The Ballad Of Bobby And Albert

by

R.E. Prindle

     For some reason the notion has grown that Folk music erupted in 1958 with the Kingston Trio’s version of Tom Dooley.  I don’t understand this.  We sang Folk and Old Timey all the way through grade school. Grade school ended for me in 1950.  Folk music was always a conscious part of my life.  I grew so tired of singing Go Tell Aunt Rhody and She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain that I shouted for joy upon hearing The Weaver’s sing On Top Of Old Smokey and Goodnight Irene.

     That was in the days of ‘Your Hit Parade’.  That show was a key program before TV wiped programmed radio off the Networks.  They thought radio was dead.  Didn’t think anyone would listen to music twenty-four hours a day.  We not only did that but we listened to the same four songs over and over in fifteen minute segments.  They called it Top Forty but I remember it more like the Top Four.  When one song wore out they plugged in another one and kept going.  Of course that was only temporary; things evolved fast.

     Folk and Folk related music was a strong stream all through the fifties.  Burl Ives was the rage for a while but you can only get so far on Jimmie Crack Corn And I Don’t Care and The Blue Tail Fly. Tennessee Ernie Ford and his Sixteen Tons was as close as you could get to Folk without actually stepping over the line.  Harry Belafonte occupied the mid-fifties as a Folksinger, academic quality, with his stupid Mark Twain.  In a more pop vein Mitch Miller churned out stuff like She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Bowery Grenadiers.  I didn’t care for it at the time but his sing along stuff is pretty good.

     Who can forget the greatest of them all with his fabulous hit tune The Rock Island Line in 1955.  The Great

The Great Lonnie Donegan

The Great Lonnie Donegan

Lonnie Donegan.  The song was played once every fifteen minutes around the clock on every station for a couple of weeks.  I once artfully shifted stations so that I got to hear the song seven times in a row.  Lonnie Donegan could sing circles around the entire Greenwich Village crowd including any number of Dylans.  He was very successful in combining a listenable approach to a trad style.  All the trad stuff done trad style was OK for the enthusiasts but had no commercial potential.  None of the Greenwich Village crowd had a future except Dylan.  Even the best of them, Fred Neil, fell flat.

     Fred Hellerman of the Weavers was musical advisor to the Kingstons who merely continued the Weavers’ tradition.  The music that Bob Dylan tuned into in 1959 had been an established fact for ten years or better.  His future manager Albert Grossman had established the premier folk venue, The Gate Of Horn in Chicago the year before while helping to establish the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 

     The trad folk types were running the Village by the time Dylan got there.  Some people liked the traditional style, they usually smoked pipes.  I can handle it but I don’t like those precious antiquarian stylists; I much prefer the pop styles of the Kingstons and the Chad Mitchell Trio.  Did you ever listen to Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders?  Pozo Seco Singers?

     It didn’t take Dylan long to understand that the way to success was through the pop style rather than the trad.  Thus Dylan as a folk act can be classed with the Kingstons, the Mitchell Trio and The New Christy Minstrels.

     His muse, however, spoke with a purer voice; the muse belonged to him, he said, or at least she shacked with him for a couple years before moving on.  As talented as Dylan was in those years he did not make it alone.  As he said, he wanted to sing to people on his own wavelength.  That was a small audience.

     While he was shifting the dial to the high numbers at the right hand side of the band he passed through the broad band.  In order to get to his own audience he had to appeal to a broader cross section; so he wrote stuff like Blowin’ In The Wind.

     As someone who was there at the time I had to roll my eyes at the song’s obviousness while Bob’s vocals drove me up the wall.  The sales figures for the first three or four albums bear me out.

     So how did Bob get from there to superstar?  Two words- Albert Grossman.  This article might be subtitled:  The Genius And The Promoter.  For that brief one or two year period Bob turned out generalized songs that caught the spirit of the g-g-generation.  It is questionable how far the songs would have gone had not the promotional genius of Albert Grossman seized the main chance.

