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This article is taken from PN Review 154, Volume 30 Number 2, November - December 2003.

Stumbling on Lost Cigars of Bertolt Brecht: Bob Dylan's Rebellion Esther Quin

A crowded cafe, evening. A young singer stands at the back, gripping a guitar that makes his diminutive frame look even smaller. As he strums the opening chords of his first song, the nervous energy which otherwise characterises his movements entirely disappears:

When he picked up his guitar, the murmur of conversation stopped, the [...] dancers stopped slinking into dimly lit corners, everyone squatted on the floor around him, charmed by his spell... His singing was raw and abrasive, often crude like a street-singer or a music-hall minstrel, and it was pervaded with an unmistakeable [provincial] intonation. Sometimes he sang with something approaching beauty: his voice floated along with emotional vibratos, and he enunciated each syllable very clearly.

This description of a performance by Brecht in Berlin in the 1920s could as well describe the young Bob Dylan in New York in the early 1960s. Despite dirtiness and obvious provinciality, each man had a charismatic personality which not only made him the focus for an ever-increasing following (and incidentally a magnet to women), but also led him to be acclaimed as a genius speaking for a generation.

Brecht's reputation as a 'singing poet' was an essential factor in his popularity in America in the 1960s. He provided an ancestor figure for young Americans trying to construct a lineage for a new movement. In 1961, the year after a group of Californian students stormed a local hearing of the House Unamerican Activities ...

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