Izzy Young ran the Folklore Center at 110 MacDougal St. in New York City. In the early 1960s he was one of the book world’s most original, influential and at times irritating characters. Born in the Bronx in 1928, Izzy was a little older than the crowd that flocked to his shop, which was indeed a hangout and message central for all the greats, near greats and wanna-be’s in the emerging world of American folk music.
I chanced to become a clerk at the Folklore Center because my parents were in the book business and had an uncommon specialty called “Customs and Beliefs” (folklore by another name.) Izzy was familiar with them and so I by extension was deemed a worthy employee.
Izzy (or IGY as he called himself) was the hub for all of it. He was my boss for that winter and spring of 1961-62 when the young Bob Dylan wandered through our doors. It was a brief and sunny moment when Izzy discovered the then unknown performer and introduced him to a world populated by luminaries like Peter, Paul and Mary, the Clancy Brothers, Odetta, Theodore Bikel, Dave Van Ronk, and Jack Elliott. All of those talented folk artists and many lesser lights wandered in and out of the Folklore Center swapping gossip, fingering the merchandise, buying a book here and there and endlessly accompanied by the sounds of banjos and guitars being tuned and played in the background.
Just the other day I read that Bob Dylan is now 70. Back then Izzy was 34, Jack Ballard (aka Jack Prelutzky), Izzy’s assistant, was 20, Bob Dylan was 20 and I was a barely legal 18.
Physically the Folklore Center was not much. It was a long narrow shop, walls lined with books, records and instruments, and a backroom with a fireplace where everyone hung out. I vividly remember sitting there with Dylan. He was the nicest kid you’d ever want to meet, pleasant, talented, low key and earnest. The moment I remember best is when we were paid to distribute leaflets for some Highland dance event. It was a chilly day in the winter of 1961 and instead we fed the flyers to the fire and talked about our respective ambitions. His ambition was to get to know Woody Guthrie better. My ambition was to move out of the vast but freezing loft I rented on the Lower East Side into something smaller with electricity.
America in 1961-62 had yet to hear the Beatles and the prevailing ideas of cool were Beatnik inspired. Gerdes Folk City, where Dylan spent a lot of his time, was just gaining steam and folk music was considered to be a short lived hybrid, rather than a part of the mainstream popular music. Dylan would change all that and soon, but none of us knew that yet.
The people on MacDougal Street who were considered the real comers were Dave Van Ronk, and “Ramblin’” Jack Elliott, who was once an influence on Dylan and who was rapidly eclipsed by him.
That was the winter Izzy who was always ready to back new talent decided the young performer should make his Carnegie Hall debut under the sponsorship of the Folklore Center. As I recall we sold very few tickets (if any) to that event and it was probably the only time in modern history that a Bob Dylan solo appearance did not put money in the pockets of a promoter.