By Pete Zamplas
Folk music legend Bob Dylan was “knock, knock, knockin’” on not heaven’s door in 1964, but rather the Connemara home of famed writer-musician Carl Sandburg.
Their encounter in Flat Rock was chronicled in folk music and historical stories, by the bearded Gathering dark duo of Steve DuRose and Josh Dunkin. The singers-guitarists performed last week, before a near-capacity crowd in the Carl Sandburg Home’s new amphitheater.
In their finale, they did a creative medley of Dylan songs and Sandburg poetry set to music to illustrate how intertwined their works are. This included Sandburg’s poem Halsted Street Car, about factory worker faces “tired of wishes, empty of dreams.”
Dylan at Connemara
Dylan, 22 and a rising star in early ‘64, brought his then-new album The Times They Are A-Changin’ to Sandburg in a surprise visit. He wanted the People’s Poet to hear it, and endorse it.
He got to meet with his countercultural songwriting inspiration, for ten to 20 minutes in Connemara. But he reportedly was irked the 86-year-old did not seem to recognize him.
Instead, he brushed off Dylan’s album gift by remarking many (star wannabe) people gave him albums or poems. And that album was found buried with other belongings years later, hinting Sandburg rarely played it, DuRose noted.
Dylan and three friends including Pete Carmen drove in a powder blue Ford station wagon from NYC to Kentucky;s striking miners, to N.C., N.O. for Mardi Gras, then to S.F. as they widened horizons and lyrical inspiration.
Carmen and Sandburg’s housekeeper are the two main sources, whose accounts DuRose and Dunkin read. They heard more from some locals.
Dylan stopped in Flat Rock Feb. 6, 1964 — three days before The Beatles launched Beatlemania on The Ed Sullivan Show. Much was evolving musically and culturally, when the two scruffy-haired gents met in Flat Rock.
Dylan introduced himself to Sandburg as a “poet, too,” and was welcomed for a brief chat. They share artistic traits. Each often rambled in casual and even slang terms and bucked standard form in their works. They sought social change, and experienced poverty as young men. Sandburg rode trains as a hobo, circa 1900. Dylan was homeless in NYC, circa 1960. Both exuded a lifelong restless spirit. Sen. Adlai Stevenson once hailed Sandburg’s “restlessness of the seeker, the questioner, the explorer of far horizons, the hunger that is never satisfied.”
Last week was the popular national park’s 51st anniversary week. The park was authorized on Oct. 17, 1968, a year after Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) died.
The other special event in the 200-seat amphitheater was on Saturday. That morning, 36 people took turns reading Sandburg’s 700-page The Complete Poems page by page, for up to five minutes each. The book won a Pulitzer Prize, in 1951.
It has Sandburg’s poems from 1916-50 starting with his brisk description of Chicago industrial life.
The inter-active celebration had “Sandburg’s poems spoken out loud, at his home, by the people he championed,” Supt. Polly Angelakis said. She said Sandburg poetry reading will resume, likely with another session in spring. Angelakis has been superintendent for a year and half, since May 2018.
The Friends of Carl Sandburg at Connemara’s donations pay for such programming.
The outdoor venue opened a year ago. It is nestled in woods near the front entrance, off to the right up the dirt path from the parking lot. The initial amphitheater was on the antebellum house’s front lawn, atop a steep hill.
The outdoor theater should soon get a “medium-tension fabric” netting to shield the audience from sun and lessen rainfall as tree branches do, Angelakis told The Tribune. She said a pavilion would be much costlier, and more obtrusive to the natural setting.
Angelakis said the shade fabric is paid with money staff and a contractor saved from the new amphitheater’s $800,000 budget. Three-fourths of that was in federal park money..
Dylan at Connemara was a two-hour show, on Oct. 15. It featured folk songs from Sandburg’s famed American Songbag recordings of 1927 and excerpts of his poems, along with similar words and tunes of master lyricist Dylan. DuRose said, “American Songbag was a foundation for the folk music movement.”
