September 1961, the most important opening sentences of a live gig review in the 20th century appeared in The New York Times: 'A bright new face in folk music is appearing at Gerde's Folk City. Although only 20 years old, Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play in a Manhattan cabaret in months.' The writer was Robert Shelton. The artist, born in Minnesota as Robert Zimmerman, is, now at the age of 70, still considered to be one of the most influential, enigmatic and successful artists America has ever produced.
In 1961, narrow streets such as Bleecker and MacDougal were lined with late-night coffee shops selling weak caffeine and bagels to a new generation of young writers, painters and musicians. Performing in these clubs was a clutch of ever-changing folk singers. They had taken the influence of early 20th-century left-leaning songwriters such as Woody Guthrie and were composing songs that railed against the de facto apartheid of the American South and the conservative hegemony dominating the rest of the United States.
It's now been 50 years since this pivotal cultural moment. In a country where Fox News and the Tea Party are now ruling the political agenda, it can be difficult to see Dylan's legacy. Taking an afternoon stroll with Ron Colinear, whose company Rock Junket hosts music-themed tours of New York, we duck inside a basement doorway on MacDougal Street. This is the Gaslight, which in the 60s was one of the leading 'basket joints' — so called because struggling folk musicians, including Dylan, played here for whatever money the audience threw into the collection basket.
Today the Gaslight (now called 116) is still a windowless bunker of a room with high stools, concrete floors and montages of pictures of Dylan and famous lines from his songs on the exposed brick walls. There's no live music, just cheap beer and a subterranean atmosphere that seems effortlessly to encourage conversation. Ron, a former record company executive with bleached blond hair and a Ramones T-shirt, admits that Greenwich Village has changed hugely.
'New York has been sanitised for our protection,' he says archly. 'This place was a heavy-metal bar for years and only reverted to being the Gaslight last year. People are disappointed that there's no Dylanesque characters playing guitar in Washington Square now. Gerde's Folk City is long gone, as are many of those old coffee houses, but there's still a great community here and it doesn't take much to imagine the days when musicians chain-smoked cigarettes and drank cheap wine while writing great songs in these dives.'