I was really delighted a few days ago to receive an email from one Bob Cohen with the text of his article below attached. Bob Cohen is presently the Cantor at Temple Emanuel in Kingston, New York. Back in the early 1960s, he was one of the New World Singers (more on them here), along with Gil Turner, Happy Traum and Delores Dixon. They were close associates in Greenwich Village with a young singer named Bob Dylan, as he himself also recounts in his memoir, “Chronicles.” Dylan ultimately wrote liner notes for an album that the New World Singers recorded, in which he pays tribute to each of his friends, saying this about Cohen:
“Bob Cohen”‘s quiet – I first seen him at a City College folksong hall an’ thought he was some sort of a Spanish gypsy by the way he wore his sideburns an’ moustache an’ eyebrows – but he didn’t talk so I couldn’t tell – I must a sat an hour next to him waitin’ to hear some gypsy language – he never said a word – he laughed a few times but all folks no matter what race laughs in the same tongue – I seen him sing later that night an’ it didn’t bother my thoughts no more as to if he was gypsy or gigolo – he tol’ me more about my new world in that ten minutes time than the pop radio station did all that week
What Bob Cohen writes speaks for itself, and I’m grateful to be able to reproduce it here. I think it stands both as an affectionate first-person remembrance of a remarkable moment of history and also as a wise reflection on what is so special and powerful about Dylan’s songwriting.
HOW BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND CAME TO BE by Bob Cohen
Here is how Bob Dylan came to write “Blowin’ In the Wind” which he now says, as quoted in various articles, he wrote in 10 minutes and came out of the melody of “No More Auction Block For Me” described as a spiritual that he thinks he may have heard on a Carter Family record. (see the New Republic article by David Yaffe.) That was much more than he said on the CBS-60 Minute Ed Bradley interview, where it came down to the song coming out of the wellsprings of his creativity. To paraphrase Walter Cronkite: I was there.
Dylan had blown into NYC in the early 1960s and hung out at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. Gerdes was a long room – on one side was a bar and a cash register – then a half wall and on the other side, some round tables, chairs, and a very small stage with a microphone. We, the New World Singers, a group that some thought might one day inherit the mantle of the Weavers, were at that time myself, Gil Turner, Delores Dixon and Happy Traum. Delores was a black woman, a New York City school teacher who had a deep alto voice.
In our set at Gerde’s Folk City, Delores would step forward in the middle of the set and sing solo “No More Auction Block For Me” – a very moving song of freedom written during slavery times, insisting “no more, no more” and sadly reflecting on the “many thousands gone.” She sang it with spirit and determination. Alan Lomax, calling it “Many Thousands Gone” writes: “This is one of the spirituals of resistance (W.E.B. Dubois called them ‘Sorrow Songs’), whose ante-bellum origin has been authenticated. Runaway slaves who fled as far north as Nova Scotia, after Britain abolished slavery in 1833, transmitted it to their descendants, and it is still in circulation there. At the time of the Civil War an abolitionist took it down from Negro Union soldiers.” (p. 450, Lomax, Alan – Folksongs of North America, Doubleday, 1960).
Dylan liked our group. In his recent memoir: “Chronicles Vol. I” he writes: “…with my sort of part-time girl-friend, Delores Dixon, the girl singer from The New World Singers, a group I was pretty close with. Delores was from Alabama, an ex-reporter and an ex-dancer.” – p. 64) – and then when I met Delores about ten years later, she remarked that Dylan had gone home with her one night and the next morning he was working on “Blowin’ in the Wind” and she said to him: “Bobby, you just can’t do that” (take the melody of that traditional song and write new words to it – it’s a scene similar to the scene in the Ray Charles bio pix when Ray’s new wife tells Ray that he just can’t take an old Gospel song she sang in her group and make it into a love song.) Both Bob and Ray preceded anon.
So one day soon after that, Dylan says to us: “Hey, I got this new song” and we go down to the basement at Gerdes (filled with rats, roaches and other folkies) and he sings his new song: “Blowin’ In the Wind”which was based on the melody of “No More Auction Block”. In those days we spoke of “borrowing” tunes, something Pete Seeger called “the folk process”. Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill and even J.S.Bach had done it. We thought it was great and started to sing it. We would bring Dylan up on that postage stamp of a stage to sing it along with us. It seemed to me then as it does now that his re-working or recreation of that spiritual carried on its original message and was in itself a song of resistance to all the injustice in the world. We would go on to sing it in Mississippi in 1963-64 where it became a civil-rights anthem.
