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Credit: WBC-TV

Music

Revisit Bob Dylan's iconic premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1961

@TomTaylorFO

When the legendary music scout John Hammond returned from service in World War II, he had grown disillusioned by bebop and other scenes that seemed, at least to him, to miss the cognizant point of reflecting the horrors that the world had seen and the introspective reverberations. This set about a musical itch in Hammond that was only scratched when, in 1961, he heard the very singular folk stylings of a scruffy young kid in a session for Carolyn Hester.

He signed this weird new anti-star onto Columbia in a heartbeat and he was ridiculed just as quickly with fellow executives referring to the man who changed the world as simply: ‘Hammond’s Folly’. In fact, as Hammond recalled: “The vice president of Columbia Records said just right off, the most horrible thing he’d ever heard in his life,” he said. “Hammond’s folly.”

The young scruffy anti-star was, of course, Bob Dylan — an artist who would go on to change the world. Naturally, you can’t really point to a moment when his star was born, but if you really wanted to, then his iconic premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1961 wouldn’t be the worst moment to choose. It is hard to imagine in retrospect, but like so many other amazing but ultimately doomed folk stars, Dylan could’ve been condemned to the ash heap of history and fate never to escape the clutches of the Café Wha, but one stirring performance ensured otherwise.

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Within a handful of days of signing for Columbia Records, they had a big show lined up for him. However, in a unique folk twist, it wasn’t exactly the Carnegie Hall, but the annexe attached to it: The Carnegie Chapel Hall. You can almost imagine the cash-strapped young troubadour in some office being told that ‘You’re gonna be playing the Carnegie, kid’ only for the slow, disappointing reveal to come to light that it wasn’t quite the main hall.

Nevertheless, the show was a huge deal for Dylan. Not only did the concert have the prestige of at least sporting ‘Carnegie’ by name, but the annexe was still a sizeable venue and it attracted a different crowd of punters. After all, down in the Gaslight, it was essentially folk musicians playing to their folk musician friends night after night.

Sadly for Dylan, only 53 people turned up the 200 seater venue, perhaps due to rushed promotion or perhaps they were put off by the $2 entry fee. However, despite this, there were enough ‘industry’ people in attendance to be stirred by his brilliant performance and his star began to seed. He wasn’t ready for the big time just yet, in part, owing to his strengths as an artist — he wasn’t quite the best guitarist or singer but he had something truly singular about him, and in an era where every folk star was regurgitating the same spiel, this proved bristling. 

In short, as John Hammond recognised, “Dylan was a born rebel, and I figured that, you know, Dylan could capture an audience of kids that Columbia had lost years before.” This proved true, but in the very early days, Dylan was somewhat hampered by the number of covers and standards he played, precluding his individuality from shining through. However, it was shows like this one where he first began to realise his own potential. As he reflects in his memoir, these early moments where he enamoured audiences made him realise the potential of his voice, and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.