Classic Rock Review

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Bob Dylan: A Biography by Anthony Scaduto (1972)


Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 biography offers what the title promises: an intimate look at the early career of Bob Dylan. Written at the end of his first decade as a songwriter and recording artist, the book relates Dylan’s life from the beginnings in Minnesota and formative years in Greenwich Village through the reclusive period that followed his ascension to fame in the mid-1960s.

The story may be familiar enough now, but Scaduto was the very first to piece it together. Not only was he able to talk with virtually everyone who knew Dylan back then – Rambling Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, Eric von Schmidt, Carolyn Hester, John Hammond (both the producer and his son), Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Suze and Carla Rottolo, and Joan Baez – he also tracked down Dylan’s friends from his hometown of Hibbing and the scene in Minneapolis’s Dinkytown, where Dylan made his debut as a folksinger. Scaduto had something no biographer has since enjoyed: the chance to interview Dylan, who even provided feedback on the manuscript.

Besides being first, Scatudo was thorough. In fact, his book served as the informational template for the many biographies that would follow. Little of any great significance is missing, even when compared with what are widely considered the most complete accounts of Dylan’s emergence as a cultural phenomenon, among them, Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, Howard Sounes’s Down the Highway and Clinton Heylin’s Behind the Shades. Of course, these later works benefit considerably from the decades of subsequent research and analysis. In addition to bringing the story up to date, they offer insights from figures who have since shed new light on the period, most notably, Dylan himself.

Surprisingly, the correctives are relatively minor, unless you care that Robert Zimmerman officially became Robert Dylan on August 2, 1962, and not a week later or that he began his cross-country road trip from Woodstock to New Orleans to Los Angeles on February 3, 1964, and not the day before. Scaduto was also unable to pin down the date of Dylan’s arrival in the Village in 1961, which he gives only as “late January.” Just the same, he does nail the details on an event many still mistakenly report as having taken place at New Jersey’s Greystone Hospital: Dylan’s first encounter with the dying Woody Guthrie. The meeting, on January 29, 1961, took place at an apartment in East Orange, where Guthrie spent weekends away from the hospital to be with close friends such as Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston and Rambling Jack. As Dylan’s charm and good fortune would have it, he penetrated this hallowed circle within days of arriving in New York City. The exact number – three days – doesn’t matter as much.

An issue that does matter is Scaduto’s writing, which tends to be perfunctory, a straight reporting of events. Nothing here matches the depth or style of authors like Rolling Stone’s Griel Marcus, the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia’s Michael Gray or historian Sean Wilentz. Scaduto nonetheless is an able enough guide, especially in regards to the generous quotations he shares from his interviews, thereby allowing Dylan’s intimates to speak at length. Their recollections are not only fresh but as yet unaffected by the legend of the self-schooled troubadour who transformed folk music, then did the same for rock ‘n roll. Read the recent, more complete biographies, for sure, but don’t overlook Scaduto’s indispensible contribution. It’s the foundation for the canon that is proving to be, like Dylan’s touring, never ending.

May 16, 2013 Posted by | Book Bob Dylan: A Biography by Anthony Scaduto | , | Leave a comment