During our sets at Gerdes, Dylan would sit at the bar drinking wine that we often bought for him. He listened to us night after night. After about a year when we made an album for Ahmet Ertegun, head of Atlantic records and son of a Turkish diplomat, (Ahmet loved the blues and he is wonderfully portrayed in the recent film “Ray”), Dylan would write the liner notes for our album much in the same style he uses in his new book, “Chronicles”, writing generously about each of us. Ironically, when we sang “Blowin’ In The Wind” for Ahmet Ertegun he said that if we could change the lyrics to make it a love song then he would include it on our album! But we were too far into the essence of that song to change it, singing it at college rallies to raise money for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and its voter registration work in the South.
When Moe Asch (Folkways) decided to release an album of topical songs on Broadside Records (Broadside, the topical song magazine that first printed many of Dylan’s songs along with others) we were asked to sing “Blowin’ In the Wind” and we did – making it the first recording of that song, even before Bob did it on Columbia Records. Delores insisted on singing the chorus as “The answer my friend is blown in the wind” and we couldn’t talk her out of it – so that’s what you hear. I think she thought that “Blowin'” was improper English usage. It reminds me of a funny story about the lyricist, Jack Yellen, who wrote the words for the song “Ain’t She Sweet” on which he made a bundle, going back to his high school reunion and being scolded by his English teacher: “And I thought I taught you that ‘ain’t’ is bad grammar!”
Smithsonian-Folkways released our recording of the Dylan song as part of a 5- CD set “The Best of Broadside” which got two Grammy nominations (in 2000) for best notes and production, but we lost to Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane respectively. I read recently that it actually won two Indie awards.
I always believed that “Blowin’ In the Wind” reflected Dylan’s Judaic heritage. Jews are well-known to always answer a question with a question. The story goes of a Jewish fellow and a non-Jewish fellow walking down the street, and the non-Jew says to the Jew, “How come you guys always answer a question with a question” and the Jew replies: “So what’s wrong with that?!” So here is Dylan asking some very important basic questions about human society – “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?” and the questions themselves imply the answers. In that particular question one can hear resonating, a line from a Yiddish folk song based on a poem by David Edelstadt: “Vakht Oyf!” (“Awake!”) that asks “How long will you remain slaves and wear degrading chains?” and Dylan’s questions all reflected that yearning for justice and for peace. That the answers are blowing or blown in the wind.
When Ed Bradley asked what Dylan meant when he talked about his agreement with the Commander-in-Chief (trying to explain his use of the word “destiny”) – Bradley wondered aloud whether he was talking about a Commander on earth – and Dylan answered – yes both on earth and somewhere beyond. This is what I call “God talk” or “Godspeak” – the way one talks if one has even the vaguest concept of a force beyond what we can experience with our five senses. It is, of course, in Dylan’s very own style, his very unique vernacular, but it acknowledges God, and is God inspired nevertheless.
Dylan still seems to have “issues” with his parents, but like all of us with the same issues, he has imbibed more from them than he realizes or is willing to admit. He may have traded in Hibbing for New York City, but the ethics, outrage at injustice, love of language and metaphor came out of the religion and culture called Judaism which on many levels incorporates us all. In a recent interview in Newsweek (10/4/04) Dylan is quoted as saying: “The difference between me now and then (back in Hibbing, Minn. as a youngster) is that back then, I could see visions. The me now can dream dreams.” This is a very close paraphrase of the Hebrew prophet, Joel who said “Your old men shall dream dreams, And your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 3:1)
Dylan knows there is little profit in being a prophet, but the force of his words expressing his thoughts and his heart carry much the same message of those who went before.
Bob Cohen is the cantorial soloist and music director at Temple Emanuel in Kingston, New York, and Chair of the Ulster County Religious Council, an interfaith organization. He will be giving a guest lecture at NYU’s class on Bob Dylan this spring.
And he has a website of his own at CantorBob.com.