perform on the drama, Madhouse on Castle Street. Therein, Dylan recalls: “I ran into some people in England who really knew those [traditional English] songs. Martin Carthy, another guy named [Bob] Davenport. Martin Carthy’s incredible. I learned a lot of stuff from Martin”
At the time, it happened to be the coldest winter on record—because what could possibly be more befitting? As for the culture in Britain at the time, well there wasn’t all that much of it, to be honest. Cliff Richards was top of the charts and there were three radio stations and two channels to choose from. But America was beginning its pre-emptive reverse British invasion. Rock ‘n’ roll had already blown over on the summer breeze of the late 1950s and now that winter had arrived the hardy folks from Greenwich Village were setting up shop on Bond Street.
When he arrived, his manager Albert Grossman and one of Dylan’s early heroes, Odetta, were already acquainting themselves with the frosty London scene. Dylan checked in Mayfair Hotel and later broke his performative duct in the Madhouse on Castle Street playing an early incarnation of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. Thereafter, he did what any good folk musician would do; he turned his collar to the cold and damp and went from bar to bar with his careworn guitar under the arm of his moth-eaten coat.
Between Bunjes Coffee House and The Establishment, he could go from one hard-luck story to the next. By the time he got to the Roundhouse, the star who eats lie pie for breakfast had been three different people, all of them slowly melding into Bob Dylan and his Freewheelin’ ways. At this point, it seems pertinent to return to the sage of Ethan Coen, who said of American folk: “The scene was defined largely by the worship for authenticity.” In a city where everyone was talented but largely the same, being original in the true sense of the word was vital. Being in London was like stepping back to that.
Pete Seeger had recommended the Troubadour on Cromwell Road to Dylan to visit on his wayfaring tour. His half-sister, Peggy Seeger, would later opine: “What might have puzzled Dylan was the non-nightclub atmosphere the folk clubs had. There were no lights, there were no microphones… there was no ritualised nightlife to it. It was a bunch of ordinary people coming to their pub.” In other words, if Greenwich Village was a manufactured facsimile of folk, with a thousand people searching for the real thing, then in London it was simply playing out. People would finish a hard day’s work, then head to the pub to unwind with some music and a beer and hear a tale they could relate to.
Nevertheless, with the folk scene filtering over through records, magazines, bootlegs and the occasional proto-star, there was also enough hubbub in the area to create a sort of scene out it. This collision of three factors—the need to have space for self-invention, the realisation of genuine folk authenticity and the opportunity to have your name spread in a sphere that wasn’t so damn busy proved a boon not only for Bob Dylan but also Paul Simon, Jackson C. Frank and a slew of other folk stars who first made a name for themselves on UK soil. In fact, Paul Simon even encouraged his fellow American’s to take the trip over to record their records in a less competitive realm and make use of the booming platform.
The appetite from the wider public in the UK was simply more fruitful for them when it came to folk. Dylan’s debut reached 13 in the UK but failed to chart in the US. Then came the record that reinvented the musical wheel, with his Freewheelin’ masterpiece, released shortly after his return from the UK, where he had drummed up enough of a name to rightfully reach the top of the charts, but in the US the Promethean feat only reached 22. Oddly, it wasn’t until he ditched the Amish-adjacent authenticity of ‘The Village’ and reinvented himself once more as an electric musician with Bring It All Back Home that he broke the US and finished up sixth in the charts.
Just as Dylan evolved when he departed London, the British capital moved on too. Now, there is no folk scene in the hugely gentrified region of Bond Street, and what remains lingers in basement bars like Skeehan’s in New Cross and a few Irish pubs scattered around the South East, but for all intents and purpose the cliques of the early sixties swirled out in the kaleidoscopic melee it soon became, but boy do we have the music to prove just what Dylan’s “fat people” were capable of.