Several of its folk tunes became pop hits. “Sloop John B” was a calypso hit for The Kingston Trio in 1958, and pop hit for the Beach Boys in ’66. It originally was a West Indies reggae folk tune “John B Sails,” about a sinking crew.
“Midnight Special” (1905), also from Songbag, was a pop hit for CCR (in ’69) and others. Lead Belly recorded it in 1934. Midnight Special was the train he heard pass by, when in prison in Texas. Inmates saw its “ever-loving light” as a sign of imminent release. Early lyrics are about a train that snuck slaves to freedom.
Carl Sandburg was a socialist poet for the working class, Abe Lincoln’s premier biographer, journalist, collector and preserver of folk tunes, and recording artist with some 20 LPs reading his poetry or singing and playing guitar. Sandburg’s first of three Pulitzers was a century ago, in 1919 for his poetry book Corn Huskers. The People, Yes, Sandburg’s 300-page poem in 1936, is a favorite Sandburg poem of Dunkin and DuRose.
Sandburg was still socially relevant in ’64. He won a Grammy in ’59 for the LP Carl Sandburg Reading His Poetry. In ’59, he became the first private citizen in the 20th Century to address a joint session of Congress. In ’63, then-Pres. John Kennedy heralded Sandburg as a versatile “genius.”
In 1961, Bob Dylan released his self-titled debut album of songs from his coffeehouse set lists. One of its originals is lyrical gem “Talkin’ New York,” about a struggling musician in the big city as Dylan did. Mostly in this debut, Dylan modernized old folk compositions such as “Man of Constant Sorrow” from 1913. He sang “House of the Risin’ Sun,” based on a 16th Century English tune.
Minnesota native Robert Zimmerman (Dylan) emerged as “The Voice of His Generation” and “Crown Prince of Folk Music,” after performing in the Newport (R.I.) Folk Festival in July of 1963.
Also in mid-’63, his second LP The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan had his modern lyrics set to traditional melodies — such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” about Cold War nuclear annihilation and fallout. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is among songs The Gathering Dark played. Dylan appealed to Baby Boomers with musical traditions — such as those Sandburg honored.
Dylan’s next LP was The Times They Are A-Changin’ — out on Jan. 13, 1964. It had all original Dylan folk songs such as the title tract, calling for social progressiveness. It also harkened to old-time ballads such as “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” about a downtrodden farmer who kills his family then himself.
Dylan evolved after meeting Sandburg with Another Side of Bob Dylan, in August of ’64. Themes were more mixed. Politics blossomed more with civil rights’ “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages.” The Gathering Dark performed both and “All I Really Want to Do,” among the LP’s non-political songs along with “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
Dylan alienated folk purists in electrifying his guitar such as with “Mr. Tambourine Man.’ He recorded its demo in December, 1964. It launched The Byrds. Dylan further widened his audience with ‘65-66 hits such as romantic “Just Like a Woman” and “I Want You,” and off-beat tales in “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Yet he remained acoustic such as on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” in early ’65 and in eternal search from th “No Direction Home” (Nov. ‘61) to “On the Road Again” (Jan. ’65).
Dunkin, 39, grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. He was a Second City comic in Chicago, where Sandburg was a journalist a century ago. Sandburg grew up poor in a three-room cottage in Galesburg, Ill., hometown of the Village of Flat Rock’s first mayor Cy Highlander.
DuRose, 59, is from Dayton, Ohio. He performed in L.A., and now lives “down the road” from the Sandburg Home. They met three years ago, at a trivia night Dunkin hosted. They host open mic on Mondays, in Sanctuary Brewing in Hendersonville.
In their usual shows, they play 80 percent Americana originals and 20 percent covers. They blend in comedy, drama and poetry. Their EP Mountain Storyteller came out early this year.
For more on The Gathering Dark, check thegeatherinkdark.com. For more on the Sandburg Home, call 693-4178 or check www.nps.gov/carl.