Serendipity, Bob Dylan, and Me

Joan_Baez_Bob_Dylan_cropI had a chance meeting yesterday with a researcher. He’s interested in publishing and in a question many people ask these days, which is how do people encounter not only what they need but also other things they might be interested in? The word serendipity is used so much I have even seen some minor backlash. But it’s a good question. It really is. If everything is digital, and we are finding most things through search engines and through navigation others invent for us, how might be end up encountering something else, something new?

Bob Dylan got me thinking about this. Well, actually, the bizarre armed takeover of a nature reserve in Oregon got me thinking about it. That got me thinking about public lands and how they should be used. That then got me thinking about a favorite song, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” So I went to YouTube, listened to first Woody sing it, then a version of it when Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang it on the National Mall as part of the Obama inauguration. It was deeply moving seeing Pete up there. I saw him once in person. It was a thrill.

When I type these days on my computer, I am aware of the callouses on my left fingertips. I am teaching myself guitar. My callouses are my greatest accomplishment yet, but I am learning chords, relearning how to read music, and trying to get more nimble. I watched Pete, Bruce, and Pete’s grandson play. Both Pete on banjo and his grandson on guitar were using capos and changing chords. I’m pretty sure Bruce was strumming just one chord. I’m pretty sure it was a C chord. This gave me hope. I can make a decent C chord.

Folk music has been in my life since grade school. I had a wonderful music teacher, Miss Beaver, who had us sing all kinds of things, but I loved singing “This Land is Your Land.” I still do. I am not ashamed to say it fills my heart to the brim.

Watching it got me thinking about my musical roots. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan. Miss Beaver led me to the first two, but serendipity led me to Dylan. Well, Serendipity aided by the Columbia House Record Club. I was 12. I had a paper route. I fell for it. Thirteen records for .99, or something like that.I honestly can’t remember what I picked, but it was 1971, so I would just have to look at the pop charts to take a good guess. I do remember vividly that it got hard to keep picking, so I was kind of relieved that I could pick Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2, which counted as two records because it was, as we said back in the day, a double-vinyl.

The records arrived a few weeks later, and I worked my way through the stack. When I finally got to the Dylan album, I realized that I knew exactly one song of 21 on that album, “Lay Lady Lay.” I played it. I played it again. I didn’t like the song much then, and I like it even less now. I didn’t give up on the album, though, because at some point I dropped the stylus on the song just before “Lay Lady Lay.” I heard this finger-picking guitar, and this raspy voice:

Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don’t know by now
And it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It will never do anyhow

I probably listened to that song, “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” 20 times that night, then 20 times the next night. After a couple of weeks I was listening to the entire album, all fours sides, though skipping over “Lay Lady Lay” every time. It spanned older pure folk songs, some of the songs that he used to sledgehammer his way into rock and roll, and even some previously unreleased songs. Within a year, I owned every record Dylan had recorded and read a biography that had just come out. I found Sing Out! magazine at our little record store. I was hooked.

So here I am 45 years later. I’ve seen scores of folk performances. I got a turntable for my birthday last year. I just pulled that Dylan album off my shelf, dropped the stylus on that great song. I listened to it, felt the callouses on my fingertips. I can’t play that song yet, but I am getting there. Maybe by the summer.


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