By the late 19th century, the lower Manhattan neighborhood known as Greenwich Village had been established as a haven for artists of all stripes, from writers to painters to poets to architects. That reputation accelerated in the 20th century with the rise of the mass media, when word could spread out to places like Hibbing, Minnesota that the Village was the place for people looking to plug into America’s creative nerve center. Robert Zimmerman arrived in New York from Minnesota in 1961, and quickly found a foothold in the already thriving folk-music scene of the Village, writing his own songs and borrowing from others, while building his persona. Soon, Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan and started selling his songs to other artists, as his music evolved beyond its original traditionalism at a rapid clip.
Bob Dylan’s 1963 LP The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was only his second album, but it launched the 22-year-old singer-songwriter beyond the confines of the Village. The record contains some of his best-loved songs, including “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Girl From The North Country,” “Masters Of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” It highlights Dylan as a poet, an activist, and as a prematurely old soul—and it’s all wrapped up in an iconic cover that shows Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo trudging happily down a snowy West Village street. That image of Dylan and Rotolo looks attractive yet real, and positions Dylan in a very specific time and place. This is the West Village in the early ’60s, and these people look so young and hip, like they belong.
Just like when I made my Pop Pilgrimage to the park beside the Queensboro Bridge (famed thanks to Woody Allen’s Manhattan), I was surprised to find that the street where the Freewheelin’ cover was shot is so unassuming that casual passersby would never know that anything special had happened there. It’s just a street. And it’s not even as nice-looking of a street as some of the others we encountered while walking around the West Village. There’s an alley behind a nearby Mexican restaurant that’s much more picturesque—like something that’s been frozen in time since the 1880s. But it hasn’t, of course. That Mexican restaurant, Panchito’s, wasn’t even there in Dylan’s time. It was a different establishment then: a café called The Commons (soon to change its name to The Fat Black Pussycat) where Dylan reportedly wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind” in 10 minutes one afternoon.
The Fat Black Pussycat has since relocated; according to our Pop Pilgrims guest Bob Egan (of the website popspotsnyc.com), when he went inside Panchito’s to ask if anyone who worked there knew that “Blowin’ In The Wind” had been written in that building, no one had any idea what he was talking about. I also asked Egan at one point how many businesses in any given Village block had been around more than five years, and how many would be around five years from now. As he looked down the street at a hodgepodge of boutiques, bars, and frozen-yogurt shops, Egan said he reckoned that more than half of the block was new, and would turn over again by the next decade. As Egan writes on the PopSpots front page, “Manhattan is constantly being torn down and rebuilt anew, and I’m trying to find these places while they are still around.”
It’s not all bad news on the historical-preservation front though. We found a record shop at the corner of Jones and 4th that prominently displayed The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in its front window. And we weren’t the only crew shooting on that street on that day; we saw a photographer out there with a model, taking some pictures, presumably trying to capture some of that Dylan mojo. (Throughout our day of shooting in Manhattan, I was surprised by how many other professional videographers and photographers we saw at work, while ordinary New Yorkers walked by, clearly accustomed to such tomfoolery.) The street names alone also serve as markers, thanks to the power lent to them by songwriters. As we entered the Village, for example, we drove past Bleecker Street and MacDougal Street, which meant I spent a large part of the morning with Fred Neil stuck in my head.
In a way, though, the greatest testament to New York’s cultural legacy is that there is no marker where Dylan wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or where the Freewheelin’ cover was shot; just as Dylan didn’t walk past plaques commemorating the Beat poets, or The Living Theatre, or the abstract expressionists. New York changes. That was clear even to me as a first-time visitor, looking at the vacant buildings and storefronts sure to be transformed before too long, if only so they can be vacated and transformed yet again.