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BOB DYLAN: THE FIRST INTERVIEW

Billy James
(Columbia Records), October 1961

DYLAN: Well, let me say that I was born in Duluth, Minnesota – give that a little plug. That's where I was born and, uh, out in the midwest most of my life. Well, about three-quarters of my life around the midwest and one quarter around the southwest – New Mexico. But then I lived in Kansas – Marysville, Kansas, and, uh, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I bounced around a lot as a kid.

Was that your choice?

It was my choice partly. Partly it wasn't. I ran away a lot – stuff like that. I'd rather say just that.

When was the first time you ran away, as you put it?

I took off when I was in New Mexico. I lived in Gallup, New Mexico.

How old were you then?

Seven. Seven – eight – something like that. For the most part my base has been in upper – way upper – Minnesota. Almost to the border. Can I mention the town? Hibbing, Minnesota – that's a mining town – lumber town. I was there off and on ever since I was about seven to seventeen.

You were in Gallup when you were seven and you took off? Were you alone?

Yeah, well, I was with a carnival when I was about thirteen and I used to travel with a carnival – all kinds of shows.

Where did you go with the carnivals?

All round the mid-west. Uh, Gallup, New Mexico, then to Texas, and then... lived in Gallup, New Mexico, and...

How far did you get when you were seven and left Gallup?

Oh... Well, I was with an uncle and, uh; I was in Texas, then Kansas. But this stuff you see, I can't really remember so hot. All I remember is basic – base things. Where I could, uh, just base things, sort of like...

Did you go to school much?

Yeah, I went to school. I graduated. I graduated from high school – that's where I graduated – Hibbing.

see. Did you go to high school for four years in Hibbing?

Well. I graduated. I skipped a grade.

How long were you with the carnival?

I was with the carnival for a long time every year. I was with the carnival summers and even part-ways into the winters.

What did you do?

Uh, roustabout. I sung around. I didn't sing for any money but I learned a lot of songs in the carnival. That's why I know all these songs they do now and I'm only 20. I hear a song now – at least a folk song – I've heard a version of it or something like it before.

And you have a good memory?

Yeah. I guess I've memorised a lot of what I've heard – things I can remember back. Well, I write a lot of songs and I forget them. As soon as after I write them or sing them out loud – to myself or something – and them I forget 'em. But a lot of times when I take the time to write them down I usually sing 'em once in a while. I just wrote a new song, about, oh, last week about New York. I wish I would have recorded it. Some people are singing it now at the Blue Angel: lan and Sylvia. I taught it to lan.

What are your earliest memories of singing?

Well, I've been singing for an awful long time. First guitar I ever had was a very old guitar and the strings were about an inch from the keyboard. That's why I use a flat pick when I play now – and I never got unused to using that flat pick – because I could never get those strings. They were heavy strings and my fingers hurt.

How old were you?

About ten.

Who gave it to you?

Down at, uh, uh... I got it in Chicago on the South Side. I think from a street singer – I didn't get it from him, I get it from a friend of his – Aravella Grey. He was the singer and, uh, let's see – there's Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I learned a lot of songs there. I learned – not alot, but I learned. I didn't learn songs, I just learned way of singing. I learned the way of singing I do. I didn't really learn so many songs.

There was this fella there on a farm right in Sioux Falls, South Dakota – a little bit out – played autoharp. And he was just a farmhand there. He was from Kansas. I learned just ways of singing from people like that. But I never really heard any other way. I played piano when I was seventeen. I played piano for this rock and roll singer. His name is Bobby Vee and he's a big star now, I guess.

Now where was this?

That was in Fargo, North Dakota. Then we went all around the midwest. Went to Wisconsin, Iowa, toured around there and then I left.

How long were you with him?.

I was with him for about, uh, every night – just about every night –for about a month or two. And then as soon as I left him he got on another recording label and then I saw his picture in big picture magazines and that kind of stuff not too long after that. So that was sort of a disappointment. But I always figured that – I just like to feel that I know where I'm at. Because if I know where I'm at then I figure I got anybody beat. Because then if nothing happens that I expect to, then if I don't get some girl that I like, or if I don't get something like that, I always just figure that if I know where I'm at, then nothing will hurt me and then I'll never be disappointed. Then if something comes up, you know, then it's for the good. I mean, it's not really pessimistic or anything like that, but it's just that I like to feel that I know where I'm at.

Do you?

Yeah. Pretty sure I do. I'm at the stage now where I never thought I could sort of look back and see some thing but I knew I could sing better than all those people that are singing now. And I knew that I could sing the same songs much better if only I had the chance to and I'm just getting that chance to in New York. I had the chance to around the country – but I can't reach as many people around the country. And I've had the chance just breaking for me now in New York.

Because my idol is really – like when I'm even on the stage – and not even on stage – my biggest idol goin' all through my head all the time is Charlie Chaplin. This takes a while to explain, but he's one of the men.

© Billy James, 1961


Bob Dylan, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.,1963     |     Credit: U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service

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