Bob Dylan returned to some of his most important roots when he came to Massachusetts, particularly Cambridge and Lowell, with his Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975.
Once the king of folk music, he reunited with the queen, Joan Baez, during the rollicking, improvisational concert tour.
Rolling Thunder Revue played Cambridge, where Dylan had once haunted coffeehouses, and Lowell, Mass., so Dylan could visit Jack Kerouac’s grave.
Critics called the Rolling Thunder Revue some of the best live music Dylan ever performed.
According to the popular legend, Bob Dylan left Hibbing, Minn., at the age of 19 for New York City. He fell in love with Joan Baez, already a star who helped him rocket to fame. But he took an important detour to Massachusetts, where he fell under the influences that shaped his music.
Joan Baez came to Boston when her father, Albert Baez, moved the family there to teach physics at MIT.
(He’s credited with co-inventing the x-ray microscope.) She enrolled in Boston University but got so bored she dropped out after six weeks.
In the late ‘50s, every college town and city seemed to have a coffeehouse scene, where, as writer David Hajdu wrote, ‘coffeehouses modeled upon European cafés emerged with foreign-film festivals and bookstores that sold imports of Henry Miller novels as outposts of intellectual and sensual dissent.’
The folk revival began in such coffeehouses, as did the protest movements of the 1960s.
Cambridge featured coffeehouses like the Club 47 and Tulla’s Coffee Grinder. Across the river, Boston had the Salamander, The Turk’s Head, the Yana, the Unicorn and the Golden Vanity. They featured such young folk musicians as Tom Rush, Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal.
Baez started out at the Club 47 in 1958 and quickly achieved stardom, the first of the iconic young folk singers. Later she brought the boy she was dating – and singing duets with — to Cambridge. Club 47 was so well known for launching careers that Dylan played there for free.
Bob Dylan in Cambridge
In Cambridge, Bob Dylan met Eric von Schmidt, Richard Farina and his wife, Carolyn Hester. Farina would later marry Joan Baez’s younger sister, Mimi.
Von Schmidt exposed him to many traditional folk songs, all of which Dylan remembered when he returned to New York.
One summer day, von Schmidt invited Dylan and the Farinas to Revere Beach, just north of Boston. According to Hajdu, they talked about coming up with a new kind of music.
“We should start a whole new genre,” Farina said. “Poetry set to music, but not chamber music or beatnik jazz, man. Music with a beat. Poetry you can dance to. Boogie poetry!”
Dylan, stunned by the comment, did exactly that six months later. He played harmonica on Carolyn Hester’s third album, which gave him an entrée to Columbia Records and to his manager, Albert Grossman.
Eventually he broke up with Baez and married another woman. He famously became known as the ‘voice of his generation,’ something he didn’t want. At the height of his fame in 1966 he had a motorcycle accident and didn’t perform for another seven years.
Rolling Thunder Revue
In 1975, Bob Dylan haphazardly recruited musicians like Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Mick Ronson to play the Rolling Thunder Revue. Playwright Sam Shepard joined the tour, as did Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and actress Ronee Blakley.
They held the first concert at the Plymouth War Memorial Auditorium on Oct. 30-31, then played at Southeastern Massachusetts University in North Dartmouth. Then the Rolling Thunder Revue went on to Lowell, where Dylan wanted to visit Jack Kerouac’s grave.
Twenty years earlier, Kerouac had written a long poem called Mexico City Blues. According to Ginsberg, Dylan told him someone handed him Kerouac’s poem in St. Paul in 1959. “It blew my mind,” he said.
He said it was the first poetry he read that spoke his own American language, and Beat writing influenced his own.
On November 2, 1975, the Rolling Thunder Revue crammed 14,000 into a gym at the University of Lowell, recently formed from the Lowell Technological Institute and Lowell State College.
Dylan ambled onstage and sang about five songs, dedicating A Hard Rain.to Kerouac. Larry Sloman, who documented the tour, wrote that after the intermission,
…the curtain rose to an incredible sight, Bob and Joan, together again after all these years.
They sang Blowin’ in the Wind to a thunderous response. Then more songs, and a finale with everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Dylan’s mother onstage singing This Land Is Your Land.
Ginsberg, who frequently visited Lowell, hung out with Kerouac’s relatives and drinking buddies. He tried to educate the Rolling Thunder Revue about Jack Kerouac.
The next day, Dylan, Ginsberg and various band members visited Kerouac’s gravesite.
Watch it here.
This story was updated in 2022. Image of Dylan and Ginsberg By Elsa Dorfman – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1724930.