In 1965, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan crashed the gates of pop fame, searing Top 40 radio with “Like a Rolling Stone” and devastating the gentle image of folk music at the Newport Folk Festival.
Dylan also visited Raleigh that year, playing an influential March 19 concert at NC State’s Reynolds Coliseum with Joan Baez. That night, the musicians took time for a frank and funny backstage interview with two UNC-Chapel Hill students, giving them their full attention – despite the students’ total lack of press credentials.
“Everybody’s smart, everybody knows a lot, everybody knows a lot of rules,” Dylan said, in words that pulse with the rhythm of his ’60s songs. “And they all know what’s wrong and what’s right.
“But you find that the people outside it all, and that couldn’t be bothered with it less, are the people you really want to know ... who are unconnected with any kind of party or anything like that.”
A long-sidetracked tape recording and photograph from that encounter recently surfaced at UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection, a real find given the decades of fans and scholars’ obsessive study of Dylan. Dylan, now 76, remains one of the most significant artists of the past 50 years, having won numerous awards, including 11 Grammys, an Academy Award and the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Word of a mostly unheard 12-minute interview from this key year has spread from Chapel Hill to the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, Okla., to an avid Dylan collector in Australia and others. It was digitized in the fall, both to preserve the information and to make it more accessible.
“This interview reminds me of previously unheard interviews of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly we’ve received in recent years,” said Steve Weiss, curator of the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC. “Any additional information is cause for celebration for fans and scholars. It puts their history and humanity in greater perspective.”
The interviewer and donor of the tape is Bebo White, a 1967 UNC graduate who is now a distinguished California academic. He appears in the 1965 photo as a fresh-faced student in a coat and tie, smiling next to the distinctively cool Dylan and Baez. It’s a sort of visual allegory for the 1960s’ counter-cultural fracture of America.
White was 20 and a UNC sophomore, and he loved Dylan’s music. Along with buddy Steve Berkowitz, he embarked on a haphazard, wing-it plan to meet the star.
“Basically we snuck in,” White said recently on the phone from San Francisco. “I can’t remember how; it wasn’t terribly difficult. We basically went into the auditorium and we were there during the sound check.
“They saw us, and rather than be upset, they said, ‘Come on over here.’ We went back to where they were and talked for a while.”
‘Blowing in the Wind’
That year was a legendary one for Raleigh’s singers, artists and scene makers. In addition to the Dylan-Baez show, the Rolling Stones gave a blistering performance in November, also at Reynolds.
Dylan, 23, had already made a name for himself with folky, often topical hit songs for other artists, including “Blowing in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” In Raleigh’s acoustic show, he was also playing songs that changed the topic from social wrongs to the spinning workings of his own mind, in newly written tunes like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Baez was the more famous of the two until, perhaps, this tour. She sang some ballads and mountain music and joined Dylan for folk staples, such as “Wild Mountain Thyme.”
Tickets for the show, according to a poster, were $2 to $3.
“Needless to say, Dylan and Baez were still the queen and king as far as all of us were concerned,” said Raleigh musician John Peden, who attended the show. “That concert was a big deal. It was bigger than any Duke-Carolina basketball game. It mattered.”
In the midst of all that, he and Baez answered earnest questions from White and Berkowitz, on topics such as presidential politics and the value of college.
“Anything to keep people off the street, I like,” said Dylan, who had dropped out of the University of Minnesota and moved to New York City just four years earlier.
“If it keeps you off the street and out of trouble, then, it’s good. If it doesn’t, then you gotta find something else to occupy your interest.”
Though well known for his antagonism to the press – “You’re using me. I’m an object to you,” he told a reporter that May – Dylan talked mostly patiently to White and Berkowitz.
“I’d say I was a mathematician more than anything else – sort of a socialistic mathematician,” a cold-ridden Dylan told the students, who had asked how he classified himself – an artist, a poet, a singer or a pop star.
“I deal in numbers, actually, numbers and nasal spray. I don’t know, what would you classify yourself as? What kind of thing can I pick from?”
Views on college
The concert – 53 years ago Monday – came as a hurricane of change shook the Triangle and nation. Dylan’s protest songs had accompanied evolving American attitudes that brought about landmark civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s. During the same years, the assassination of President John Kennedy and the escalating war in Vietnam led the baby-boom generation to question the established order as never before.
