“If you remember the 60s you weren’t there,” insisted Wavy Gravy, one of its iconic counter-cultural heroes, but as Johnny Cash replied in his early gospel masterpiece, “I was there when it happened, so I guess I ought to know”-the “it” in this case being the folk revival. And all of us who were there know, what was the most reliable source for accurate information about that on-going odyssey through America’s bedrock music. That would be The Little Sandy Review, which was edited and published by Paul Nelson and Jon Pankake, in the same state from which came the folk revival’s most astonishing artist. That would be Minnesota, home to both Bob Dylan and Jon Pankake-and thereby hangs a tale.
Pankake was generous with the artists he championed from the pages of his and Nelson’s journal-often to a fault. When the young, still-unformed, busking would-be troubadour had no place to stay, Jon put him up on his couch. When Bob left Dinkytown, the Minneapolis neighborhood where he spent his one year at the University of Minnesota,, for New York City’s Greenwich Village, he went with Jon Pankake’s blessing. He also went with some of Jon’s most precious records-which he stole right off the shelves and put in his duffel bag.
When Jon discovered the theft of his records he became enraged at this hobo vagabond minstrel and vowed to track him down and recover them. Fast forward six months and Dylan was now sleeping on someone else’s couch-the Mayor of Greenwich Village. That would be Dave Van Ronk.
Jon Pankake showed up at his door and when the purpose of his surprise visit became known, all hell broke loose. Pankake broke a bottle off at the neck and started swinging it over his head, aiming at the scruffy ne’er do well who had since become the talk of the town-based on his performances at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center and Gerdes Folk City, where he was now opening for the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and the new bluegrass sensation-the Greenbriar Boys.
That didn’t mean squat to Jon Pankake-he came to get his records back. It was just at that precipitous moment for modern folk music history, ladies and gentlemen, that Dave Van Ronk showed up, diffused the situation and saved Bob Dylan’s life.
Jon got his records back, and a chastened Bob Dylan went on to write Blowing In the Wind and Masters of War, for which I think Van Ronk deserves no small credit.
The records Jon Pankake retrieved from Dylan’s duffel bag were the first Folkways recordings of The New Lost City Ramblers, which he rescued and took back to Dinkytown. This was 1961, and thirty years later in 1991 Jon wound up at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, where he compiled and annotated those early LPs into a two-volume CD of 53 studio recordings made between 1958 and 1973.