A look inside 19-year-old Bob Dylan's Connecticut performance that history forgot

Photo of Mark Zaretsky

BRANFORD — Imagine going to a folk festival thinking you knew why you were there and who you wanted to see, then suddenly discovering a fresh new artist so talented, so deep, so profound that the experience changes you — and how you look at music, or life — for decades to come.

Imagine stumbling upon a 19-year-old Bob Dylan, without knowing who he was. Imagine hearing him perform, unannounced, for a few dozen like-minded friends, most of whom had never seen him or in many cases even heard his name.

It happened — 60 years ago Thursday — in Branford, of all places, on May 6, 1961, at the Indian Neck Folk Festival.

And it remains significant because it was one of the first times people outside Greenwich Village or his hometown of Hibbing, Minn., ever saw or heard Dylan perform, according to people who were there.

And nearly six decades later, long after most of the world forgot it ever happened, multiple people posted recordings of it on YouTube and it all came rushing back.

Bob Dylan, upper left-center, mingling in the crowd at the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival in Branford. The photo was taken by Stephen H. Fenerjian, then a 27-year-old photographer in Cambridge, Mass. Fenerjian now is 87 and living in Sharon, Mass.

Bob Dylan, upper left-center, mingling in the crowd at the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival in Branford. The photo was taken by Stephen H. Fenerjian, then a 27-year-old photographer in Cambridge, Mass. Fenerjian now is 87 and living in Sharon, Mass.

Stephen H. Fenerjian / Contributed

Dylan’s historic appearance at the Indian Neck Folk Festival was one of the earliest recordings ever made of him — and he wasn’t even on the announced bill. He played a three-song set — three Woody Guthrie songs, no less — at an after-party at the ramshackle old Montowese House hotel in the Indian Neck section, the day after the “official” concert at Woolsey Hall in New Haven.

“After the concert they had, they all came back to the hotel, and they were playing all night,” said Stephen H. Fenerjian, now 87, who was there.

“No one got to sleep that night,” Fenerjian said.

“I think Indian Neck was kind of a seminal thing in a lot of Northeast musical circles,” said Woodstock, N.Y., musician Happy Traum, who also was there — and also wasn’t part of the announced lineup.

The announced lineup included Judy Collins, Jim Kweskin, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Carolyn Hester, Sandy Bull, Rodger Sprung, Lionel Kilberg, The Greenbriar Boys, Ted Alevizos, Robin Roberts, The Gardners, Molly Scott, Harry and Jeannie West, Fiddler Beers and Evlyn, Sonia Saveg, The Grey Sky Boys, Cynthia Gooding, Borden Snow, Lori Holland, Angus Godwin, Annie Bird, Ric Von Schmidt “and others.”

Judy Collins, then five days past her 22nd birthday, at the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival in Branford on May 6, 1961.The photo was taken by Stephen H. Fenerjian, a then-27-year-old Cambridge, Mass., photographer. Fernerjian now is 87 and living in Sharon, Mass.

Judy Collins, then five days past her 22nd birthday, at the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival in Branford on May 6, 1961.The photo was taken by Stephen H. Fenerjian, a then-27-year-old Cambridge, Mass., photographer. Fernerjian now is 87 and living in Sharon, Mass.

Stephen H. Fenerjian / Contributed photo

Those others included Dylan and Traum.

For whatever reason, the event has largely faded into obscurity over the years, taking a back seat far behind another historic Dylan performance, when he shocked the folk world by “going electric” with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

While Indian Neck, organized by a Yale University folk society and billed at the time as “the largest folk get-together in the East,” continues to be talked about in discussion groups and on blogs among hardcore Dylan aficionados and committed folk music fans, most people who live in the area don’t even know it happened.

But it did happen — and luckily someone recorded it.

While it’s billed in one YouTube posting as “Bob Dylan’s First Recorded Concert,” that’s probably not the case, said Dylan experts Richard Thomas, a classics professor at Harvard University who teaches a class and wrote a book on Dylan, and Sean Latham, director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at University of Tulsa, home of the Bob Dylan Archive.

There are earlier tapes made before Dylan left Hibbing, as well as “an acetate he made with his early band,” said Latham.

Bob Dylan, then 19, performing at the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival in Branford. The photo was taken by Stephen H. Fenerjian, a then-27-year-old Cambridge, Mass., photographer. Fernerjian now is 87 and living in Sharon, Mass.

