Hymns of the Republic

Summer 1959. The concert under the stars in the Wellfleet, Massachusetts, town parking lot was over. Pete Seeger was packing up his banjo as I approached him gingerly—I was 6 years old. I stuck out the notepad I'd been careful to bring. "Can I have your autograph?"

Towering over me, six-three to my three-eight, Seeger said in exasperation, if not outright coldness, "I don't give autographs. I'm not some goddamned star."

Terrified, I stood my ground.

"Oh, all right," he said. Pete Seeger was a talented draftsman. In seconds, he dashed off a perfect cartoon of a banjo, his name inscribed beside it, a little gem that must have taken weeks—years—to perfect.

In retrospect, I realize that this was a man in some conflict over his celebrity. Although I recognized Pete Seeger's courage in the face of blacklists and literal sticks and stones, I hated him until years later when, as a working journalist, I interviewed him at his home in Beacon, New York. Seeger was a generous, patient, thoughtful host, and my world snapped back into place. It had been hard work hating Seeger; it's like hating Abe Lincoln.

I didn't have many early concert experiences, but two or three are deeply embedded in my memory. Jump eight years forward and a dozen miles north to Provincetown, mid-August 1967. The Blues Bag, 120 Commercial Street, was a magical place, a coffeehouse that booked folk and blues stars of the highest caliber: John Lee Hooker, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie. Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band's streamlined modernizations of 1920s and '30s black folk music were immensely popular among folk revivalists. When I caught them there, they could boast three genuine virtuosi: Bill Keith, who transformed bluegrass banjo; Richard Greene, who did the same for American fiddling; and vocalist nonpareil Geoff Muldaur. "There are only three white blues singers," British folk-rocker Richard Thompson once said, "and Geoff Muldaur is at least two of them."

The Kweskin band's showstopper was Muldaur's electrifying rendition, in his reedy, otherworldly high tenor, of Memphis bluesman Frank Stokes's "Downtown Blues." I can't be certain that the Blues Bag crowd demanded that Muldaur reprise his performance on the spot, but I'm tempted to say they did. I do know this was one of the most thrilling episodes of my musical 1960s. I was back the next night, hollering for "Downtown Blues." You can hear Muldaur blast through it on the Kweskin band's 1966 album See Reverse Side for the Title as well as on Elektra Records' splendid 64 compilation The Blues Project (not to be confused with the mid-'60s blues-rock band).

The Kweskin band continued to sell out shows, yet the folk revival's death knell had sounded already, when, at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan came onstage, plugged in a Fender Stratocaster, and dropped an A-bomb on folk music. A distraught Pete Seeger, who had virtually adopted Dylan, reportedly wept backstage.


On October 1 that year, at Carnegie Hall, I was perhaps the only 12-year-old present at Dylan's unveiling of the crack rockabilly band he'd plucked from obscurity, Levon and the Hawks. No longer in the jeans of his folkie years, Dylan looked Mod-sharp in a gray-green houndstooth suit with pipe-stem trousers, Beatle boots, and the tieless tab-collar shirt that the Stones and other British bands had made chic (footnote 1).

The first half of the show featured Dylan alone, strumming his acoustic guitar, which the crowd lapped up. During the intermission, their unease was palpable, and for good reason: When Dylan came back out, strapped into his Strat, he was accompanied by the Hawks for nine loud songs. The hallowed venue itself was traumatized when, halfway through the show, Carnegie's PA system began emitting hideous howls and static, acute sonic distress that almost shut things down.

As Dylan and the Hawks struck the final chords to "Like a Rolling Stone" and exited, the boos broke out. Surprisingly, the booing subsided after a while, yielding to applause that lasted until Dylan re-emerged, alone. Surveying the crowd, he said, in that sardonic drawl, "Weelll, I didn't know you liked me so much." He played a one-song acoustic encore and split, the world busted open.

The booing did not subside as Dylan and the Hawks traversed the USA—just the opposite. The abuse further increased as they circled the globe, reaching its height in May 1966 in Manchester, England, when a furious folknik famously stood up and shouted "Judas!" Dylan turned to the band and yelled, "Play fuckin' LOUD!" One has to admire his spine, his conviction in the face of universal outrage that he was doing the right thing even if it meant shoving it down the world's throat (footnote 2).

Two and a half years after Dylan's Carnegie show, on March 2, 1968, at Hunter College Auditorium, I watched Jimi Hendrix ram his Marshall stack to climax "Wild Thing," his closer. But I'll unpack my Hendrix memories another time. In less than a decade, from Seeger's banjo to Jimi's (intentional) feedback, the republic of pop music changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty was born.

Footnote 1: The Carnegie gig was not the Hawks' first appearance with Dylan; they had come aboard a week earlier. Dylan hired them as Levon and the Hawks, but the name didn't last long. Unnerved by the boos, drummer Levon Helm quit the tour in November. By the time he rejoined, the Hawks had molted again, into, of course, The Band.

Footnote 2: Dylan's off-mike exhortation is audible at 0:35 of the Manchester performance of "Like a Rolling Stone," the final song on the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home, released in 2005 as Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Volume 7.

Allen Fant's picture

An excellent article- TS.
Talk about being in the right place, right time, to witness Rock history.
Must have been an exciting Musical journey seeing Dylan and The Band, un-noticed.

I am looking forward to the Hendrix story next!

Herb Reichert's picture

I enjoyed imagining those concerts

I think Paul Butterfield was the "third" white blues singer


H.Hansen's picture

Very enjoyable article but I have one question. You stated that at the end of the electric set at Carnegie Hall, Dylan came back and did a one song acoustic encore. Do you recall what song that was ? I ask as no Dylan fan site mentions an additional song being played. Many thanks.