     Grossman would be as fascinating a study as Bobby.  While Dylan has gotten all the credit his early career was in fact a fifty-fifty partnership with Albert.

     Bob had no business sense, still doesn’t; nor should any artist be expected to.  Everyone would have

The Manager

The Manager

stolen him blind.  It’s the music business.  The performers about him either professed to reject financial success because they couldn’t find the handle or may have been so purist that they actually despised the money.  Sorta hard to believe but that’s the way they talked.

     Now, Albert not only saw the financial potential of the caterwauling Dylan but more importantly he foresaw that phonographs records would be the medium of expression for the entire generation.  Records were how the generation would communicate.  Rather than looking back at what the recording industry had been he looked foward to what it would be.

     Noting the song writing potential of the 1962-63 Dylan he determined to make Bob the keystone of his grab for the golden ring.  He succeeded in capturing Bob.  He had his keystone but he lacked the supports.  He’d already thought that out working at it from the time he founded the Gate of Horn.  Having gotten himself a fecund folk style songwriter he now needed a sweet singing Top 40 folk style group a la the Kingston Trio.  The latter was perhaps the easiest part of the equation.

     Secure in his source of material Albert organized the commercial sounding folk group called Peter, Paul and Mary, three former purists who opted for the cash.  Packaging a sound for his group was relatively easy.  Taking the songs of his keystone he had them set to pretty three part harmonies.  Presto!  Albert had dumped the harsh cacophony of Dylan and the songs shone.

     Parts one and two of his plan were complete.  He had partnered himself with Dylan and he owned Peter, Paul and Mary.  The rest fell into place.  The public was entranced by the songs of Bob Dylan; now they wanted to know who the writer was.  Essentially the singer-songwriter was called into existence by demand.  Albert put his publicity act in motion.  It is doubtful that he knew how Dylan would respond but Dylan’s mysterioso act was perfect for the times while being executed to perfection.  Albert’s keystone captured the imagination of the world.

     As a genius promoter Albert understood his contribution to the equation.  Albert engineered Bobby’s success while with an artist’s ego Dylan totally underestimated Albert’s contribution.  Nevertheless Albert Grossman wanted his fair share which he calculated as much higher than the established ten percent for perfunctuory management while probably going over the line of fair which a promoter’s ego will.

     The structure of the contemporary music business was in its formative stages.  Albert was a presage of the future.  He formed groups with an identity in which he took only fifty percent, but the groups were his creation he was entitled to it.  Later the artists would simply be put on salary.  By the end of the century when the music industry had evolved, his successors concceived a group concept from start to finish providing concept and songs while merely hiring some musical working stiffs, probably not all that musical, just stiffs.  The performers were interchangeable like members of a sports team.  Heck they didn’t even play or sing they just danced to records.  It didn’t matter whether one or more or the whole group was replaced.  The performers had no talent merely acrobatic skills.  Promotion had evolved since Albert.

Bob and Albert Out On Highway 61

Bob and Albert Out On Highway 61

     Albert understood the artistic ego but too well.  Two colossal ambitions came into collision.

     One of the first things Albert did when he captured Bobby was to buy back the publishing from M. Witmark.  He then set up a new publishing company, Dwarf Music, in which he gave himself a fifty percent interest.  At first glance fifty percent looks like he really took advantage of Bobby.

     Certainly he was underhanded.  Remember, this is only the record business and Albert was relatively honest.  He never explained himself to Bobby.  He did go to lengths to conceal the fifty-fifty split from Dylan.  Albert Grossman was after all a promoter.  The record industry itself will never get high marks for probity.  The equation for theft is when one group controls the money and the other group provides the product.

     The question here is not whether Albert stole from Bobby in the sense of juggling the accounting, you can be sure Albert took advantage of his position, but whether he cheated Bobby by taking a fifty percent interest in Dwarf is open to qestion.

