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Shelton's death


I have been off the internet for a few days so sorry if this has already been posted and sorry too that I have such sad news to impart. Dylan biographer &, of course, author of THAT review, Robert Shelton is gravely ill in hospital. I am writing on Friday afternoon. He is not expected to regain consciousness. I only have had only one talk of any length with the man and he was so fascinating and witty that I soon forgot about all my Dylan questions and asked him about himself. He struck me as a gentleman in every sense of the word.

Andrew Muir

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Robert Shelton died December 11, 1995, in his adopted hometown of Brighton (England).

There is a lengthy obituary in The Guardian this morning (Wed 13), written by Michael Gray, under the header "Writing rock history in the path of Dylan" and an Ed Grazda photo of Shelton and Dylan at Newport, 1964.

Robert Shelton (Shapiro), journalist, born June 28, 1926; died December 11, 1995.


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>This is Shelton's obituary, written by Michael Gray

The Guardian
Wednesday December 13, 1995

Writing rock history in the path of Dylan

It was Robert Shelton's write-up of the 20-year-old Bob Dylan, then the support act to the Greenbriar Boys at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village, on September 29, 1961, which launched Dylan's career, and made both of them famous. For Shelton, who has died in his adopted hometown of Brighton, was one of the very few arts journalists whose work had a tangible influence on the shape of the 1960s. Above all, he would be celebrated for his critical biography of Dylan, No Direction Home, published in 1986 after nearly 20 years in the writing.

The son of a research chemist, he was born and raised in Chicago, an exciting city for a boy whose discovery of jazz and blues came at 13, when teaching himself bass-runs on the family grand. Drafted into the US army in France in 1944, he became a Europhile with an abiding love of French culture. After the war he attended the renowned School of Journalism at Northwestern University, moving in the early 1950s to New York City, where he soon joined the New York Times. His political allegiance (which was to a passionate, perhaps naive, liberalism) was tested when the Eastland Committee (part of the McCarthyite machinery) subpoenaed him in a case of mistaken identity. He could have corrected their error and escaped their attentions, but he refused to dignify their questions by answering at all.

He became the folk, pop and country music critic of the New York Times, a role he inhabited from 1958-68 with a rare commitment and gusto, rightly recognising that what was beginning to happen in and around Greenwich Village would catalyse a musical revolution around half the world.

He entered into the milieu of coffee bars, folk festivals and bohemian basements, urging the creation of Gerde's Folk City, co-editing the Newport Folk Festival programmes and above all befriending and encouraging new and young talent.

At the first Newport Folk Festival, in 1959, he "discovered" 18-year-old Joan Baez, and over the next decade aided the careers of many others including Phil Ochs, Janis Ian and Judy Collins. Catching the very different talent of Frank Zappa, Shelton's review on Christmas Day, 1966, recognised presciently "the first pop group to successfully amalgamate rock'n'roll with the serious music of Stravinsky and others".

Shelton's prose could suffer from an old-fashioned "professionalism" and glib metaphor, but more often it was acute, accurate and thoughtful. It says much for these qualities that the first write-up of Bob Dylan still captures the essence of that most chameleon-like star; not least in its description of Dylan's voice and its understanding of how much this drew upon the pre-war country blues tradition.

In writing No Direction Home, Shelton was cruelly messed about by succeeding publishing editors, so that after years of writing and rewriting 300,000 words, he then had the dispiriting task of pruning 100,000.

Shelton chose to leave New York City to get the book written and moved to a tiny cottage up an unmade road off Sydenham Hill in south-east London, where he found himself grappling with an isolation worse than the interference he had anticipated if he had stayed in New York. There, he had been a medium-sized fish in a big pond. Feted by the record industry and appreciated in the Village, he was, however, disdainful of the corruption in the music business. And bitter, for example, that Dylan's manager Albert Grossman could use his Janis Joplin review to land her a huge Columbia Records contract (making Grossman mega-bucks overnight) precisely because Columbia knew Shelton's rave review could not have been bought.

So Shelton escaped all that, and landed up in a miserable, philistine part of London where there was no music in the cafes at night (there were no cafes at night), it could take 90 minutes to get in or out of the West End, and there was certainly no equivalent to the camaraderie and streetlife of Greenwich Village.

In Sydenham he was just a middle-aged American, getting divorced from Carol, his third wife (there had been two short-lived marriages in his youth), who had hoped in vain that Bob might turn her into a country-music star.

