Breathed Fire Through His Nose: Roots of Bob Dylan (pt. 2)

by

Clarence Ashley, Jon Pankake, Tex Isley.

from “Chronicles,” by Bob Dylan:

Jon Pankake, a folk music purist enthusiast and sometime literary teacher and film wiseman, who’d been watching me for a while on the scene, made it his business to tell me that what I was doing hadn’t escaped him. “What do you think you’re doing? You’re singing nothing but Guthrie songs,” he said, jabbing his finger into my chest like he was talking to a poor fool.

Pankake was authoritative and a hard guy to get past. It was known around that Pankake had a vast collection of the real folk records and could go on and on about them. He was part of the folk police, if not the chief commissioner, wasn’t impressed with any of the new talent. To him nobody possessed any great mastery-no one could succeed in laying a hand on any of the traditional stuff with any authority. Of course he was right, but Pankake didn’t play or sing. It’s not like he put himself in any position to be judged.

“You’re trying hard, but you’ll never turn into Woody Guthrie,” Pankake says to me as if he’s looking down from some high hill, like something has violated his instincts. It was no fun being around Pankake. He made me nervous. He breathed fire through his nose. “You better think of something else. You’re doing it for nothing. Jack Elliott’s already been where you are and gone. Ever heard of him?” No, I’d never heard of Jack Elliott. When Pankake said his name, it was the first time I’d heard it. “Never heard of him, no. What does he sound like?” John said that he’d play me his records and that I was in for a surprise.

Pankake lived in an apartment above McCosh’s bookstore, a place that specialized in eclectic old books, ancient texts, philosophical political pamphlets from the 1800s on up. It was a neighborhood hangout for intellectuals and Beat types, on the main floor of an old Victorian house only a few blocks away. I went there with Pankake and saw it was true that he had all the incredible records, ones you never saw and wouldn’t know where to get. For someone who didn’t sing and play, it was amazing that he had so many.

Elliott, who’d been born ten years before me, had actually traveled with Guthrie, learned his songs and style firsthand and had mastered it completely. Pankake was right. Elliott was far beyond me.

I sheepishly left the apartment and went back out into the cold street, aimlessly walked around. I felt like I had nowhere to go, felt like one of the dead men walking through catacombs. It would be hard not to be influenced by the guy I just heard. I’d have to block it out of my mind, though, forget this thing, tell myself I hadn’t heard him and he didn’t exist. He was overseas in Europe, anyway, in a self-imposed exile. The U.S. hadn’t been ready for him. Good. I was hoping he’d stay gone, and I kept hunting for Guthrie songs.

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