Talking with the students, Dylan and Baez distanced themselves from the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, and from politics itself.
Berkowitz asked: “Are you disappointed with the way President Johnson has handled the war in Vietnam, or do you think by and large his social legislation has compensated for that?”
Baez responded: “No, I don’t think anything can compensate for what’s happening in Vietnam.”
The students wanted to know what the singers thought about North Carolina’s 1963 Speaker Ban Law, aimed at keeping Communists and other so-called subversives from speaking on state-supported campuses.
Weiss, at UNC, said this part of the interview is “particularly significant for our region, as it includes Joan and Bob’s reactions to North Carolina’s Speaker Ban Law.”
While neither Dylan nor Baez had heard of it, they listened to an explanation.
“Wow, that is too bad,” Dylan said. “... I think people should be allowed to hear anybody or anything that wants to talk, myself. A lot of people don’t believe that. They have reasons to not let somebody hear something.”
Neither Dylan nor Baez had voted in the 1964 presidential election, they said. If that was disconcerting, so were the stars’ seeming indifference to continuing education.
White asked: “You think you’re better off not being in college?”
Replied Dylan, “I’m not saying that anybody’s better off not being in college. I’m saying everybody ought to find out where they are happiest. If somebody’s happy in college, I suggest they ought to stay there…”
“…for 20 years,” added Baez, laughing.
Fearless students reach the stars
White didn’t blow off college, graduating from UNC two years later with degrees in physics and computers. Today, he’s a professor emeritus at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (originally Stanford Linear Accelerator Center), a national laboratory of the federal energy department in Menlo Park, Calif.
He’s also managing editor at the Journal of Web Engineering and a visiting professor in computer science at the University of Hong Kong.
In 1965, a young White was a major fan of blues and roots sounds. His Dylan interview donation to UNC was accompanied by his collection of jug band lore. People from that time remember Bebo’s Jug Stompers, a Chapel Hill outfit that included musicians later known as Red Clay Rambler Jack Herrick, journalism professor Jock Lauterer and distinguished singer-songwriter David Olney.
After graduation, Berkowitz went on to get a master’s in political science from New York University and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsyvlania, said his wife, Margaret Berkowitz.
He had his own financial consulting firm and taught finance as an adjunct instructor at the University of Maryland at College Park for 15 years. He died March 19, 2017.
“He loved Carolina,” said Margaret Berkowitz in an interview from their Philadelphia home. “When he went to Carolina, it was just so wonderful. That was the biggest influence on his life. The academic freedom, and the people he met there. He talked about it all of his life.”
She said he sometimes talked about meeting the musicians and said she, too, has a copy of the photo taken backstage.
“It was funny,” she said. “It was a totally different time. There wasn’t all that security that’s there now.”
Touring far and wide
Meanwhile, Dylan was months from recording the slash-and-burn hit “Like a Rolling Stone,” often described as the greatest rock song of them all. In July he strapped on an electric guitar to perform a loud, loud version of the tune at the Newport Folk Festival, an event previously known for everything pure and fine about indigenous American music.
“To come out on that stage with a leather jacket and a Stratocaster, it was a big middle finger to everything at Newport,” said Peden, who was also at that show. “Dylan was railing against people being led, people being sheep.”
Following the outrage that some folkies handed him at Newport, he toured far and wide that fall, still in 1965, with a raucous outfit that became The Band, drawing boos wherever they went. A trip to England in the summer became “Dont Look Back,” a documentary film that featured scenes of Dylan tongue-lashing journalists.
In Raleigh, the scene was much, much calmer. Dylan and Baez not only let the Rocky Mount students backstage, but also agreed to a taped interview with Raleigh television station WRAL, conducted by veteran newsman Ben Runkle.
The meeting was likely arranged by concert promoter Joe Murnick, best known as the man behind much-loved Wednesday night professional wrestling shows on WRAL. That’s according to the newsman’s son, Ben Runkle, a Raleigh musician and guitar artisan.
“My father, unfortunately, did not preserve it,” said the younger Runkle.
“They acted like regular, normal people until the interview started, then they acted like hip Greenwich Village people. Dylan was eating a banana during the interview.”
The newsman, annoyed with the stars’ attitudes, recorded over the tape, even though he saved other taped interviews with folk stars Peter, Paul and Mary and Doc Watson.
