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Happy 70th Birthday to the One & Only Bob Dylan!

On May 24, 1941 a baby named Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota.  Twenty years later, going by Bob Dylan in homage to one of his influences Dylan Thomas, he arrived in Greenwich Village in hopes of meeting his hero Woodie Guthrie.  Within four months Bob Dylan had booked his first professional gig at Gerde’s Folk City.  A few days prior to this performance, the New York Times hailed the 20-year-old Dylan as “a cross between a choir boy and a beatnick.”  The rest is history.

The northeast corner of Mercer Street and West 4th Street, formerly home to Gerde's Folk City and now the site of Hebrew Union College

This 70th-birthday milestone got us wondering, what would Dylan think of today’s Greenwich Village?  Would he miss his lost stomping grounds?  Would he approve of the changes?  We have a lot of talents at GVSHP, but unfortunately ESP isn’t one of them.  So, all we can do is take a walk through time and revisit the once-thriving folk scene of which  Bob Dylan was such a vital part.

One of the most significant folk spots in the Village was Izzy Young’s Folklore Center at 110 MacDougal Street (an 1880 Italianate tenement).  Izzy owned this store and hangout that carried books, records, and anything else related to folk music.  Young organized concerts and festivals and produced  Dylan’s first show.  He was also a leader of the Beatnick Riot, which Bob attended.  In fact, the Dylan song “Talking Folklore Center” is in honor of Izzy and the shop where he would sit and write songs.  Another popular folksy hangout was Allan Block Sandal Shop, a custom leather business (now called Original Leather) at 171 West 4th Street.  Mr. Block was a folk musician himself who would house open jam sessions in his shop on weekends.  Dylan’s love of West 4th Street was apparent in his song “Positively 4th Street.”

171 West 4th Street Then & Now- Allan Block Sandal Shop image courtesy of David Gahr & Rory Block

Bob did not  frequent the Village only for music purposes- he chose to call the neighborhood home as well.   Upon relocating from Minnesota to New York, Dylan met then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo (Suze passed away in February, more information on her can be found here) and the two lived together at 161 West 4th Street.  Rotolo is best known as the girl walking arm-in-arm with Bob Dylan down Jones Street on the cover of his album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”  Today’s Washington Square Hotel was, in the 60’s, a flophouse called Hotel Earle, and Bob spent some time staying there.  In Joan Baez’s love song about Dylan, ‘Diamonds and Rust’, she refers to it as “that crummy hotel over Washington Square.”   In 1970, just after Woodstock, Dylan moved into the townhouse at 94 MacDougal Street, in the then recently-landmarked MacDougal Sullivan Gardens.

L to R, the current facades of: 161 West 4th Street, 110 MacDougal Street, 94 MacDougal Street

The list of Bob Dylan’s Village haunts is quite long.  Cafe Wha was the first place Dylan ever performed in New York, playing covers of Woodie Guthrie songs.  The Fat Black Pussycat at 11-13 Minetta Street, now Panchito’s Mexican Restaurant, was where he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in April, 1962 (read more about the building here).  He also played at the Bitter End, Cedar Tavern, Kettle of Fish, and the Gaslight Cafe, to name a few.  Another frequent venue of his was the Village Gate, where, in the basement, he wrote “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”  All of these places lie within GVSHP’s proposed South Village Historic District.  In honor of Dylan’s 70th birthday, Film Forum, whose Executive Director Karen Cooper is part of GVSHP’s South Village Advisory Board, will be screening two Dylan concert movies.  The Village may have lost some of the establishments that Dylan frequented, but it will never lose his soul.

Cafe Wha, 115 MacDougal Street, C. 1965 (courtesy of Ned Otter) & Now
The Gaslight Cafe, 116 MacDougal Street. L: Dylan playing there in 1962; R: an exterior shot c. 1962
11-13 Minetta Street Then & Now, the former spot of the Fat Black Pussycat (historic image courtesy of tinytim.org)

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