The Old Man (Bob Dylan)

Dave Van Ronk took pride in the fact that he recognized Bob Dylan’s talent early, back when a lot of people thought Bobby was just a weird kid with too much nervous energy and a scratchy voice. Dave and his wife Terri Thal were major boosters for the kid, mentoring him, finding him jobs, and teaching him songs.

Dave also recorded a handful of Dylan songs: this one, a jazz band romp called “If I Had to Do It All Over Again (I’d Do It All Over You),” which I’ll get around to at some point, Dylan’s version of “He Was a Friend of Mine,” and, much later, a nice version of “Buckets of Rain.” He might have recorded more, but Dylan took off like a skyrocket and Dave had no interest in tagging along, so he stuck to older material for a while, then began singing the work of less-known newcomers like Neila Horne and Joni Mitchell, and even writing a few himself.

This was an exception, because Dylan hadn’t recorded it and it was so simple, and such a New York story. I’m pretty sure Dave was the first person to record it, on his No Dirty Names LP in 1966, but Dylan had written it about five years earlier during his first spate of songwriting.seeger frontier ballads The melody was from a song called “The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn,” which I’m assuming Dylan, like everyone else, got from Pete Seeger, who recorded it in the mid-1950s on an album of frontier ballads.

The original began:

I’ll sing you a song, it’s not very long,
About a young man who wouldn’t hoe corn.

Strange to say, I cannot tell,
This young man was always well.

Dylan took the pattern of that verse, changed the age of the man, and turned it into a stark parable of modern city life — a small, perfectly-observed vignette with a touch of brilliance that Dave often noted: “bully club,” rather than “billy club.”

I don’t want to go on, since the song itself is so concise, but… I’d add that Seeger was a very important source for Dylan, as for virtually everyone else in the folk revival, and some later scholars have tended to erase that influence by tracing Dylan songs to more obscure sources, in particular the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. The Smith anthology was an important source for a lot of people on that scene, but nowhere near as important as Seeger — I’d guess even the New Lost City Ramblers, if you’d locked them in a room and forced them to sing everything they knew, learned more songs from Pete than from any other single source. (If you want to know more of what I think about Dylan and Seeger, there’s plenty in Dylan Goes Electric!)