Also lurking around Reynolds, where the NC State Wolfpack played home basketball games, were local bluegrass musicians Buck Peacock and Al McCanless.
“Al and I had looked for Bob and Joan pre-show, and found them in one of the ROTC classrooms under the seats in Reynolds Coliseum,” Peacock recalls. “The door had a screened lower half, so we could squat down and watch them run over the tunes they were going to do. They obviously noticed us, and Dylan waved and said ‘Hi.’”
Peacock and McCanless came back at intermission to try to get autographs on handbills from the show, but were stopped when security – finally – showed up. The guards agreed to take the posters backstage, then returned them, signed, to Peacock and McCanless.
‘Not going to run anywhere’
For members of the Triangle’s budding hipster scene, the concert became a landmark, a moment when they realized that thousands of other people had also followed Dylan’s lead into unexpected realms of music and culture. Peden – the Raleigh musician considered controversial for his long hair, beard and politics – led a contingent of fellow folkies from his downtown Sidetrack Cafe.
On a nearly bare stage, Dylan offered up songs the crowd had never heard before – “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
“I remember ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ made a big impression,” said the younger Ben Runkle.
The line, “Even the president of the United States must sometime have to stand naked,” from “It’s Alright, Ma,” won major applause, as it has during every succeeding administration.
Three days later, March 22, 1965, “Bringing It All Back Home,” the album that contained those and other hits, was released.
Years later, Margaret Berkowitz said their son, John, had his own Dylan encounter. He went to see Dylan perform at Boston University, where he was a student. For some reason, an usher approached John.
“ ‘Mr. Dylan would like to know if you’d like to sit in the front,’” he was asked. And so John did.
Berkowitz said there’s no explanation for her husband and son having these brushes with Dylan. “That’s what made it so funny,” she said. “It’s just one of those random things.”
A photo for the ages
The show on March 19, 1965, remains a Raleigh moment, set in an ACC basketball arena and low-key enough that several people pierced the veil of antipathy and paranoia that was to obscure Dylan later that year.
So loose was the atmosphere that Dylan didn’t even crack when it turned out that White had no job as a reporter and no assignment. He and Berkowitz had brought along a cigar box-sized tape recorder on the off chance it would help them reach backstage.
“Where is this interview gonna run?” Dylan asked.
Responded White: “Where is it gonna run? It’s not going to run anywhere.”
Said Dylan: “It’s just for yourself? Who’s going to read it?”
The students tried to make a case that a local paper was going run the “story.” (In fact, White doesn’t recall exactly how, but a story by White titled “Folk Artists Sing For Self, Liberty” ran more than a week later in the Rocky Mount Telegram.)
Dylan got a little irritated.
“Why didn’t you come right out and say that in the first place?,” he said, drawling the word “out” in true Dylan-esque style.
He and Baez conferred, at first worrying that the students had brought their tape recorder to catch the music, a prohibited move. White and Berkowitz assured the pair they had no such intent.
That’s good, Dylan said.
“It’s five guys in here that are so big, you can’t believe it,” he joked. “They see you with that …”
With a whistle, Dylan showed how quickly a copyright violation would send the boys into oblivion.
Then, he said, “Nah, that’s all right.”
In a surreal coda, the singers agreed to pose for a Polaroid picture taken by Berkowitz.
“How’d that come out?” Dylan said. “Let’s see that. OK.”
Then White couldn’t contain himself.
“Get a picture of me,” he said, of a picture that hangs today in his San Francisco home.
“Oh, good God,” Baez said.
Ultimately, the world’s most famous counterculture figures posed with Bebo White of Rocky Mount and Chapel Hill.
“You got him in it?” Dylan asked Berkowitz, then checked the photo.
“There’s your picture, man,” he told White.
Thomas Goldsmith is a Raleigh-based writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to hear the interview
Members of the public can listen to the Bob Dylan/Joan Baez tape by inquiring at the desk of the Southern Folklife Collection, housed in Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The collection, established in 1940, is described as “an archival resource dedicated to collecting, preserving and disseminating traditional and vernacular music, art, and culture related to the American South.” It holds more than 250,000 sound recordings as well as video recordings, films, photographs, song folios, research files and more. For more, go to library.unc.edu/wilson/sfc/.