See copyright notice at

Shelton, Robert

As the New York Times folk critic, he came across Dylan in the summer of 1961.
His glowing review that September gave Dylan his first major break, and they
remained in sporadic contact through the years. In 1986 he published his own
biography of the man, which concentrated largely on the Greenwich Village years.

Clinton Heylin:"Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades, a Biography"

In September I96I, the critic Robert Shelton, writing in the New York
Times reviewed a concert that Dylan had given at Gerde's Folk City.
"His clothes may need a bit of tailoring, 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."

 Date:    Wed, 13 Dec 1995 13:52:25 +0000
From:    Tiernan Henry (HENRY.TIERNAN@UCG.IE)
Subject: Re: robert shelton

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

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, perhps 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 founder 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,

No Direction Home from

Who's Who