     I don’t think so.

     It is hard to believe that Bob Dylan would have amounted to much if Albert Grossman hadn’t been a promotional genius who recognized the potential which no one else, in fact, could see.

     Of course, today, long after the fact, Dylan’s genius seems to have ensured success.  At the time that genius wasn’t quite so obvious, indeed, I’m not so sure it ever existed.

     I wasn’t Johnny on the Spot when it came to recognizing Dylan’s talent.  I didn’t hear of him until 1964 when my brother-in-law played the first couple records for me.  All I could hear was a guy thwacking away noisily on guitar punctuating his horrid screeching with cacophonous bursts on an harmonica.  It might as well have been an air raid.

     I was thoroughly repelled.  I wouldn’t have listened to Dylan again but my brother-in-law who had a curious ability to scent out the next big thing insisted I listen to what he was saying.  ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.’  To be sure.  Well, I’m from the midwest too.  I recognized the catch phrases; Dylan uses a lot of midwest catch phrases.  I still wasn’t impressed.

     To me Dylan sounded illiterate.  I ask you, what does ‘How many times can a man look up until he sees the sky?’  mean?  What does ‘How many seas must a white duck cross before it can sleep in the sand?’ mean?  Is there such a thing as a migrating white duck and do they ever sleep in the sand?  Am I supposed to let my heart bleed for white ducks who can’t sleep in the sand tonight?  The anwer to those questions, my friend, aren’t blowing in the wind.

     The guy just said whatever came into his head.  After his mind broke in 1966 and his muse left him he came up with ‘Shut the light, Shut the shade, you don’t have to be afraid.’  I mean, shade and fraid do rhyme.  I had problems understanding where the talent was.

     Protest singer?  What’s that to me?  I never did march anyway.

     If you listen to the 1963 Newport Folk Festival album Dylan’s singing of Blowin’ In The Wind is sandwiched between Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers.  Both back Bobby with a religious fervor the song doesn’t bear before launching into an even more religious shouting of We Shall Overcome…Someday.

     Masters of War?   You’ve got to be kidding?  This is a really puerile song.  Dylan just said what no one else wanted to put into words, although once said all those Sing Out types seemed to love it.  But, does anyone really believe that wars are promoted by a bunch of professional warriors sitting in a room trying to come up with ideas?  Before Bush I mean.  Is that a valid explanation of how politics work?  What happened to Bobby’s notions of ‘fixtures and forces.’

     I really couldn’t go with stuff like this.

     Impressed more by my brother-in-law’s unerring ability to spot the next big thing than Bobby I went out and bought the records but I didn’t listen to them although I was increasingly impressed by the number of cover versions that were appearing.  Albert Grossman was doing that work, not Bobby.

      And then Bringing It All Back Home with its vicious sounding title tuned into my wavelength down around 1600.  I was one of those confused, accused, misused, abused, strung out ones and worse.  I placed myself in the accused, abused and misused categories; A.J. Weberman obviously placed himself with the strung out ones and worse sorting through garbage cans.  But, here we have the spectrum of Bobby’s wavelength.

     It just keeps right on a hurtin’.

     By the time of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde  Bobby was like strong drink to me.  I became a bobaholic as he backed deeper and deeper into the inner recesses of his mind where a different logic prevailed in an attempt to narrow his audience as much as possible.  Strangely the more he found his own audience the greater his reputation grew.

     Even though I became absorbed in Bob Dylan’s ‘genius’ I always remembered those lovely cover versions of his early songs.  Don’t you think those Byrds’ covers are too beautiful?  I asked myself would I have stuck with Bobby if it hadn’t been for those.  I can’t say, but they homogenized Bobby’s quirky personality into a palatable product.  When you couldn’t handle Bobby’s Mr. Tambourine Man you could switch to that of the Byrds.

     Those cover versions Albert obtained are what made Bob Dylan successful.

