RICHMOND — Some of the natives became a little restless in the barnlike atmosphere of the Pittsfield Boys Club when singer Joan Baez announced that she wanted them to meet a young singer friend of hers and that he would perform next. They’d paid for a Baez ticket, and they weren’t much interested in a substitute. It was Aug. 14, 1963, and the newbie, Baez predicted, would be a hit in the near future. (He was already hot in the ears of the cognizant.)
Bob Dylan is his name, she said, and a tousled young man appeared beside her on the stage elevated above the patrons in their folding chairs. You could hear “So what?” around the room, but a number of people — including me and my husband, who was there to review — were among those who had already been mesmerized by the strange voice of this singer — and his message.
Some of the audience probably went home still thinking they’d been had, bad enough to be on a basketball court for a concert instead of at Music Inn, the originally scheduled venue. Sure, Baez had sung, but not the whole time. And they didn’t particularly like what her young friend had done, nor did they understand her enthusiasm about him. We loved it.
Many have argued about the Dylan voice over the years, even as they embraced his incredible songs. Writers have described his voice as “croaky, harsh, nasal, flaying, acrid and grating.” Journalist Anthony Scaduto, who wrote what’s considered the Dylan biography, said this: “[His voice] made him sound like a man from a chain gang whose nose had been broken by a guard’s rifle butt.”
No wonder some of those Berkshire folks at the Boys Club were disappointed.
But, Baez was right. Even those who have never liked his voice have come to love his words. Last week, Dylan sold the publishing rights for his songs to several companies, reportedly for hundreds of millions of dollars. He will no longer get royalties whenever those songs are performed, but he isn’t going to need them. The Boys Club concert was Dylan’s first appearance in Western Massachusetts. He soloed on three songs that would become major hits: “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Blowin in the Wind,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall.” And Baez sang two other Dylan songs.
In his review, Milt wrote: “His voice is not a pretty one, his guitar playing is just plain old banging away, but there is an intensity about him, a dedication, that forces one’s attention where it belongs.” And for the next 57 years, the singer Baez called the “original vagabond” would pull thousands of fans into his orbit, ever intense, ever unkempt, ever thoughtful. And grand.
Two weeks after his Pittsfield appearance, Dylan’s gravelly voice joined with Baez’s at the historic March on Washington. There’s something appealing about moments when things come full circle. Fifty-one years later, our teenaged granddaughter Emily sang “Blowin’ in the Wind,” clear and sweet, at the memorial service for Milt. We didn’t pay a royalty.