“Tales from a Golden Age: Bob Dylan 1941-1966″: The Nobel laureate’s storied early life & career is featured in this UK music doc

By on October 19, 2016

To celebrate Bob Dylan’s tremendous six-decade career and his recently being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature — an honor, according to the New York Times, which “elevates him into the company of T. S. Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison and Samuel Beckett” — we’ve collected all of our Dylan music documentaries into one convenient category on Night Flight Plus, including Tales from a Golden Age: Bob Dylan 1941-1966, which looks at the first twenty-five years of his storied life, from his birth right up to the motorcycle accident that divided his career into “pre-crash” and “post-crash” chapters.

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Dylan — who is 75 years forever young — is the first musician to win the award, and according to that NY Times post (“Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize, Redefining Boundaries of Literature,” October 13, 2016), the selection by the Swedish Academy “dramatically redefined the boundaries of literature, setting off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels.”

Tales from a Golden Age — directed by Tom O’Dowd and originally marketed as a part of the UK-based Prism Films’ “Under Review” series when it was first released on DVD in 2004 — was the first in the series of Dylan music documentaries which has since grown to include After The Crash 1966-1978, Both Ends Of The Rainbow 1978-1989, and The Never Ending Narrative 1990-2006, and like those this one also features no actual Dylan recordings, but instead fleshes out the story of Dylan’s early life and career through supplemental audio and visual elements, including extensive exclusive interviews, rarely-seen photos from private archives and occasionally rare snippets of live concert footage.

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This particular music doc was made in association with Dylan fanzine Isis, tracking Dylan from his childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota, to New York City’s Greenwich Village — where he would start off playing at small clubs before eventually landing a recording deal with Columbia Records — and follows through right up to that fateful day in late July ’66 when he riding his beloved 1964 Triumph T100 motorcycle on the backroads of Woodstock, New York, and lost control and crashed.

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The emphasis in the early part of this “unauthorized” documentary is on the recollections of three of his childhood friends — Larry Fabbro, Dennis Flynn and Mick Dwyer — and a high school English teacher, BJ Rolfzen, who all recall Dylan (still known as Robert Zimmerman at the time) as a shy kid who surprised everyone when he made his first performance at a school talent show, which earned him the respect of his peers if not exactly the critical huzzahs he would be receiving less than ten years later.

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Some of the other “talking heads” style interviews are done with various Dylan biographers and assorted “Dylanologist” types, including Clinton Heylin (Dylan expert), Art D’Lugoff, Derek Barker (Isis Magazine), Paul Colby (owner of The Bitter End), British folk icon Martin Carthy, “Spider” John Koerner and Mickey Jones, the drummer on Dylan’s ’66 world tour.

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As historian Sean Wilentz wrote of “Dylanologists” — a term too often applied to music critics and historians who try to assess and interpret Dylan’s musical offerings without exploring their own reasons for doing so — in his recent book Bob Dylan in America, “too much of that stuff is written by people who wish they were Bob Dylan instead of themselves… leave the pinning-down to the lepidopterists,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case here, as everyone seems to want to express a memory or two (or more) about the Dylan they knew personally without casting themselves in a larger role in the man’s life in order to share it.

Assessing Dylan’s songwriting prowess and his Nobel prize award in a recent interview for NPR, Wilentz said:

“Bob Dylan, like many if not most literary greats, is an alchemist. He manages to take materials from here and there and to turn them into something different — to make them larger, to make them his own. And Dylan started out working in the American folk song tradition, which is actually the Anglo-American folk tradition, and he took songs that had been sung for hundreds of years and turned them into different works of art.”

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We learn about his Little Richard influence and infatuation — the text accompanying his senior photo from Hibbing High School’s 1959 yearbook lists “to join Little Richard” as his sole future plan — and how he eventually veered away from rock ‘n’ roll and pointed himself toward folk music and a new hero, his avowed predecessor Woody Guthrie, and in doing so, with his own recordings helped to create the blend of folk-rock that was uniquely his own.

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Dylan, according to one interviewee, started to mimic Guthrie’s mannerisms and musical tropes, even changing the way he talked to a large extent and adopting an early pseudonym (critics still argue whether Dylan’s new surname was based on TV’s western marshall “Matt Dillon” from “Gunsmoke,” spelling it differently, or he purloined it from the poet Dylan Thomas).

In an earlier Night Flight post — a flash-animated cartoon provided to us by our friends at Blank on Blank/PBS Digital Studios who used a portion on an interview a 20-year old chubby-cheeked Dylan did with traditional folk singer Cynthia Gooding, host of “Folksinger’s Choice,” which was broadcast on March 11, 1962, on New York’s WBAI FM — we learned that once he was in New York City, and starting to attract some notice, Dylan liked to amuse himself and befuddle journos by hiding his actual origins, often creating a fictitious life for himself, telling tall tales about skipping school altogether and working as a “carnie” off-and-on for six years.

You can read that post here.

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Tales from a Golden Age discusses at length his earliest albums, from his self-titled debut, recorded live by John Hammond Sr. in two 1961 sessions for a little more than $400 and released in 1962, and his 1963 album Freewheelin’ — a period during which he honed his skills as a songwriter and gained experience in front of crowds at pass-the-hat venues like The Bitter End (which Dylan would recount in his whimsical “Talkin’ New York Blues,” where he recalls a house manager telling him “You sound like a hillbilly… we want folk singers here.”).

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We also learn in the documentary from drummer (and actor) Mickey Jones how he originally had wanted Jones to play on studio recordings, but when the invite came to join Dylan it was for a worldwide tour during which he made the public statement of moving back to rock guitar when his audiences were clamoring for more of his acoustic folk songs, signalling that he was always going to follow his own inclinations rather than what his fans and critics wanted or expected him to do.

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The documentary also talks about how he was never quite comfortable with wearing the mantle of political activist. He really didn’t want to be a spokesperson for his generation, as so many had wanted him to be — and proclaimed him as — ignoring Dylan’s reluctance to fit the public image that had been created for him by the people who expected him to play the role they’d cast him in.

Despite his reluctance, Dylan’s songwriting talents were so vast that he managed to overshadow many of his contemporaries who were much more committed to social causes than he was, and he may have even overshadowed himself at one point (or at least found it hard to top himself) after penning his majestic and vitriolic magnum opus “Like a Rolling Stone,” a six-minute-plus journey into a heart of darkness which Dylan — in renowned director Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan — says he envisioned as an “odyssey.”

Last week, upon hearing of his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Night Flight contributor Chris Morris — who wrote about Bob Dylan: Roads Rapidly Changing, another of our Dylan docs available for streaming on Night Flight Plus — wrote an excellent post for Music Aficionado which posits that Dylan is the inheritor and champion of a musical-poetic tradition that goes back to the very beginnings of literature:

” I would put it to you that Bob Dylan is Our Homer. His achievement, I think, extends well beyond the one encapsulated in this morning’s Nobel citation, which fetes him ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ His art stretches well beyond that humble accomplishment. He has crafted his own epics — I think here of songs like “Desolation Row,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” “Highlands,” and “Tempest” — and sung them in a voice we might have heard long ago, in the shadow of the Acropolis.”

We hope you’ll take a journey with us — or Homeric odyssey, if you like — into our selection of Bob Dylan music docs, now available on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.