5 women who influenced Bob Dylan

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These women had a profound impact on the life and career of one of the greatest songwriters of all time.

The 1960s was a revolutionary decade for women, so it’s no surprise that one of the decade’s most celebrated musicians was heavily influenced by the exceptional women who surrounded him.

The BBC radio documentary Dylan’s Women, airing on Double J this Saturday, looks at some of the women who were responsible for encouraging, educating, and inspiring him early on in his career.

Here are five of those women who were so instrumental in shaping the life and work of Bob Dylan.

Terri Thal: his first manager

Terri Thal’s home in New York’s Greenwich Village was a sanctuary for folk musicians in the early 1960s. She described her home as a house full of conversation, where more than just folk music was discussed.

“We were active in left-wing organisations, and we talked politics,” recalled Thal. “We talked theatre, art, and we brought the folk singers into that.”

Surrounded by musicians, she took on the role of manager for many of those around her. It was no surprise when Bob Dylan came calling.

According to Thal, nobody else wanted to manage the scruffy singer with a “raw voice” who, unbeknownst to them, would eventually become one of the world’s most influential songwriters.

In 1961, Thal helped Dylan score his first serious show at Gerde’s Folk City, a popular folk music venue in Manhattan’s West Village. After months of negotiating with venue owner Mike Porco, Thal secured Dylan a gig alongside blues legend John Lee Hooker.

A glowing review of the show by New York Times’ critic Robert Shelton proved instrumental in launching the young folk singer’s career.

Carolyn Hester: his first studio opportunity

Carolyn Hester is a folk singer from Waco, Texas, who moved to New York City in the 60s and soon became a leading figure in the folk revival. In 1961, a young Bob Dylan was captivated by her performance of Buddy Holly’s ‘Lonesome Tears’ at Gerde’s Folk City.

“You should’ve seen this little guy,” laughed Hester. “This rough and scuffle looking guy, with all the curly hair in the world, pulled his chair right up in front of me.”

Dylan talked his way into opening a show for her in Boston the next day, and asked if she would be interested in playing together. Hester explained that she was preparing to record an album for Columbia Records but already had a guitar player.

“I would like to have a harmonica player,” she told him. “Would you be interested in playing harp on it?”

“Oh yes,” Dylan replied. “Definitely.”

Dylan joined Hester in the studio to play harmonica on two songs; ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘Swing and Turn Jubilee.’

Producer and talent scout John Hammond was working for Columbia at the time and liked the look of Hester’s young harp player. He asked Dylan to an audition and signed him on the spot.

Suze Rotolo: his Introduction to the world outside folk music

Suze Rotolo was only 17 when she and Bob Dylan got together in 1961, but her “culturally wealthy” upbringing in New York City meant she had a lot to teach the boy who’d grown up in the small city of Hibbing, Minnesota.

“I was exposed to all different kinds of music from a very early age,” Rotolo told music journalist Richard Williams in 2008. “When you grow up in that, you just assume everybody else knows this.”

According to Williams, it was through Rotolo’s work in the theatre that Dylan discovered the “art song” style of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill which influenced tracks like ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and ‘It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.’

In 1962, Rotolo moved to Italy for eight months to study, leaving Dylan in a state of despair. This painful period inspired some of his most resonant songs, including ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.’

Rotolo understood that Dylan used songwriting to work through his pain, but admitted the publicity their relationship received thanks to his lyrics made her uncomfortable.

“I’ve always been a shy person, so to have this relationship thrown right out there in public was very horrible,” she explained. “I see that that was just his way of working through it, making it part of his art, but at the time I just felt so exposed.”

Rotolo’s relationship with Dylan is famously immortalised on the cover of his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Joan Baez: his push into the spotlight

Perhaps the most recognisable name on this list, Joan Baez is considered by many to be responsible for pushing Dylan into the spotlight. They met in ’61, at the Newport Folk Festival.

Baez often covered Dylan’s songs and played them live, including ‘Love is Just a Four Letter Word’ and ‘With God On Our Side.’ In 1963, she invited him to perform with her at Monterey Folk Festival.

According to David Hajdu, the author of 1996 book Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña, many Baez fans were less than impressed by the “unknown little mole” who performed “difficult original music.”

As their romance blossomed, the pair became known as the King and Queen of Folk. Sadly, it became clear on Dylan’s 1965 tour of the UK that he wasn’t going to reciprocate the exposure Baez had provided him, nor the feelings she held for him.

The King and Queen of Folk parted ways on that tour, reuniting briefly in for the 1975 concert tour The Rolling Thunder Revue, but the story of their early relationship has become an important chapter in both of their lives.

Sara Lownds: his first wife

Actress and model Sara Lownds met Bob Dylan through a mutual friend in 1964, and the pair married in November 1965. Bob Dylan wrote some of his biggest hits during their 11-year marriage.

‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ from 1966’s Blonde on Blonde was written for Lownds, who, according to photographer Elliott Landy, had a ‘calming effect’ on her husband.

The idyllic family life they lived with their four children influenced works like 1969’s Nashville Skyline, but by 1975 cracks were beginning to form in their relationship. In 1975, when Dylan embarked on The Rolling Thunder Revue, rumours of his infidelity began swirling.

Ten years after the release of Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan released the album Desire featuring an ode to their marriage titled ‘Sara.’ Some consider the track to be a plea for forgiveness from Dylan, before Lownds was granted a divorce in 1977.

Dylan’s Women is part of Doctober on Double J, running all this month.

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