Paul Nelson

Insightful folk and rock critic
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The Independent Online

Paul Nelson, journalist: born Warren, Minnesota 1936; (one son); died New York c4 July 2006.

There was a time when very few folk or rock musicians believed in the ridiculous notion of a long-term career in music. Everything was leading up to the day when they would have to go out and get a proper job or go on unemployment. The musicians' short-term shelf life, however, was nothing compared to that of the mayfly journalist reporting on what they were doing. Paul Nelson was part of the first wave of hobby-writers turned professional journalists for whom the dream turned into a career.

He grew up in Warren, in rural Minnesota. He escaped to attend the University of Minnesota. There he roomed next to John Pankake, another chap in thrall to the folk scare. Motivated by the possibility of getting free review copies, they founded the Little Sandy Review, a folk magazine of iconic status, albeit better known in photocopy and reprint after its 30-issue life-span.

Nelson and Pankake ran into Bobby Zimmerman, as he was still known, then doing Harry Belafonte, Odetta and Josh White covers. He was, they wrote, around 1962, in an article reprinted in The Dylan Companion (2001),

a promising member of a group of singers who performed at a local coffee house called the Ten O'Clock Scholar.

In the same piece, they recalled Bob Dylan's astounding reinvention by May 1961, returned from his experiences to New York: "The change in Bob was, to say the least, incredible."

In a 2000 interview with Steven Ward, Nelson recalled reaching New York around 1963. His experience on Little Sandy Review landed him the post of managing editor of Sing Out! - the world's most influential folk magazine. Nelson was never a straight-down-the-line folkie and he left in support of Dylan's going electric in 1965. He went on to write for Circus, Musician, Rolling Stone and The Village Voice.

Famously, during his side-career in A&R, he signed the New Yorks Dolls to Mercury Records, an act viewed at the time as blind-eye-to-the-telescope folly. Nelson wrote insightfully about Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and the Clash.

In 2005 he made a rare talking-head appearance in Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary No Direction Home.

Ken Hunt