Bob Dylan, then 19, performing at the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival in Branford. The photo was taken by Stephen H. Fenerjian, a then-27-year-old Cambridge, Mass., photographer. Fernerjian now is 87 and living in Sharon, Mass.

Stephen H. Fenerjian / Contributed photo

But that doesn’t take away from the historic nature of the festival and performance, which came just 141/2 weeks after Dylan’s Jan. 24, 1961, arrival in New York City and just 25 days after his first major New York gig, opening for blues great John Lee Hooker at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village.

Dylan’s performance has been frozen in amber in multiple audio recordings made by people who used modern software to clean up old bootlegs and posted them on YouTube. The guy who made one original recording spelled Dylan’s name “DILLON” on the box, according to Bob Hartman-Berrier, whose late wife, Jay, took over the festival in the mid-’60s.

It also was captured in photographs taken at the time by at least two photographers who were in the right place at the right time.

Fenerjian, now of Sharon, Mass., was one of those photographers, and he took what in retrospect were some breathtaking photos, along with the late Joe Alper.

Fenerjian, who at the time was a 27-year-old employee at Harvard’s Cambridge electron accelerator, documented the Cambridge folk scene as a hobby. At Indian Neck, he took photos of Dylan and other musicians who were there. The others included a young Collins — who was five days past her 22nd birthday — Jim Kweskin, Bob Neuwirth, Mark Spoelstra and the Rev. Gary Davis.

“I remember it well — in fact, I have the original advertisement,” Fenerjian said. “Bob Dylan was not invited to this. He came as a guest of someone who was there.

“... Jim Kweskin was the one who actually came running to me and said, ‘You’ve got to take pictures of this guy,’” he said.

Bob Dylan, then 19, center, jams with Mark Spoelstra, right, and Bob Neuwirth, lower left, at the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival on May 6, 1961. The photo was taken by Stephen H. Fenerjian, a then-27-year-old Cambridge, Mass., photographer. Fernerjian now is 87 and living in Sharon, Mass.

Bob Dylan, then 19, center, jams with Mark Spoelstra, right, and Bob Neuwirth, lower left, at the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival on May 6, 1961. The photo was taken by Stephen H. Fenerjian, a then-27-year-old Cambridge, Mass., photographer. Fernerjian now is 87 and living in Sharon, Mass.

Stephen H. Fenerjian / Contributed photo

Fenerjian, like many from outside the Greenwich Village scene, had never heard of Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, who had only recently taken his stage name as a tribute to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

“Matter of fact, when I took his picture I asked him, ‘Is it Dillon?’ and he said, ‘No, I think it’s Dylan,’” Fenerjian said.

“They were singing all these Woody Guthrie songs — Jim Kweskin and all those guys that were singing with him,” Fenerjian said. “I was impressed that he would go into the harmonica, too, when he was playing. I never saw anyone doing that.

“As far as his voice, I was not impressed with that,” he said.

For Fenerjian, while Dylan — the future winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature — was impressive, he wasn’t all that different from any of the other musicians.

The Rev. Gary Davis at the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival in Branford on May 6, 1961. The photo was taken by Stephen H. Fenerjian, a then-27-year-old Cambridge, Mass., photographer. Fernerjian now is 87 and living in Sharon, Mass.

The Rev. Gary Davis at the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival in Branford on May 6, 1961. The photo was taken by Stephen H. Fenerjian, a then-27-year-old Cambridge, Mass., photographer. Fernerjian now is 87 and living in Sharon, Mass.

Stephen H. Fenerjian / Contributed photo

“You never know how things blossom,” he said. “Who knew when he took the stage at Newport, or at Yale University where I first met him, that he was going to be what he was?”

While the formal concert took place at Woolsey Hall, the performers, and some of the organizers, stayed and were treated to free food — and lots of free beer — at the hotel, said Fenerjian, who came to the festival after Eric von Schmidt, the iconic Boston-area folk musician and author, had to go to Florida and so gave Fenerjian his invitation, he said.

While he’s not a professional photographer, some of Fenerjian’s hundreds of photos from that era have since been used in a book documenting 50 years of Harvard Square, the legendary Cambridge music venue Club 47 (which later became Club Passim) and in the case of the Indian Neck photos, Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” documentary.

A flier from the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival, which took place on May 5-6, 1961.

A flier from the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival, which took place on May 5-6, 1961.

