New York Series: Bob Dylan ‘Talkin’ New York’

“You sound like a hillbilly; We want folk singers here.”

New York State has a rich and extensive history of music. From classic songs you sang in elementary school social studies class about the Erie Canal to Frank Sinatra crooning of the wonders of New York City, countless areas throughout the state have drastically influenced musicians, and left an imprint on their artistic growth. NYS Music’s New York Series is a project dedicated to exploring the history of music created and inspired by the diverse areas of the state. Each week we will focus on a different part of New York, how that area inspired a song or album by artists of various genres, and how the area changed over time. This week we will look at Bob Dylan’s ‘Talkin’ New York’ and Greenwich Village’s influence on his writing of the song, as well as how the area shaped his growing career.

Bob Dylan- ‘Talkin’ New York’

“You sound like a hillbilly; We want folk singers here.”

In the winter of 1961, a 19-year-old University of Minnesota drop out named Robert Zimmerman arrived in New York for the first time in hopes of finding his folk-singer idol, Woody Guthrie. It was the coldest winter in seventeen years, and he did not know a soul. ‘Talkin’ New York,’ the second song on Bob Dylan’s self-titled first album, is a talking blues which narrates the difficulties the young folk-singer experienced when he first moved to the Big Apple. Soon after his arrival, Zimmerman moved to Greenwich Village, changed his name to Bob Dylan, and launched one of the most successful music careers in history. 1

Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s was a hub for artists, poets, musicians and activists to meet, exchange ideas, and grow. When Dylan first arrived, the first thing he did was head over to Café Wha? on Macdougal Street, introduced himself as a musician, and booked himself a gig- as described in the lyrics of ‘Talkin’ New York’. His goal was to immerse himself in the culture, and establish himself as force to be reckoned with in the folk scene. After being fired for being late to three gigs at Café Wha? Dylan jumped around, exploring the many clubs and cafés Greenwich Village had to offer. He played coffee houses such as Caffe Reggio, the Commons, Caffe Dante, and underground clubs like the Gaslight Café, the Fat Black Pussycat, and the Bitter End. 2 New York was the perfect place for Dylan to experiment, meet new people who would greatly influence his career, and develop as an artist. At any point you could walk into a coffee shop and listen to a folk-singer performing, attend a poetry reading, or have an in-depth discussion about direction of the country the with like-minded political activists.

Talkin' New York
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Talkin’ New York’ chronicles Dylan’s initial experience in New York. It tells the story of his arrival and describes the struggles of trying to make it as a folk-singer in a new town. The area was impoverished at the time, and for the first year Dylan spent most of his time sleeping on floors. He established himself as a vagabond, and his songs began to reflect his lifestyle. After a year he found a place to live relatively cheaply which allowed him to spend more time developing his songs. Because the clubs could not pay performers, Dylan began wearing a hat and passing it around the cafes. The Gaslight Cafe was known for “basket-passing nights” where the only money performers would pocket was what was given to them by audience donations.3

Talkin' New York
Cafe Wha? 1960’s
Talkin' New York
Cafe Wha? Today

Today Greenwich Village is a different neighborhood. NYU has taken over much of the real estate in the area, and the rest has seen a drastic price increase since the 1960’s. It is far too expensive for young aspiring artists to live, but still an area worth visiting often. There are a few relics from the past, and you can go on a walking tour of the sites Dylan and other artists frequented, but today a vagabond could not arrive in the Village and squat in run-down apartments like Dylan did. A few of the old hangouts remain, but they too have evolved with the times. Caffe Dante became Dante NYC, and has moved on from folk-singers to gourmet cuisine. Café Wha? closed in 1968, but reopened in 1987, with music still playing often and the Café Wha? house band headlining many nights. The Bitter End is also still standing, and prides themselves on being New York’s oldest rock club. You can still catch a show any night of the week. While Greenwich Village has changed over the years, there is still a feeling of artistic freedom and counter-culture in many of the bars and coffee shops.

‘Talkin’ New York’ Lyrics:

Rambling out of the wild west
Leaving the towns I love best
Thought I’d seen some ups and down
‘Till I come into New York town
People going down to the ground
Building going up to the sky

Wintertime in New York town
The wind blowing snow around
Walk around with nowhere to go
Somebody could freeze right to the bone
I froze right to the bone
New York Times said it was the coldest winter in seventeen years
I didn’t feel so cold then

I swung on to my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
Greenwich Village

I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block
Got on the stage to sing and play
Man there said, come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly
We want folksingers here

Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play
Blowing my lungs out for a dollar a day
I blowed inside out and upside down
The man there said he loved my sound
He was raving about he loved my sound
Dollar a day’s worth

After weeks and weeks of hanging around
I finally got a job in New York town
In a bigger place, bigger money too
Even joined the union and paid my dues

Now, a very great man once said
That some people rob you with a fountain pen
It don’t take too long to find out
Just what he was talking about
A lot of people don’t have much food on their table
But they got a lot of forks and knives
And they gotta cut something

So one morning when the sun was warm
I rambled out of New York town
Pulled my cap down over my eyes
And heated out for the western skies
So long New York
Howdy, East Orange

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