     Bob wrote them but he had nothing to do with either their placement or production.  Bobby’s self appointed ‘partner’ Albert did.

     First he created Peter, Paul and Mary.  Grossman’s group was the key to Bob’s success.  It must be credited

Albert Grossman's Group

Albert Grossman's Group

to Grossman that he seized the moment.  This was his one chance for success and he caught the Golden Ring as it came around.  The rest of Grossman’s career was trying to replicate this golden moment and that he could not do although he did have a ‘critical’ success in establishing Bearsville Records.  The label turned out some nice stuff including the very lovely catalog of Jesse Winchester.

     However Grossman’s success was based on PP&M.   Albert cleverly recognized the quasi-religious spirt of the times.  While the catchword at the time was ‘God Is Dead’ Albert chose to name his group after three Christian saints.  This was mildly off-putting to those of us of the time.  Grossman, himself a Jew, had his private joke as these three ‘Christian’ saints were all Jews.

     His group started out singing stupid quasi-religious songs like If I Had A Hammer and This Land Is Your Land.  Guthrie Stuff.  Grossman was actually mired in the tastes of the fifties.  This material in itself was off-putting, even though popular, as being too overtly political.  PP&M really caught fire when Bobby, Albert’s ace in the hole, came up with Blowin’ In The Wind.  The song was still quasi-religious in tone but cleaner and more modern sounding while being, from my point of view, completely apolitical.

  

Jesse At The Time

Jesse At The Time

   After a couple successful covers by PP&M the Byrds came in with really stunning contemporary versions of Bobby’s songs.  Within a year or two of that whole albums were issued trying to cash in on Bobby as a songwriter.  Barry McGuire ex of the New Christy Minstrels for Chrissakes.  Even that embarrassing Sinatra clone, Trini Lopez.

     So Albert had turned Bobby’s catalog gold.  Not a trick to be despised.

     Bobby’s star rose as his reputation as a songwriter rose.

He's On His Way

He's On His Way

     Albert pushed the envelope to secure as large a portion of the revenues for himself and Bobby as he could.  Columbia had conned Dylan into a disadvantageous  contract so Albert forced a change.  He secured twenty-five percent of the revenues from Bobby’s records for himself which was far in advance of practice.  However Albert had been right.  Pop album sales which had been miniscule in 1960 burgeoned into a mult-billion dollar segment by the end of the decade.  Albert had positioned Bobby to benefit from this huge market.

     Albert had bullied Columbia Records, Bobby’s label, into giving him producers who would make the most of his talents.  His unusual terroristic tactics threw the fear of god into Columbia’s executives.  If Bobby hadn’t signed a new contract, a fairly generous contract, behind Albert’s back Albert probably would have secured an even richer contract.  Remember Albert had the incentive of twenty-five percent of Dylan’s record revenues.

     One must accept the fact that Albert Grossman managed Bob Dylan’s career to perfection.  One must accept the fact tht Dylan would have been worth much less financially, perhaps, worthless without the aid and support of Albert Grossman.

     But then, Bob discovered that Albert had, and this is improtant, given himself fifty percent of Dwarf Music not only without telling Bobby but actively preventing his knowing.

     Bobby saw only his own genius while ignoring Albert’s.  Without thinking it out he chose to feel betrayed.  Albert traded on Bobby’s trust but I do not believe Albert betrayed him.  I think Albert was the best friend Bobby ever had.

     I believe that Albert was entitled to fifty percent of Bobby’s earnings in perpetuity.  I’d have to say that Bobby played the churl in not recognizing Albert’s contribution to his success.

     Still, Bobby is the artist, Bob Dylan, while Albert is only the promoter, Albert Grossman.  Which is the tail and which is the dog?  Did you ever see a dog run round and round chasing its tail?    

 

I Ate The Whole Thing

I Ate The Whole Thing

                                                            

                                                                            The End.