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Dylan Revisited: The Gaslight Tapes (1961-62)
Early bootlegged live performances featuring Dylan originals and folk classics
This is a new series by DylanRevisited based on former Twitter threads, now available here in an easier to read and longer lasting format.
When I revisited Bob Dylan’s 1962 self-titled debut album, I found it to be a surprisingly un-Bob Dylan record. For a better sense of who the singer really was around that time, it’s worth hearing what he was playing live in the Greenwich Village coffee houses around this time.
The Gaslight Tapes – a 1962 recording of two Dylan sets at New York’s famous Gaslight Café – are often considered one of rock music’s first bootlegs.
But before I revisit them, let’s go back even further to September 1961 – two months before Dylan recorded his muddled debut – and hear a short six-song set at the same venue.
The Gaslight Café opened three years earlier and played host to beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Bill Cosby, and musicians, including Jesse Fuller, Odetta, Charlie Mingus, Happy Traum, Rev. Gary Davis and The Greenbriar Boys.
The latter group headlined a show at Gerde’s in late September 1961 that Robert Shelton reviewed for the New York Times. However, the music critic decided to focus his attention and praise on the evening’s support act, Bob Dylan.
The first Gaslight recording happened on September 6th, weeks before that pivotal Gerde’s show and before Dylan had first met John Hammond, the Columbia executive who signed him to the label. The tape is an opportunity to hear Dylan just before his career starts to take off, as well as one of the earliest recordings of him playing his own compositions.
You can listen to Dylan’s entire performance here:
The set starts with Man on the Street, a restrained piece of social observation that lays the ground for the many protest songs to come. Dylan would record this song and the next one in this Gaslight set, He Was a Friend of Mine, during the sessions for his debut album, though neither song made the final cut.
Dylan has claimed that Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Disaster Blues was the first song he ever wrote. It was inspired by a news story that Noel Stokey – MC at the Gaslight and later “Paul” of Peter, Paul and Mary – brought to his attention.
Bear Mountain is a nice piece of satire with some funny one-liners and a pointed final verse. He’ll record it during the Freewheelin’ sessions but it works best live when you can hear the audience laughing along, especially here when a man repeats Dylan’s sardonic “yippee”.
Next comes one of the two originals that Dylan did include on his debut album. It’s interesting to hear how Song to Woody developed from the slow, almost plodding version he plays at the Gaslight to the more affirming, upbeat recording he cut in November.
The traditional murder ballad, Pretty Polly, is the musical template for The Ballad of Hollis Brown, which Dylan will write within a year. It’s a mesmerizing performance with intricate guitar playing, intense vocals and Dylan tapping out the rhythm with his foot.
Finally, Dylan is joined by Dave Van Ronk (“he’s an ex-blues singer”) for a fun version of the Woody Guthrie song Car Car that sees the pair honk and brrrrp in harmony like old revving engines.
Overall, the 1961 Gaslight performance is much more indicative of the recording artist that Dylan will soon become than the album he’ll commit to wax just two months later. It’s definitely worth a listen.
Almost a year later, with that self-titled debut album barely resonating beyond the Greenwich Village folk circuit and a new, ambitious manager, Albert Grossman, guiding his career, Dylan returned to the Gaslight Café.
Bob Dylan’s 1962 Gaslight Tapes were recorded over two sets on October 15th by Richard Alderson, who connected his reel-to-reel tape recorder to the venue’s PA system. The sound engineer would work for Dylan again four years later on the infamous electric tour.
The recordings demonstrate how Dylan’s performances and songwriting had progressed in the year since his last appearance at the venue. It’s also — possibly uniquely — a harmonica-free solo performance.
You can hear the 1962 performance on the YouTube video below (though it’s missing some songs and the running order differs from what the detectives over at Bob’s Boots concluded it should be).
Dylan had spent much of 1962 in the studio, looking to put the disappointment of his debut record behind him. Though he was now writing a lot of songs, the first of the 1962 Gaslight sets is mostly folk standards, like the opener Motherless Children.
Motherless Children was written by Blind Willie Johnson, who as a child was blinded by his stepmother. Dylan’s performance is fine, but way less dynamic than the version by Rev Gary Davis, that must have inspired Ray Charles’ I’ve Got a Woman.
Next comes an ok take on the lovely folk standard Handsome Molly. This banjo and fiddle version by Doc Watson (another blind singer and guitarist) is much better.
The set's first original is John Brown, which draws from other folk songs like the Irish ballad Mrs McGrath, recorded by Dylan's friend Tommy Mackem. A compelling story of a proud mother who sends her son to war but must confront the reality of combat when he returns disfigured and angry, Dylan pulls no punches with his grizzly detailing of the son’s injuries.
Dylan later cut John Brown as a demo for Witmark, which you can hear the Bootleg Vol. 9, and recorded it under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt for the 1963 topical song collection, Broadside Ballads, Vol. 1. He also made an unexpected revisit to John Brown 30 years later during his MTV Unplugged set.
Two years before its official release, Dylan performed The Ballad of Hollis Brown at The Gaslight Café. The main guitar part is strummed here – it’ll evolve to be a largely picked riff – and we get an additional verse about bed bugs and gangrene.
