The relationship between Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan is often viewed as paternal in nature, which is to say that the elder poet was like a father figure to the folk singer. Certainly, they were close, and Dylan has often cited Ginsberg as a massive influence on his life and work; however, they were only fifteen years apart by birth and five by seminal publication.
Dylan certainly viewed Ginsberg as a father figure, as evidenced in his film, Renaldo and Clara. Here, Ginsberg plays an advice-offering character known as The Father. He also appears, watching over Dylan, in the background of the singer’s Subterranean Homesick Blues.
However, if we are to force metaphors upon their relationship, then perhaps a more accurate one would as brothers, as although Ginsberg played the role of mentor, they were closer than such a closed view would suggest. They found in each other a shared genius, and collaborated on a few projects, praising each other over a long friendship.
Dylan would say, “I didn’t start writing poetry until I was out of high school. I was eighteen or so when I first discovered Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Frank O’Hara and those guys.” So clearly in the beginning it was a one-way relationship, with Dylan inspired to write by the Beat Generation.
However, Ginsberg found in Dylan’s songs the same kind of spirit with which he infused his own poetry. The protest and mysticism he described in Dylan’s art as “chains of flashing images” are evident in the majority of Ginsberg’s volume of work.
Bob Dylan arrived in New York City in 1961, following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, and Allen Ginsberg returned there in December 1963. Through Al Aronowitz, the journalist and their shared acquaintance, the two poets met.
“I first met Bob at a party at the Eighth Street Book Shop, and he invited me to go on tour with him. I ended up not going, but, boy, if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have gone like a flash. He’d probably have put me onstage with him.” (New York, early 1960s)
“His image was undercurrent, underground, unconscious in people … something a little more mysterious, poetic, a little more Dada, more where people’s hearts and heads actually were rather than where they ‘should be’ according to some ideological angry theory.” (San Francisco, 1965)
Ginsberg praised Dylan’s work as returning poetry to the human body through the medium of music. As well as appearing in Renaldo and Clara and Subterranean Homesick Blues, he wrote three poems in praise of Dylan and wrote the sleevenotes of Desire: “Big discovery, these songs are the culmination of Poetry-music as dreamt of in the 50s & early 60s.” And according to Mel Howard, “Allen saw Dylan rightly connected to the whole tradition of the Beat movement, and through that to earlier poets.”
And on the sleevenotes of Bringing it All Back Home, Dylan wrote, “why allen ginsberg was not chosen to read poetry at the inauguration boggles my mind.”
In November 1971, Ginsberg and Dylan collaborated on songs intended for an as yet unreleased album called Holy Soul Jelly Roll. The songs exist in bootleg form online, and most are available through the PennSound project. (Edit: They were released as First Blues in 1983 and released this year, 2016, as Last Word on First Blues.)
The songs, or album, consist of the jointly written ‘Vomit Express’, ‘September on Jessore Road’ and ‘Jimmy Berman’, as well as William Blake poems set to music and several poems written by Ginsberg himself.
Throughout, Ginsberg takes lead vocals with Dylan on guitar, harmonica and backing vocals. The songs were recorded at the Record Plant in New York.
The pair also performed five songs, including ‘September on Jessore Road’ and William Blake’s ‘Nurse’s Song’ and ‘A Dream’, on PBS-TV, New York. The songs were recorded in the PBS-TV studios in October, and featured Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso on vocals, alongside David Amran and Happy Traum.
Such joint collaborations further blur the image of Ginsberg as Dylan’s father, and throws light on their mutual respect for one another.
However, another perspective of their relationship is that of Ginsberg doing as Cassady and Burroughs did and bridging the gap between the generations and movements of the latter half of the twentieth century. Whereas Cassady joined forces with the Merry Pranksters and the Psychedelic Generation, and Burroughs entered into experimentations with music and artists of later periods, Ginsberg moved from the Beat 50s into the Protest 60s, influencing and working alongside the epitome of protest culture and social change, Bob Dylan.
Indeed, after meeting Dylan, Ginsberg entered into a period of unrivalled social and political activism, joining forces with Norman Mailer to defend Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, testifying in support of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, supporting the movement for the legalisation of cannabis, demonstrating for freedom of sexuality and against capitalism. As Graham Caveney said, “If Dylan was beginning to provide the soundtrack for the counter-culture, Ginsberg gave it both a face and the networks which were essential in sustaining its momentum.”
Rolling Thunder Revue
In 1975 Dylan set out upon his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which he was to film and turn into Renaldo and Clara. The tour was one of small gigs, no more than three thousand people, blending theatre and music, and in between gigs the tour bus would see filming of scenes and actions that Dylan would later cut together. The whole film was intended to cut live concert footage with a story that was written by a scriptwriter, but diverged and took a life of its own. Originally it was a collection of images from Dylan’s life and dreams, told mystically and surrealistically, in the manner of his poetry.
According to organiser Lou Kemp, the original group of musicians “would go out at night and run into people, and we’d just invite them to come with us. We started out with a relatively small group of musicians and support people, and we ended up with a caravan.”
On stage, during the opening night, Ginsberg joined in singing ‘This Land is Your Land,’ and in subsequent shows he would act as both poet and harmonist. However, although Ginsberg accompanied the Rolling Thunder Revue for most of its run, many of his poetry readings were cut from the stage to keep the shows to reasonable lengths. One major exception was the performance in Clinton State Prison, where Rubin Carter, the boxer about whom ‘Hurricane’ was written, and whose defence case the tour was raising funds for, was incarcerated. During this show, Ginsberg’s poetry recitations were included.
Two of the film’s most well-known scenes depict Ginsberg as a mentor to Dylan – in Lowell, explaining the Catholic notion of the Stations of the Cross, and during their visit to Kerouac’s grave. These scenes explore Ginsberg’s religious views as a teacher, albeit a Catholic guide rather than as a Buddhist. And in other scenes Kerouac and Beat poetry are discussed, furthering the image of Ginsberg as a major influence upon Dylan.
So looking back upon the relationship between the two poets, it’s hard to stick to the conventional analysis of their relationship as that of a father-son, one-way influence. Rather they can be viewed as akin to brothers, or hell, why not just call them friends, as they in fact were? Sure, maybe Dylan learned more from Ginsberg, but they interacted and collaborated, and they respected one another. Dylan may have discovered the works of Ginsberg before Ginsberg discovered Dylan’s, but Beat poetry was far from his only influence, and Ginsberg learned much from Dylan, and together they helped bring the Beat spirit into the sixties and further a new generation of social activism and art.