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Bob Dylan, 2016 Nobel Prize-winner for literature, has surprising Brooklyn connections

October 13, 2016 By John Alexander Brooklyn Daily Eagle
In this May 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama presents music legend Bob Dylan with a Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C. On Oct. 13, it was announced that Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File
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Bob Dylan, who has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, is now officially ranked among the great literary figures of his generation.

Dylan, 75, would be the first to tell you that it was Brooklyn’s own Woody Guthrie who helped determine his musical direction. In fact, a young, impressionable Dylan made a pilgrimage to Coney Island in 1961 to meet his musical hero, and one of Dylan’s earliest songs, “Song to Woody,” paid tribute to the man who inspired him to pursue a career as folk artist.  In the tune, Dylan proclaims:


Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

‘Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along

Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn

It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born.  


Right here, in these few lines, Dylan reveals his empathy and compassion, as well as his desire to help forge a better world for us to live in. Guthrie sang about America during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, while Dylan would musically help us navigate our way through the turbulent ’60s and beyond.

Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Hibbing, Minnesota.  As a child, he idolized Guthrie, the songwriter and folk troubadour who composed classic American ballads such as “This Land Is Your Land,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore” and “Hard Travelin’.”

Dylan’s affection for the folk idiom was formalized in his reverence for Guthrie’s songs, which ultimately helped define his own style of songwriting. Guthrie’s influence is felt on many Dylan masterpieces, including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “Don’t Think Twice” and “Forever Young.”  

Dylan’s visit to an ailing Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital was the act of a disciple coming to learn at the foot of the master. Guthrie was battling Huntington’s Chorea at the time, a debilitating, inherited brain disease that causes a breakdown of the body and its nervous system.

According to an article by Ross Altman in Folk-Works, Dylan would sit with Guthrie and sing him songs, “like seeing Socrates talk to a young Plato, like Dr. Samuel Johnson meeting Boswell for the first time, like Wordsworth meeting Keats, or Emerson meeting Thoreau-a moment to remember.”

So perhaps Brooklyn was a sacred place for the young Dylan, because it’s where he found the guidance and encouragement to embark on his own musical journey.

Dylan would reference Brooklyn in future compositions like “Tangled Up in Blue” from his critically acclaimed 1974 album “Blood on the Tracks.” The song finds the narrator drifting across the country, searching for a girl who was married when he first met her, but was soon to be divorced.  His search eventually takes him to Brooklyn Heights, where he sings:

I was living with them on Montague Street

In a basement down the stairs

There was music in the cafes at night

And revolution in the air…


Brooklyn also plays a part in Dylan’s panoramic saga of real-life mobster Joey Gallo. This time, it’s Red Hook that is the setting of the violent epic that paints a riveting portrait of the murdered mobster. The opening lines of “Joey” set the stage for what is to follow:


Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the year of who knows when

Opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion


The 11-minute story-song is brutally frank in its sympathetic depiction of Joey Gallo’s death as “the sun turned cold over President Street and the town of Brooklyn mourned.”

Bob Dylan’s songs have been embraced and performed by hundreds of artists, such as Peter, Paul and Mary; The Byrds; Johnny Cash; Joan Baez; Jimi Hendrix; Bob Marley; George Harrison; and Bruce Springsteen. His lyrics have been interpreted in almost every musical genre, including folk, rock, country, gospel, rap and reggae.

But it was in Brooklyn that Dylan found favor with the man who would initially recognize his genius. Guthrie would be proud to know that his musical disciple has won the Nobel Prize.

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