Blind Boy Grunt: John Brown
Robert Zimmerman, better known these days as Bob Dylan, signed to Columbia Records in October, 1961. His first album sold about 5,000 copies the first year. But soon, he would become a pretty big star.
At the time, the folk music revival centered around Greenwich Village was taking off, and in 1962, Broadside, a mimeographed (!) magazine started publication. It became a hugely influential forum for folk music, including music and lyrics, as well as articles and reviews. It fostered the kind of musical debate about authenticity and the definitions and purpose of folk music that, while easily parodied, also did an enormous amount to define the sound of the era.
Broadside also sponsored recording sessions, and in late 1962-1963, Dylan recorded five songs, three of which, "John Brown," "Only a Hobo," and "Talking Devil," were released by Broadside using the stage name, “Blind Boy Grunt” (the other two were released years later). Whether Dylan did so because of his contract with Columbia or just as a goof is not clear and there is no evidence that anyone from the record company ever took any offense. And it is further obvious that Broadside did nothing to hide the fact that it was Dylan who appeared on the record. Here is a link to the issue of the magazine from March, 1963. You can see on page 3 that the lyrics to “John Brown” are credited to Dylan (as are the lyrics for “Only a Hobo” that follow). And on the last page is an ad for the album that the songs appear on, Broadside Ballads Vol. 1—with Dylan’s name prominently listed as a contributor.
Dylan’s choice of the name “Blind Boy Grunt” was likely a nod toward the blues music that he loved, and maybe was a poke at young white men who had become enamored of the blues. Interestingly, Dylan used other stage names during this era that seem to be the kind of names you would create if you were pretending to be a blues man. On a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott album, his harmonica part was credited to “Tedham Porterhouse” and his piano and vocal contributions to a Steve Goodman project were credited to “Robert Milkwood Thomas.” (OK, he also was “Bob Landy” as a piano player on the 1964 Elektra Records anthology album, The Blues Project.)
“John Brown” is a strong anti-war song, but not one that was written about the Vietnam War that would later consume the folk and rock world, and lead to some of the greatest protest songs ever. The Tonkin Gulf resolution had not yet passed, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam was at a pretty low level. Instead, the song is a more general broadside, if you will, against war. To further emphasize the meaning of the song, after publishing the lyrics, the Broadside editors included a page from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, one of the great anti-war novels of all time, describing the death of a character during World War II.
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