It is appropriate that the Village Voice ends its print run today with a photo of Bob Dylan on its cover. Like the Voice, which launched in 1955, Dylan also got his start in a Greenwich Village filled with coffee houses and small clubs that featured poetry readings and folk music.
As a member of the New World Singers, singer-guitarist Happy Traum was a regular on the Village music scene. This week Traum talked with us about Gerde’s Folk City, the West 4th Street club where Dylan played his first professional gig in April 1961. Traum recalled that before Dylan performed it on stage, he shared the lyrics to perhaps the best loved folk anthem: “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Happy Traum: I played Gerde’s a few times, particularly with the New World Singers. It was a quartet when we first started together. And sometimes it would be quite crowded and bustling in there and quite a few people were listening. But by about the fourth set when you’re into the midnight to 1:30 a.m. part is when the crowds really thinned out. I can remember playing when a dozen people were in the room. A few of them were inebriated. Late at night it got a little loose because there were so few people there and that’s usually when Bob Dylan came and sat in on our sets because he was a big fan of our group.
Bob was enamored of the group even before I joined it. He really liked Delores Dixon, our lead singer, who is a black, sort of gospel-oriented, wonderful singer from Queens. She has a great voice. And Bob was originally a really good friend of Gil Turner’s, who was the de facto leader of the group.
We played at Gerde’s a couple of different times and Bob used to come and just show up at the late sets. And those were the days when very few people knew who he was. We knew, we were already big fans of his, and he would try out some of his new songs on the little bit of an audience that was left at the midnight show.
According to Dylan’s book Chronicles, he was inspired by Delores Dixon singing the old slave-era song “No More Auction Block for Me.” The songs don’t really sound that much alike but Bob said that that was his inspiration for “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Bob taught the song to Gil Turner and Gil brought it to the group and I can remember learning it in the basement at Gerde’s. The basement was kind of a dressing room. It was a horrible little hole in the ground where the performers tuned up and also the kitchen staff had their lockers for their clothes. You got there through the kitchen. There was a stairway down, you’d go into the kitchen and down the stairs to this basement. Of course there’d be boxes of booze and beer stored down there.
And that’s where we would warm up. I can remember Gil bringing the lyrics of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and teaching us the song down in the basement there. And then we went up and sang it. We were the first group to actually perform and record “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
That was right around the time we made a record for Broadside magazine. It was the first time I was ever in a professional recording studio. It was at Folkways. It’s a fairly small room, the actual recording studio part. Pete Seeger was there, which was a big thrill for me because he was my inspiration from the start; and Dylan was there under the name Blind Boy Grunt because he had just signed with Columbia. Phil Ochs was there and it was the first time I think that I met Phil. And Peter La Farge was there. The Freedom Singers from Albany, Ga., Bernice Johnson Reagon and their quartet. Mark Spolestra, a wonderful 12-string guitar player, he was a good friend of mine back then. A Scottish guy named Matt McGinn. So it was quite a collection of folkies of the day, all in this one room.
That’s when the New World Singers, with Bob standing right in front of us, sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” and recorded it for the first time.
As I remember, Delores was embarrassed because she thought “Blowin'” was not grammatically correct. She came from a fairly conservative family and she didn’t want to be represented by singing something that wasn’t correct English. So she changed it to “Blown in the Wind,” thinking that was a much more proper way of singing it.
You know, Bob didn’t seem to care for some reason. I know he liked our version of the song and he really liked Delores. That came out and we continued to perform the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” wherever we were.