I learned today with great sadness of the passing of Sally Grossman. The name may be unfamiliar but she stares out, cigarette held aloft, on the cover of one of best albums of Bob Dylan’s career, Bringing It All Back Home. I’m listening to it right now as I type these words. More than just a beautiful woman who could strike a mesmerizing pose, Ms. Grossman was instrumental in helping her husband Albert Grossman manage many of the most important individuals and groups of the folk/blues revival. In his memoir This Wheel’s on Fire Levon Helm of The Band talks about how Sally Grossman championed what was then still Dylan’s backup musicians. She carried on with the work after her husband’s untimely passing in 1986. Here is a brief video of the creation of the album cover. I have always loved that the room still exists today preserved in the condition it was in 1965. Click here for some lovely outtakes and more. Even better, do so while listening to the record.
I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving weekend has been restful. It has not been the holiday many of us might have liked but it’s the one we get, and for that I am thankful. I must say I have not done much other than relax these past several days, though I did work half a morning this past Friday. Life has been so stressful on so many fronts recently that it’s been good to have a bit of a respite. There has been lots of jazz and Bob Dylan on the turntable as well, which is always a plus.
I was telling someone last night: there’s Bob and then there is everyone else. Essentially I rediscovered him over these past nine months of the shutdown. At least for me Dylan has been the ideal voice for the current moment. The trick with Dylan is to not take it too seriously and understand how witty, playful, and just plain funny the guy is. I think he takes the minute parsing of his life and lyrics with more than a little bemusement, and probably contempt and derision as well. And yet within all that he’s working on about 3-4 different levels. This is not bread and circuses.
It is a glorious Sunday morning here in New York City. Under normal circumstances we likely would have gone to a museum or something today. Maybe next year. Instead I will use the day productively to gear up for the remainder of the semester, clean the house, and get in a walk at Green-Wood. Whatever you do, make the most of the remainder of the weekend and these waning autumn days.
I am currently about 150 pages into Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, the first volume in his trilogy about the United States in the 1950s and 60s seen through the lens of the Civil Rights Movement. I am currently in the chapter on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Branch’s series has been on my radar for decades, without ever quite making it to the top of my reading list until now. There is something extraordinary when a historian researches and writes a story with such authority and grace. It is all the more rewarding, even humbling, when the subject matter is worthy of the writer’s skills.
Today is the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington. Over the years I’ve read and watched many first hand accounts of people who were there, including Bob Dylan, Nat Hentoff, Bill Russell, and Jackie Robinson just to name a few. Broadly speaking, I have always found the first half of the 1960s more socially, politically, and culturally intriguing than the second half. The later events may have been more dramatic and played out more graphically on television, but the seeds for them had been planted in the years immediately beforehand. These are events in our history that seem so far removed and yet so near at the same time.
(image/photographer Marion S. Trikosko for U.S. News & World Report, via Library of Congress)
Today is the 55th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s so-called plugging in and going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan at Newport in ’65 is one of those now Well Told Tales, recounted today by hundreds of thousands but witnessed in real time by a fraction of that number. The story has been mythologized, and to a large degree overblown, for more than half a century now. In the standard telling fans were outraged that Dylan would deign to forgo his folk roots and pollute the purity and sanctity of Newport with electronic sound. That doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, there had already been electric music played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had done that very thing, as had others.
What is more, Dylan’s most ardent followers would have already known the directions he was already taking; his fifth album, the half-electric Bringing It All Back Home, had been released four months earlier in March. It seems the real issue with any booing–and it’s not really evident that there was that much–had to do with the sound quality of the stage set. The festival had been growing exponentially each succeeding year and organizers were having difficulty accommodating the thousands of listeners who converged on that New England seaside community fifty-five summers ago.
Nineteen sixty-five was a tipping point in the decade. Malcolm X had been assassinated in February, the Johnson Administration was escalating the American presence in Vietnam, Watts burned just two weeks after the Newport Festival. By the years’s end the Beatles would release Help! and Rubber Soul, and Dylan himself came out with Highway 61 Revisited. I was talking to someone a few days ago about this heady time when the Beatles and Dylan were taking over popular culture and he described it saying that it felt like the world was transforming from black-and-white to color, which in many ways it was via photography and television. It is no wonder people remember–and misremember–the moment so “clearly.”
(image/1964 St. Lawrence University yearbook)