Robert Shelton

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Robert Shelton was a folk and rock critic for The New York Times in the '60s, also writing about youth culture in general for that paper, although he was already in his mid-thirties when the '60s began.…
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Robert Shelton was a folk and rock critic for The New York Times in the '60s, also writing about youth culture in general for that paper, although he was already in his mid-thirties when the '60s began. He wrote several books, but will be primarily remembered for his Bob Dylan biography, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. Shelton also played a significant part in Dylan's early career, as the very first writer to give him major media coverage. Before he'd met Dylan in 1961, Shelton was already a mover and shaker of the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene. He suggested to Mike Porco, who ran the Village folk club Gerde's Folk City, that Porco institute a Monday hootenanny night to allow amateurs to take the stage. The hootenanny was an important showcase for emerging New York folk talent, including Judy Collins, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, and Bob Dylan. In September of 1961, Dylan was engaged for a two week stint at the club. After opening night, Shelton ran a rave review in the New York Times. Part of this read, "Dylan's voice is anything but pretty. He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his porch. All the 'husk and bark' are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs...His music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth."

A New York Times review still means a lot to performers, but this one was especially remarkable, coming at a time when daily papers, especially the most respected one in the U.S., did not give much coverage to popular music; when folk performers did not get much boosting from mainstream journalists; and when Dylan himself had yet to sign a recording contract, or even perform much original material. It immediately gave him an edge on much of the competition in Greenwich Village, and may have helped him get a contract with Columbia Records soon afterwards. At this formative stage, Shelton also helped Dylan out by giving him access to his record collection and dispensing general advice about stage presentation and craft. He also wrote the liner notes for Dylan's first album (under the pseudonym Stacy Williams), and gave him more positive concert reviews in the New York Times throughout the early '60s. Shelton remained friendly with Dylan over the next few years, and as early as the '60s, he was contemplating doing a Dylan biography. It's been reported that Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, threatened litigation after hearing of Shelton's plans. But Shelton was certainly beginning to gather information for such a project in the '60s, not only from Dylan himself, but also to the point of interviewing his family and friends with whom the singer had grown up in Minnesota. For whatever reason -- perhaps Shelton was discouraged by the appearance of a fine Dylan biography, in the early '70s, by Anthony Scaduto -- Shelton's bio, No Direction Home, was not published until 1986. This large volume is ultimately not quite as good as Scaduto's effort, or as Clinton Heylin's more objective and chronologically balanced Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades, but still worth reading by Dylan fans. One very important reason to do so is that Shelton actually knew Dylan, and far better than any other biographers did. Some of the highlights of the book are first-person memories of Dylan in the '60s and conversations with him, such as a lengthy talk aboard an airplane in early 1966 which formed the basis for an entire chapter. Shelton also authored several other books, although these are now hard to find and are not nearly as well known as No Direction Home. They include a biography of folk singer Josh White, and The Country Music Story, he also co-authored The Electric Muse: The Story of Folk into Rock, and The Young Folk Song Book.