50 Years Ago This Week: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson Drops In At Gerdes Folk City
Robert Shelton's review for The New York Times is well-known, of course. There are folks who'll tell you it launched Bob Dylan's career, although the truth is rarely that simple. But Shelton wasn't the only journalist who wrote a review of that booking.
At the end of the summer of 1961, Hunter Thompson was just beginning his career as a writer. He was facing eviction from his quarters in Big Sur. Somehow he made his way to the east coast, apparently stopping in New York City on his way to Kentucky. And, one Saturday night in the early fall, he found himself in Gerdes Folk City.
What Thompson saw that night stuck in his memory. He wrote about the music in a piece he wrote for Rogue magazine, then an ambitious weak sister to Playboy in the mens' magazine market, edited by the legendary Harlan Ellison. He was so struck by what he saw and heard that he wrote about it again a few weeks later, "on location" in Lexington, in another piece for Rogue about traditional mountain music.
But what the future Raoul Duke couldn't get out of his head was the performance by The Greenbriar Boys.
"Folk City was so dead that even a change of scenery would have been exciting," Thompson wrote. "So I was just about ready to move on when things began happening. What appeared on the tiny bandstand at that moment was one of the strangest sights I’ve ever witnessed in the Village. Three men in farmer’s garb, grinning, tuning their instruments, while a suave MC introduced them as 'the Greenbriar Boys' straight from the Grand Ole Opry."
The Good Doctor was not impressed, to say the least; he thought them "a hideous joke." "I was dumbfounded, and could hardly believe my ears when the crowd cheered mightily," he continued. "A man next to me grabbed my arm and shouted: 'What the hell’s going on here? I thought this was an Irish bar!'"
Thompson was annoyed by the band's inauthenticity, calling them "fraudulent farmers." "Here I was, at a 'night spot. in one of the world’s most cultured cities, paying close to a dollar for each beer," Thompson raged, "surrounded by apparently intelligent people who seemed enthralled by each thump and twang of the banjo string–and we were all watching a performance that I could almost certainly see in any roadhouse in rural Kentucky on any given Saturday night. As Pogo once said–back in the days when mossback editors were dropping Walt Kelly like a hot pink potato–'it gives a man paws.'" (Thompson's raging would, of course, become more memorable and more imaginative a few years later.)
Thompson also noted that the Greenbriar Boys were the first "group of hillbilly singers" to be booked by "a recognized night club" in New York City. As a certain young folksinger noted in those days, the average Village club owner might want folksingers, but would toss you off his stage if you sounded like a hillbilly.
But what did Dr. Thompson think about the Greenbriar Boys' opening act, that young Dylan fellow Shelton had raved about? It turns out that he didn't bother to even mention him. He never says. Thompson is said to have known Dylan in his Village days, and this would be the most likely time they'd have met, but there's no trace of an actual meeting at this gig.
Thompson wrote the evening up as an item called "New York Bluegrass 1961" and sent it off to Ellison. But while Rogue published two other early Thompson pieces, it rejected this one. It sat unpublished until 1997, when the Good Doctor included it in The Proud Highway: Saga Of A Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967. You can read it here or at Google Books. A few weeks later, in a Rogue-published piece called "Traveler Hears Mountain Music Where It's Sung," about his fall 1961 trip through Kentucky, Thompson has a few more cranky references to the "Bluegrass banjo champs" of New York City. Like Jerry Garcia, who reportedly walked out on Dylan's 1963 Monterey Folk performance because Dylan's acoustic guitar was amplified, Dr. Thompson was quite the purist in those days.
Now maybe I've taken a few liberties here. Maybe Thompson arrived during the break between Dylan's set and the Greebriar Boys', although he doesn't make it sound that way. Maybe the Greenbriar Boys were rebooked at Gerdes shortly after the gig with Dylan (not so likely if the evening was as dead as Thompson reports). But Thompson's piece pulls a fact or two from Shelton's review, and the Greenbriar Boys were still on his mind in Renfro Valley just a few weeks later. So I think I'm on target here. As missed connections go, this one's near the top.