The Magazine

Village Vanguard

Bob Dylan and the origins of folk-rock.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By RONALD RADOSH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A Freewheelin' Time

A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

by Suze Rotolo

Broadway Books, 384 pp., $22.95

Everyone recognizes the cover photo for Bob Dylan's 1963 Columbia album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The singer is walking down Jones Street on a cold winter day in Greenwich Village. He is wearing a thin suede jacket and is holding onto a girl wearing a loden coat and boots, a young woman with a nice smile and long brunette hair.

The girl was Suze Rotolo, the daughter of Italian immigrant Communist parents, and Dylan's first serious girlfriend. Now this photo adorns the dust jacket, beckoning to readers who want to know more about Dylan and his life with Rotolo.

For years she has been the woman in the background, someone who has kept silent both about Dylan and her own life. With the publication of her own memoir, A Freewheelin' Time, Rotolo, now in her sixties, has come out of the shadows and given us a heartfelt, lyrical, and intriguing picture of not only her life with the enigmatic Dylan but a picture of life in the vibrant folk music community that was emerging in the Village at the time. We get vignettes of some well-known personalities: the "Mayor of Greenwich Village," as the late Dave Van Ronk was called; the beautiful folkie Carolyn Hester, who had come North from Lubbock, Texas; the singer who first emulated and copied the style of Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who dubbed himself "the last of the Brooklyn cowboys." Elliott, she writes, "was the son of Woody and Bob was the son of Jack."

We get to meet other Village characters: Liam Clancy and the Clancy brothers; the famed sandal maker Allan Block; the proprietor of The Folklore Center, Izzy Young; and the young political songwriter Phil Ochs, who was in a fierce competition with Dylan. Most of them were starting out, lived in cheap walk-up flats, and hung out at bars like The White Horse, which had become famous as the pub where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death.

Rotolo's book can be read alongside David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street, Dave Van Ronk's memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, John Cohen's book of photos and texts of rare Dylan radio programs (Young Bob), and of course, the fascinating chapters on the Village in Dylan's own memoir, Chronicles: Volume One.

What Rotolo brings to the story is something that only she could offer: the coming-of-age story of a young woman thrust into an affair with an intense, ambitious, and artistic genius. When the 17-year-old Rotolo met Dylan, she was rather lost. Unlike her friends in Queens who headed off to college, Rotolo, a poor student with an artistic bent, headed to the Village. She soon began a passionate affair with the 20-year-old Dylan, another recent arrival who was trying to make it as a folk singer, without a reputation or following.

Then Dylan was discovered and signed by John Hammond to Columbia Records, and fame and fortune was on its way. Dylan's overnight success made Rotolo feel like "a string on Bob Dylan's guitar," his "chick." She was approvingly seen by Pete Seeger as the "woman behind the great man" and by Alan Lomax as one who would stand "by the poet, the genius [who] unselfishly tended to his needs and desires."

It was difficult for Rotolo to do this while her own identity was so unformed and she was still "struggling for permission to be." She loved Dylan, but felt she could not be his muse, follow him around, be there for him when she was needed, put up with his secretive personality, and tolerate his relationships with other women. She needed to become her own person, to learn what she wanted to do in life, and not to live a life walking "a few paces behind, picking up his tossed-off candy wrappers."

Rotolo's Italian parents were committed Communist party members, making Rotolo one of the ranks of New York's somewhat unique colony of "Red diaper babies." She grew up in a narrow and sectarian culture, among those who believed the Soviet Union was the model for a good society. This gave her a sense of identity, but made her feel alienated from her more conventional peers. Her mother was, for a time, an editor and columnist for L'Unita, the Italian-American CP newspaper.

When Suze started going out with Bob Dylan, she introduced him to the civil rights movement and the other left-wing causes of the day. But her first political act was working for Bayard Rustin, the anti-Communist social democrat, helping organize the Youth March on Washington for Integrated Schools, a predecessor to the March on Washington. Later, she worked in the New York office of the Congress of Racial Equality, where she helped coordinate the Freedom Rides.