Courtesy of Stephen H. Fenerjian / Contributed

Judy Collins , another musical icon, remembers the show — which in her case was a scheduled and announced appearance. It wasn’t the first time Collins met or saw Bob Dylan, either.

“I don’t remember the concert at Woolsey Hall — although I know I was on it,” Collins said by phone from her home in New York City. But she absolutely remembers seeing Dylan play there. Collins, who met Dylan in Colorado in 1959, also vividly remembers that it was raining that day.

And when she heard Dylan play — Guthrie’s “Talking Columbia,” “Hangknot, Slipknot” and “Talking Fish Blues,” according to the setlist posted on Dylan’s website — unlike many of the folks there, Collins wasn’t all that impressed.

At that point in time, “Dylan bored the hell out of me,” Collins said. “He was singing old Woody Guthrie songs — I thought, badly.

“Then of course, a few months later, there was printed in Sing Out (Magazine) his song called “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Collins said. “I saw his name at the bottom and I thought, ‘There must be some mistake.’”

She was blown away by the quality of the lyrics.

“Now I don’t know what happened,” Collins said. “He had just come to New York and he was sleeping around” without a regular place to live. “He was still homeless and still singing Woody Guthrie songs,” she said. “He must have been writing (his own songs) but he wasn’t performing them.”

Since then, after Collins began hearing Dylan’s own songs, she has been a Dylan fan and they still speak “from time to time,” she said. Collins said she was present when Dylan was writing “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1964, following a party at the home of his then-manager Albert Grossman.

“I’m a great Dylan fan,” Collins said. “... I’ve always had some song of his in my repertoire.”

Traum, who later recorded several songs with Dylan, said there’s a lot he doesn’t remember about Indian Neck these 60 years later, but “I remember being there.”

Nevertheless, “I don’t remember Dylan there because I didn’t know him” at the time. “I didn’t meet him until probably 1962. The main thing that stands out in my mind was Jim Kweskin,” the Boston-area folk musician who went on to form Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band.

“He was just so dynamic ... and ... he was playing things” that amazed Traum, he said.

“It was totally unpaid,” Traum recalled. “It was not a gig. It was more of a gathering.”

Hartman-Berrier, who now lives in Cape Breton, Novia Scotia, later became the festival’s president and has continued it all these years as a private, invitation-only event elsewhere in Connecticut.

The first several festivals took place at the Montowese House — often misidentified in online accounts, including on Dylan’s website, as the “Montowesi Hotel” — but the hotel burned down in 1963, Hartman-Berrier said.

Thomas, the Harvard professor, who wrote the book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters,” published in 2017, said the Indian Neck Folk Festival is significant as Dylan’s first performance outside New York City after arriving there from Minnesota.

“I don’t think he had really been out of New York City since he arrived,” said Thomas, a native of New Zealand. He said that while researchers can’t be positive, “the canonical date” for Dylan’s arrival in New York has long been Jan. 24, 1961.

“I guess the Indian Neck Festival ... is sort of symbolic because he’s venturing north of New York City,” Thomas said. In short order after that, “He gets up and he plays at Club 47, the folk scene where Baez is playing ... and that’s where he meets some of the Cambridge folk people.”

A vintage photograph of the old Montowese House hotel in Branford, CT, site of the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan played one of his first recorded shows, a three-song set on May 6, 1961.

A vintage photograph of the old Montowese House hotel in Branford, CT, site of the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan played one of his first recorded shows, a three-song set on May 6, 1961.

Blackstone Library collection / Contributed

Neuwirth, who later become Dylan’s friend and tour manager but is known for co-writing “Mercedes Benz” with Janis Joplin, told Eric Von Schmidt and Jim Rooney for their 1979 book, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” that he remembered “running into Dylan” for the first time at Indian Neck “because he was the only other guy with a harmonica holder around his neck.

“I remember standing around the beer barrel, and Kweskin and Robert L. Jones and I were singing some Woody Guthrie song,” Neuwirth said. “Bob came up and started playing along with it, and he had another Woody Guthrie song, and it went from there until dark — obscure Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams songs.”

Neuwirth and Dylan enjoyed each other’s company, he said in the book, explaining that they “laughed all day. Laughed so hard. That was when Dylan used to get on stage and talk a lot. He’d do a lot more talking than playing,” Neuwirth said. “And he was really great. I told him at Indian Neck that he should really come up to Cambridge.”

mark.zaretsky@hearstmediact.com