"Searching For A Gem"

Memories of a Manchester Bobfan

Picture from Gabriel Sola Berrozpe

I was introduced to folk music, believe it or not, in my days in the Scouts in the late 50s and early 60s. Us Scouts went camping regularly in the spring and summer months, and one of the things I liked most about Scout camps was sitting round the campfire in the evening (we had dry summer evenings then), singing rousing songs, many peculiar to the Scout movement, many just stupid or in bad taste, but also many from the British and American folk music traditions.

Therefore, when I left home in October, 1963 to attend the Manchester University Institute of Science and Technology, I continued my Scouting days, joining the University Scout & Guide Club, where I found a much more active interest in folk music. We had meetings at people’s homes where those who could played, those who couldn’t sang (and those like me who couldn't do either, just listened and enjoyed). We also played the records of our favourites, sometimes went to local clubs, and also to concerts at venues like the Free Trade Hall. We even on fine weekend days went on rambles in the nearby Peak District stopping at country pubs for lunch and singing as we rambled - especially after lunch! I continued to enjoy with friends the music I was familiar with, such as that sung by the Spinners (who I saw at the Free Trade Hall), Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, Martin Carthy and Alex Campbell, to name but a few. I was also introduced by the more adventurous to a completely new type of folk music. This was the new American folk scene - artists like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and eventually Bob Dylan.

Peter Paul and Mary’s version of "Blowin’ In The Wind" was popular, so I bought and loved it. I decided to check out the song’s author, one Bob Dylan - no-one I knew actually had one of his records at that time. He had no singles out that I could trace, so off I went to the record shop and bought his current LP, "The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan" (at 1/12/6, or about $6.50 at the then exchange rate, a major investment in those days). First track was "Blowin’". I took it out of the sleeve, put it on my record player, and dropped the arm down. What a shock! No vocal harmonies by PPM here, just that harsh solo voice and guitar. I didn’t like it at first, but I listened to the whole album anyway, after all it had just cost me good money that could have gone on beer. I eventually decided that the guy had something, even if it wasn’t conventionally appealing, and kept listening. When "the Times They Are A-Changin’" came out, I bought it straight away, and went through three copies of that LP. "Another Side Of Bob Dylan" - completely unaware of the controversy in the Village we loved that album too.

Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 2014

In May 1965 I went to the Manchester Free Trade Hall to see Bob Dylan for his all-acoustic solo show. What an event, a little skinny guy with a guitar and a table of harmonicas filling the hall with his music. The audience was incredibly respectful - you could hear a pin drop during the songs, and enthusiastic applause as each ended - a classic concert with plenty of songs that we’d never heard before - "Mr. Tambourine Man", "It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue", and the song I remember as a tour-de-force - "It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)". Wonderful stuff, with Bob engaging the audience with humour, something he never does now! After the show I bought Bob’s new album "Bringing It All Back Home" in the foyer of the Free Trade Hall. It was the second great surprise of my Bob fandom to set the needle down and hear the first electric song, with electricity continuing for the rest of side one. All unfamiliar songs in an unfamiliar style. No-one was impressed. Side two was a different matter, of course. Here were all but one of the new songs that we had enjoyed at the concert. We all agreed that one of the new songs on side one should have been dropped to accommodate the song we’d guffawed at the Free Trade Hall - "If You Gotta Go, Go Now". The obvious one was "Maggie’s Farm", that was rubbish. However, I lent the album to Tony Morriss, a guy who lived in the same house who was definitely not a Dylan fan. He thought that side two of the album was boring, but that side one was amazing - he especially raved about "Maggie’s Farm"! So, a new perspective on Dylan was emerging, a new group of fans who had no interest in his old stuff. I, probably alone amongst my folkie friends, played side one secretly, and started to get into it...

In May 1966, Bob was coming back to the Free Trade Hall, but rumours came along that this time he was playing a dual format show, his acoustic songs solo in the first half and his electric songs with a band after the interval. There was no formal decision not to go, and certainly no idea of going and booing in the second half. We just didn’t go. Also, it was right in the middle of my final exams - I’m sure I had an important exam that I hadn’t prepared well enough for on Wednesday May 18th! That’s how on one of the most momentous nights in the history of rock music, I wasn’t at the Free Trade Hall, even though I was there in the city, and only a few miles away from the event. C. P. Lee is also sure the event sold out very quickly, so I probably couldn't have gone even if I'd tried to.

Johnny Roadhouse Music, Oxford Road, Manchester

One day in 1966, I left my classes in Central Manchester to get the bus back to Rusholme where I was living (Rusholme is now known as the "Curry Mile", but there was not one Indian restaurant there then). On the way to the bus stop I passed a record shop (more than likely Johnny Roadhouse's on Oxford Road) and saw in the window a new album from Bob Dylan, "Blonde On Blonde". I checked my pocket - I had enough to buy an album with some left over, so I went in to buy it. To my great surprise, the assistant handed me a double album, the first I’d ever seen. And it was 1 more than the regular price. I checked my pocket again - I had just enough to buy it, but not enough to buy the album and get the bus home. My choice was simple, buy the album and walk home, or leave it for another day and get the bus. I looked at the album again, I folded out the amazing gatefold sleeve with the full-length sideways picture of Bob... I walked home.

I have always thought this took place in late June 1966, but the album first charted in the UK on 20 Aug 1966, and Ian Woodward has calculated the UK release date as 13 Aug 1966 based on contemporary press reports. Because I was away from Manchester from late June/early July 1966 and did not return until late September 1966, I can therefore only conclude that this incident took place after I'd returned to Manchester for a new University term, and I missed the original release of the album in August (I was on a University sponsored trip to Morocco in North Africa in Aug/Sep 1966).

Alan Fraser

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