When I started thinking about this project I anticipated that it would lead in some unexpected directions, and this is the first of them.
In 1962 Dylan was recruited by Philip Savile to star in a BBC tele-drama, Madhouse on Castle Street. Dylan, along with his manager, Albert Grossman, flew to London to film the show, but Dylan backed out because he couldn’t act. The play was quickly rewritten, with Dylan re-cast as Bobby the Hobo, who wandered about singing, but not performing lines. Dylan performed four songs: The Swan on the River, I Been All Around This World, The Coocoo Bird, and, before it was a hit, Blowin’ In The Wind. The play was recorded at the very end of December and broadcast on January 13, 1963.
While it is unusual that Dylan’s first televised appearance would be on the BBC, it is more unusual that the BBC would have destroyed the only known copy in 1968, at the height of his fame. What survives are television listings, memories, and some poor quality recordings made by placing tape recorders in front of televisions on that Sunday evening in 1963.
I listened to these recordings, as I must, and could hardly recommend them. Swan on the River is a nice, catchy tune, but essentially it’s a few minutes of singing with dialogue over it, recorded as through a door.
When I went to look up some details, however, it turned out that BBC4 did an hour long documentary about the show and the blizzard of 1962. Further, Walrus Video has it streaming on the internet. It’s a bizarre film – about twenty minutes worth of material stretched to an hour. Get past the opening, which ludicrously equates the destruction of the tape with the assassinations of King and Kennedy and the events in Prague, and you’ll get a nice history. One of the highlights is Peggy Seeger recalling meeting Dylan for the first time. There’s not much to the anecdote, but they do show her wonderful banjo picking.
One interesting factoid is that the filming was interrupted by a union dispute so Dylan accompanied Grossman to Rome over the New Years to see Odetta, one of Grossman’s other clients. During that trip he apparently wrote Girl From the North County, based on Scarborough Fair, which he had learned from the London folkies. Maybe it’s even true!
A bizarre excursion to end 1962, and what could’ve been a major piece of Dylanalia lost to history by a BBC cull of old tapes.