Even at this early stage in its development, Hollis Brown packs a punch and must have impressed those in the Gaslight audience who recognized it as a Dylan original.
Dylan's blaring harmonica often obscures his guitar playing. At this harp-free Gaslight show, we get to appreciate some fine picking on Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird, a traditional English song that may date back to the 18th century.
His guitar playing also stands out on a great rendition of Robert Johnson’s Kindhearted Woman Blues. It’s surprising to learn that Dylan never returned to this song again during his long live career.
It’s back to simple strumming for his effective take on Leadbelly’s Ain’t No More Cane, a song he’ll pick up again when he’s with The Band in their Woodstock basement.
Cocaine was originally written by bluesman and white powder aficionado Luke Jordan but Dylan bases his arrangement on a version by Rev. Gary Davis. The deliberate disintegration towards the end is a rare moment of fun in this largely serious set.
See That My Grave Is Kept Clean is the only song in the 1962 Gaslight performance from Dylan’s debut album. Here he smooths out the affected vocal roughness from the recorded version and sounds much more like himself.
The closing song of the first half of this set is West Texas, which is credited as a traditional but there’s little evidence of anyone performing it before Dylan. The iffy geography in the lyrics (the Louisiana line is closer to East Texas) could indicate that it’s a Dylan’s original. Despite his myth-building claims to being a country-wide wanderer, he probably hadn’t been anywhere near either state by this point in his life.
The second half of Bob Dylan’s 1962 Gaslight Café set starts with A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, the legendary song supposedly written about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was likely in full swing during the recording of this performance.
However, Dylan had given Hard Rain its public debut the previous month at the Carnegie Hall Hootenanny. Those present recalled how he produced multiple loose sheets of paper containing the lyrics then unleashed a song like no other on an unsuspecting audience.
But Dylan had also been recorded playing Hard Rain two days before the Hootenanny at the home of Eve and Mac McKenzie, where the singer often crashed during his early couch-surfing days in Greenwich Village.
Back at the Gaslight, we can hear how the lyrics have already evolved since its first outings – “my blue-eye boy” becomes “…son” – and the performance is more confident. Plus, someone in the crowd knows the song well enough to sing along.
Next comes the first live recording of the superb Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. It's possibly the first song Dylan wrote about his personal relationships, in this case his girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who had moved to Italy to study. She left behind a broken-hearted Dylan, though he expresses this through affected nonchalance about a relationship’s end.
Black Cross is a spoken-word piece that was originally a poem by Joseph S. Newman (uncle of Paul). The simple guitar arrangement is based on a version of the song by 1950’s character comedian Lord Buckley, who Dylan would later call a “hipster bebop preacher” in Chronicles.
It’s the story of a black man who is hung by a preacher for preferring books to religion. However, Dylan’s telling mixes up some key details, which confuses the story a little.
Continuing the theme of the oppression of America’s black people, Dylan then plays No More Auction Block, a traditional song sung from the perspective of a freed slave. The arrangement is his own and will soon inform his breakout composition, Blowin’ in the Wind.
While Rocks and Gravel is a Dylan original, it’s essentially a fusion of multiple blues standards, including Mance Lipscombe’s Rocks and Gravel Make a Solid Road and additional pilfered lyrics from the superb Alabama Woman Blues by Leroy Carr.
Cut from The Freewheelin’ record late on, it's great to hear this exceptional performance of Rocks and Gravel which Dylan builds to a dramatic climax. And he would reuse Carr's lyrics a few years later on Highway 61 Revisited’s It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.
Samuel Pepys mentions Barbara Allen in a 1665 diary entry but this oldest of songs continued to resonate 300 years later. Suze Rotolo recalled how the folk crowd saw her as the “unworthy” title character with Dylan as the tragic William.
The Gaslight version is a wonderful take on a lovely, lengthy song that Dylan continued to play live throughout his career. He also said that without Barbara Allen, there would be no Girl From the North Country.
The set closes with Moonshine Blues, a song Dylan supposedly learned from Liam Clancy though this soft, hushed lament is nothing like the rowdy, drinking song as performed by the Clancys.
The 1962 Gaslight Tapes are essential listening for any Dylan fan, with early recordings of some of his best songs, the first overt references to racial injustice and some beautiful traditional pieces.
Available for many years as a bootleg, The Gaslight Tapes got an official release of sorts in 2005, when 10 songs were collected for a Starbucks exclusive CD. Of course, this outraged some fans, and also HMV, whose Canadian arm removed all Dylan releases from their shelves in protest.
Together the 1961 and 1962 Gaslight Tapes provide essential insights into where Bob Dylan was going ahead of the release of his breakout album, The Freewheelin’. But even aside from the historical perspective, it’s just great to his fine performances of some great songs — especially if you’re not a harmonica fan.
What do you think of the 1961 and 1962 Gaslight Tapes? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
DylanRevisited is a Twitter (or X if you must) account where writer and longtime Dylan fan Colm Larkin revisits Bob Dylan's back catalogue one album/bootleg/live record at a time.