Rich Folk, Poor Folk & Bob Dylan’s First Steps

Bob Dylan first appeared in 1961 at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village while later that year a review in The New York Times described him as ‘Resembling a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik.’ This was a time and place which saw the foundations of youth rebellion being laid in the many folk clubs around New York. Dylan went there to join the movement of young people trudging up songs of protest and songs of the poor, songs they made their own in their quest to create an image of the impoverished bard.

The New York of the early 60s gave the likes of Dylan an artistic license to remould himself from Robert Zimmerman, the college student from a middle class family in Minnesota, to Bob Dylan the poet of the poor and balladeer for those who felt unfairly treated by the world. He wasn’t alone in his quest for the same style of self re-invention. Elliot Adnopoz, better known as Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, emulated Dylan in that he too came from a comfortable background. Born into a middle class Jewish family in Brooklyn, Elliot was pushed into studying medicine by his parents but ran away to Mississippi where he joined a rodeo. When his parents eventually brought him back to Brooklyn, his rebellious streak struck once again as he took to the streets of New York busking before the folk revival saw him take his songs indoors to the many folk clubs around Greenwich Village.

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Widely regarded as the queen of 60’s folk, Joan Baez came from a Quaker family in Staten island. Her father found fortune through co-invention of the X-ray but, through her Quaker upbringing, Baez found her own path in life protesting for peace and justice through folk songs. Joni Mitchell hailed from Alberta, Canada. The daughter of an air force lieutenant, she – like Baez – chose the anti-military route and sang songs of peace and love.


Tom Paxton was born in Chicago where his father ran a pharmacy. He attended the university of Oklahoma where he discovered the folk music of Woody Guthrie among others. After graduating with a degree in fine arts, he joined the army but left in 1960 to travel to New York where he became a regular performer at the Gaslight café in Greenwich Village. Here, he would strike a chord with songs concerning civil liberties and labour rights.

Phil Ochs came from a middle class Jewish family in El Paso Texas where his father was an army physician who suffered from trauma in the aftermath of world war one. In 1962, Ochs followed the folk movement to New York where he flung himself into the protest song genre but over time his dedication to left wing politics garnered unwanted attention from the authorities. Unfortunately, Och’s alcoholism spurned an already unstable mind which resulted in his tragic suicide.

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Born on an Indian reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada, Buffy Saint Marie was orphaned at a young age and adopted by relatives in Massachusetts. After studying for a degree in university she found herself in the middle of the folk wave that was washing over Greenwich village and took to it with great ease producing such songs as ‘Universal Solider’ which tied her to the anti-war movement of the 60s.

Judy Collins was the daughter of a radio host in Seattle and began her path into music through classical piano but chose to take up the guitar instead and follow the folk route busking around Greenwich Village. Like Dylan, Collins cut her folk teeth on protest songs but gradually started recording more mainstream-friendly acoustic songs by then-unknown artists like Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen, leaving behind the middle of the road folk standards and revolution filled protest songs, much in the same way that Dylan’s musical course took him as the 60s rolled on.

By the dawn of the 1970s the folk scene in New York had waned but by then it had already given the world a set of new songsters who were given free reign to reinvent themselves through old folk music.


Feature Image Photo: Jim Marshall