Over and above that, Bob soon ran out of money and had to keep breaking off from the book to write bits of journalism, not least to pay storage on his 2,000 albums. There was no room for them all in the cottage, where his books alone took up a room full of filing-cabinets. He generally wouldn't let people even peep into this room, perhaps because the paperwork was a lot less, or a lot less ordered, than he wanted, or perhaps because he himself came close to the extreme guardedness he deride in Bob Dylan. In the end, it was a triumph against many demons that he published the biography at all, and that despite its scars it remains important for its solidity, its wide range and the many gems that come from Bob Shelton having been an influential intimate of Dylan himself in the vital early years.

Shelton's other books include a songbook-cum-biography of Josh White; The Face of Folk Music with photographer David Gahr; The Country Music Story with illustrator Burt Goldblatt (1966) - the first book to recount the history of country music, a genre Shelton championed far ahead of its revival - and with Karl Dallas, Dave Laing and Robin Deneslow, the fine Electric Muse: The Story Of Folk Into Rock. He also edited Born to Win (1965), a collection of Woody Guthrie's prose and poems.

In 1982 Shelton moved to Brighton, working for the Evening Argus, reviewing everything from restaurants to plays, but specialising in films - a specialism he maintained as film critic for the Birmingham Post and reviewer for The European until his death. A founding member of the Guild of Regional Film Writers, he displayed in this final phase of his life the same rare qualities as in his New York heyday: he was gregarious, warm, a good listener, secretive to a fault about his own distinguished past, and wholeheartedly committed to the humane arts.

Michael Gray

Robert Shelton (Shapiro), journalist, born June 28, 1926; died December 11, 1995.



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Robert Shelton, 69, Music Critic Who Chronicled 60's Folk Boom

Jon Pareles
THE NEW YORK TIMES, 15 December 1995, B18:

"Robert Shelton, a former music critic for The New York Times who was a catalyst and chronicler of the 1960's folk boom, died on Monday at a hospital in Brighton, England. He was 69 and lived in Brighton.

"The cause was a stroke following complications from diabetes, said Liz Thomson, a friend.

"In the early 1960's, Mr. Shelton spent many evenings at Gerde's Folk City, a club in Greenwich Village where many young folk and country musicians made their debuts. Interviewed in 'Hoot: a 25 Year History of the Greenwich Music Scene,' Mr. Shelton recalled, 'What I Found at Folk City was the kind of self-expression of a quality music that was home-crafted, homemade, self-developed, free, radical.'

"On Sept. 29, 1961, Mr. Shelton reviewed a Folk City performance by Bob Dylan. 'His clothes may need a bit of tailoring,' he wrote in the Times, 'but when he works his guitar, harmonica or piano, and composes new songs faster than he can remember them, there is no doubt that he is bursting at the seams with talent.' The review catapulted Mr. Dylan into prominence.

"Mr. Shelton wrote liner notes for Mr. Dylan's debut album under a pseudonym. He also championed and assisted many other musicians, including Eric Andersen, Janis Ian, Judy Collins, Josť Feliciano, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Janis Joplin and the Mothers of Invention.

"In 1968, Mr. Shelton left The Times to write a biography of Mr. Dylan and moved to London. While in England he also wrote music criticism, and in 1982 became the arts editor of The Brighton Evening Argus. 'No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan' was published in 1986 by Beech Tree/William Morrow.

"Mr. Shelton was born in Chicago. After serving in the Army, he studied journalism at Northwestern University. In the mid-1950's he began working at The Times as a copy editor and as a part-time reviewer, writing extensively about folk music, blues, jazz, gospel and country music.

"During the McCarthy era, he was subpoenaed by a Senate subcommittee that had intended to subpoena a man named Willard Shelton; even though he was summoned in error, he refused to answer any questions and was convicted of contempt of Congress. After a long legal battle, his conviction was reversed on technical grounds.

"Mr. Shelton's other books include a work about Woody Guthrie, 'Born to Win' (1965); 'The Face of Folk Music' (1968), with the photographer David Gahr; 'the Country Music Story' (1966), written with Burt Goldblatt, and The Electric Muse: The Story of Folk Into Rock' (1975), with Dave Laing, Karl Dallas and Robin Deneslow.

"In the early 1990's, Mr. Shelton became a film critic for the Birmingham Post, a position he held until his death.

"He is survived by two sisters, Ruth S. Kadish of San Francisco and Leona R. Shapiro of Berkeley, Calif."

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Last updated: 1/26/97