Talkin’ New York


Talkin’ New York is a “talking blues”. The talking blues go back at least to the time of the minstrel shows, which were very popular in the early twentieth century. Some researchers believe that Chris Bouchillon, a white singer from South Carolina, invented the form out of necessity: he couldn’t sing worth a damn.

Woody Guthrie helped popularize the talking blues. Dylan had an intense affection for Guthrie’s work. In the excellent documentary Folkways: A Vision Shared, Dylan refers to his early self as a “Woody Guthrie jukebox”. He surely picked up the taking blues style from him. Many of his talking blues show an obvious influence.

Dylan has always been a liberal borrower from other people’s work. As the more devoted Dylan students may remember, there was a lot of discussion concerning Dylan’s borrowing from Junichi Saga’s novel Confessions of a Yakuza: A Life in Japan’s Underworld for his Love and Theft recording. What many don’t realize is that borrowing from other people’s work is a common practice in folk music. The term “folk process” is frequently used to describe it. Below are Dylan’s thoughts on the subject.

“Well, you have to understand that I’m not a melodist,” he says. “My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form.”

“What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song.

“I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly – while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.

He’s slowly strumming the guitar, but it’s hard to pick out the tune. “I wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in ten minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That’s the folk music tradition. You use what’s been handed down. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ is probably from an old Scottish folk song.”[1]Interview in Los Angeles Time with Robert Hilburn, April 4, 2004

Dylan borrowed quite a bit for Talkin’ New York, the first original song he recorded. According to Manfred Helfert ( the lyrics are derived from Woody Guthrie’s Talking Subway. No doubt about that, have a listen. (I couldn’t find the Guthrie version.)

Dylan’s song is definitely similar. It follows the same general narrative structure: arriving in New York, traveling through the town, looking for a job, and generally having a tough time.

There are a couple of Guthrie references in Talkin’ New York.

Now, a very great man once said
That some people rob you with a fountain pen.

These lines are an obvious reference to Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd (which Dylan recorded):

Now as through this world I ramble,
I see lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

Sidsel Gleason
Sidsel Gleason

“So long, New York/Howdy, East Orange” is another Guthrie reference. During his long decline from Hodgkin’s disease, Woody’s friends Bob and Sidsel Gleason brought him to their East Orange, New Jersey home on the weekends to visit with friends and relatives.

Paul Williams, in the first volume of his Performing Artist series, points out an interesting quirk of Dylan’s songwriting, a technique that he would use many times in the future. Notice how Dylan switches the verbs swung and grabbed in the following lines, subverting the listener’s expectations.

I swung on to my old guitar,
Grabbed hold of a subway car


Ramblin’ outa the wild West
Leavin’ the towns I love the best
Thought I’d seen some ups and downs
’Til I come into New York town
People goin’ down to the ground
Buildings goin’ up to the sky

Wintertime in New York town
The wind blowin’ snow around
Walk around with nowhere to go
Somebody could freeze right to the bone
I froze right to the bone
New York Times said it was the coldest winter in seventeen years
I didn’t feel so cold then

I swung onto my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
Greenwich Village

I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block
Got on the stage to sing and play
Man there said, “Come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly
We want folk singers here”

Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play
Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day
I blowed inside out and upside down
The man there said he loved m’ sound
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound
Dollar a day’s worth

And after weeks and weeks of hangin’ around
I finally got a job in New York town
In a bigger place, bigger money too
Even joined the union and paid m’ dues

Now, a very great man once said
That some people rob you with a fountain pen
It didn’t take too long to find out
Just what he was talkin’ about
A lot of people don’t have much food on their table
But they got a lot of forks ’n’ knives
And they gotta cut somethin’

So one mornin’ when the sun was warm
I rambled out of New York town
Pulled my cap down over my eyes
And headed out for the western skies
So long, New York
Howdy, East Orange


1 Interview in Los Angeles Time with Robert Hilburn, April 4, 2004

2 thoughts on “Talkin’ New York”

  1. Pingback: Bob Dylan Talkin New York - The Woodstock Whisperer/Jim Shelley

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