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The one review that helped put Bob Dylan on the map

Bob Dylan is, without a doubt, one of the most recognised and celebrated musicians the world has ever seen. Not to put it lightly, but everything – from the melodies to the lyrics that he composed – changed the course of popular music forever and introduced a whole new dimension to the notion of pop music. When it comes to recalling some of the most revolutionary lyrics or some of the most popular songs (somehow there’s one for every occasion), rest assured that Dylan would be your go-to man.

However, behind the icon, there was one event that acted as a catalyst for his meteoric rise – in Dylan’s case; it induced a surge in his visibility. From growing up in a small town and performing in school bands to playing some of the biggest arenas, here is how one review serendipitously changed Bob Dylan’s career as an artist forever.

It all started in the 1960s. Dylan had just moved to New York City to be a part of the growing folk scene and visit his musical idol Woody Guthrie, who was suffering from ailments and was admitted to hospital. His other motive, of course, was to pursue his hope of making a name for himself as a musician in the city that was known to be the hub for rising artists. He found himself a gig at Gerde’s Folk City in Manhattan as a supporting act for the esteemed John Lee Hooker. From then on, Dylan’s association with the venue only became stronger. Performing at Gerde’s Folk City changed his life forever. It was where he became the subject of a New York Times review by Robert Shelton, a review that essentially helped put him on the map.

Robert Shelton was a music and film critic for the New York Times for almost a decade. A man of importance, Shelton was approached by Dylan multiple times, asking Shelton to write about him in The Times. Until the September of ’61, Shelton didn’t find a performance worthy of being critiqued in The Times. However, he did mention Dylan in one of his earlier reviews, after Dylan’s performance at WRVR’s live radio show Hootenanny, saying, “Among the newer promising talents deserving mention are a 20-year-old latter-day Guthrie disciple named Bob Dylan, with a curiously arresting mumbling, country-steeped manner.” However, the September ’61 review, where Dylan opened for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerde’s, was really what started everything. A huge achievement in itself to have an entire article dedicated to him in the New York Times, this write-up facilitated Dylan’s rise in popularity as well.

But, returning to Dylan’s “flattering” portrayal in The Times, Shelton left no stone unturned. Starting with a description of his physical appearance, to perusing his musical abilities all the way to analysing his relevance and originality in the contemporary music industry, Shelton’s review covered it all.

Starting with a description of his physical appearance, Shelton wrote, “[Dylan’s] clothes may need a bit of tailoring, but when he works his guitar, harmonica or piano and composes new songs faster than he can remember them, there is no doubt that he is bursting at the seams with talent.”

Perusing his musical abilities, too, Shelton had a lot to say: “Mr Dylan seems to be performing in a slow-motion film. Elasticised phrases are drawn out until you think they may snap.” Shelton’s words also reverberated Dylan’s performance style that would be quite well known in his developing career.

But Shelton did not only write about Dylan’s individuality. In his review, Shelton also commented on how this individuality, in turn, was relevant for the collective, the society as a whole, in the contemporary music industry as well as the communities outside it. Shelton’s words were: “Mr Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty. He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his porch. All the ‘husk and bark’ are left on his notes, and a searing intensity pervades his songs.”

There is something about reading Shelton’s review of Dylan that he wrote in the ’60s, in the 21st century – sitting in the quiet corners of our homes, knowing what we already know about the seminal figure that is Bob Dylan – that really transports us to the hustle and bustle of the ’60s New York City life. Witnessing the rise of so many musical personalities would define musicality as we know it.

Shelton’s flamboyant review put a rocket on to Bob Dylan’s career and short him into the stars. It just goes to show how influential reviews and reviewers were in the ’60s, how they held power to possibly make or break the career of any potential professional artist. Thankfully, for Bob Dylan, it was the start of his brilliant career, and Shelton’s review helped him flourish as an artist and subsequently strike a record deal with Columbia Records shortly after his performance with the Greenbriar Boys at Gerde’s.