Bob Dylan moved to New York with the intention of establishing himself as a musician. He did so, but not without some challenges. When he arrived he didn’t make a strong impression; No one was very impressed with his singing or guitar playing, and he struggled to find places that would hire him for shows. They saw it as an act that could clear a space, not bring in an audience.
Bob Dylan struggled to find work when he moved to New York
Dylan moved to New York from Minnesota to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Woody Guthrie. When he arrived, he quickly set himself apart from his fellow musicians. According to musician Dave Van Ronk, Dylan looked like “the worst-looking escapee from a cornfield I’ve ever seen” (via The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein). His take on the harmonica was messy and untrained. Still, Van Ronk said he found Dylan impressive.
“His singing was just as uncompromising as his harmonica playing,” he said. “We were impressed.”
However, not everyone felt the same way. He dressed shabby and did not sing or play the guitar as well as his peers. He brought nervous energy to the stage. Because of this, he struggled to find work.
“He was too raw,” said Van Ronk.
According to Epstein, many club owners wouldn’t even let Dylan play for free.
“He was the kind of act you would do just before closing time to clear a space,” Epstein wrote.
Has this view of Bob Dylan’s music ever changed?
Van Ronk’s recollection of Dylan’s early days in New York proves one thing: he’s always been a divisive artist. He may no longer have trouble finding places to perform, but people have long questioned Dylan’s attractiveness. His songwriting is rarely an issue, but his singing voice is.
Dylan has grown as an artist since his early days in New York — mostly trying to sound like Guthrie in the early 1960s — but the way people see him hasn’t changed all that much. If anything, this shows Dylan’s strength as an artist. Despite some opinions about him, he has managed to establish himself as one of the most influential musicians of all time with his songwriting.
Bob Dylan helped establish the folk music scene in New York
Dylan moved to New York in the early 1960s to establish himself as a musician. According to Van Ronk, he was lucky to have done so. While there were a number of folk musicians in the city, few were able to make a living from their music alone.
“I heard him say . . . that he came to New York to ‘do’ it, but that’s bullshit,” said Van Ronk. “When he came to New York, there was no large folk music scene.”
Dylan grew as a musician because of the artists he met while living in New York. He also helped establish the city, and Greenwich Village in particular, as a center for folk music.
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