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Bob Dylan's First Concert

The story behind Bob Dylan's first full concert performance


Bob Dylan live in concert

Bob Dylan live in concert

photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

It may not have been The Big Time, per se, but for Bob Dylan, it sure must have felt like it. On November 4, 1961, the 20-year-old folksinger ascended the stage of the 200-seat Carnegie Recital Hall armed with his guitar and a pocketful of new cover songs he'd just carved into memory. While he had performed at Greenwich Village's bigger venues like the Gaslight and Gerde's Folk City, the Carnegie Hall show constituted Dylan's very first actual live concert.

How It Fell Together

Career-wise, Bob was on a roll. Just six weeks earlier, entertainment writer Robert Shelton published a glowing review in the New York Times, touting Dylan as the next big thing in folk. Coincidentally, a day after the review appeared, Columbia Records A&R giant John Hammond Sr. signed the young singer-songwriter to a standard five-year recording contract with the label.

Meanwhile, star-maker Albert Grossman, then manager of Peter, Paul, and Mary, had been aiming to make Dylan the next addition to his managerial roster, which would one day include the likes of The Band and Janis Joplin. It was actually Grossman's comments that inspired Izzy Young to finance and organize the Carnegie Hall concert.

Izzy Young as Concert Promoter

If not for Dylan's early supporters and cheerleaders, he'd probably have never reached the heights of success as quickly as he did. Izzy Young was one of those mentors, and his encouragement helped boost Dylan's ego, giving him a push at that crucial early stage of his career. Back in the mid-'50s, Young was the founder of Greenwich Village's Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, a central meeting place where patrons could shop for folk records and instruments. More than a retailer, though, Young was the scene's historian and general go-to guy who kept the pulse of the scene and its gossip.

Naturally, as the Village's most pivotal hub, the Folklore Center was one of Dylan's first stops upon his arrival in the Village in January 1961. Young was a meticulous note-taker, and according to his journal, Dylan dropped in and played “Muleskinner Blues” on autoharp. However, it wasn't until the Shelton review appeared in the New York Times that Young took more than a passing interest in the folksinger.

But the real clincher—and what spurred Young into becoming a full-blown believer—was when Grossman commented, “I think Dylan can make it” in mid-October. Seeing the light, Young quickly assumed the role of Dylan's ad hoc “manager,” taking him to meet Moe Asch at Folkway Records in hopes of getting him a record contract, as well as securing Dylan's very first radio appearance—a two-song set on Oscar Brand's show, Folksong Festival, on WNYC, where Dylan performed Woody Guthrie's “Sally Gal,” and a traditional, “The Girl I Left Behind.”

The Concert

More than anything, the radio appearance was more of a plug for the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert slated for November 4th. Completely sold on Dylan's future, Izzy Young scheduled the concert, then laid out $75 to rent the hall, plus $35 for programs. At $2 per ticket, Young reckoned he'd have to sell half the seats to recoup his expenses. Anything over that would be profit. The show, however, proved to be a financial disaster; only 53 people showed up, a good percentage of those being Dylan's friends and cohorts who were issued comps.

By most accounts, it was a shy, nervous Dylan that took the stage, and his show deviated almost entirely from his normal set at Gerde's Folk City. Not yet the prolific songwriter he would soon become, his Carnegie Hall show consisted entirely of cover songs, including Woody Guthrie's “1913 Massacre,” and “Black Girl (In the Pines).” But more than anything, with studio time booked and his first-ever professional recording session looming just two weeks away, the concert became a live proving grounds for Dylan to try out some of the songs under consideration for his debut album. Three of the songs performed that night that would carry over to the November 20 session included “Pretty Peggy-O,” “Gospel Plow,” and “Fixin' to Die.”

While young may have jumped the gun, optimistically promoting a relatively major concert before Dylan had built a big enough name to fill a 200-seat venue, he only missed the mark by about a year. For the time being, Dylan would return to Gerde's Folk City, taking up a regular spot on the bill until the summer of 1962, when he would begin performing to larger audiences, opening for the likes of Pete Seeger at benefit concerts and soon bvecoming a headliner in his own right.

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