OBITUARY: Robert Shelton

Karl Dallas
Thursday 14 December 1995 00:02

Since Stephen Sedley put away his pen and decided to concentrate on the law, we haven't had a popular music critic worthy of the name on this side of the Atlantic - apart, that is, from the rubicund, genial presence of Robert Shelton, who brought to his craft the more considered, literate techniques that had previously graced the pages of the New York Times.

In the eyes of history, of course, Bob Shelton will be remembered as the first critic to bring to international prominence the name of Bob Dylan, when he ignored the bill-toppers at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village to concentrate upon the support act, a young man whom he described as "resembling a cross between a choirboy and a beatnik", whose voice was "anything but pretty".

But Dylan wasn't the only new singer to get the benefit of Shelton's perceptive encouragement. It was his review in 1959, two years earlier, of an 18-year-old Joan Baez whose "achingly pure soprano" he lauded at the Newport Folk Festival that pitched her into the stardom that was to put her on the cover of Time magazine in 1961. Phil Ochs, Peter Paul and Mary, Judy Collins and Jose Feliciano were also helped on their way, not to mention the 15-year-old Janis Ian. Ian's controversial ballad of cross- racial sex, "Society's Child", couldn't find a record company with the courage to issue it until Shelton's advocacy brought her to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who featured her in a television special devoted to the new music emerging from the coffee bars and cellars of Greenwich Village.

Shelton wasn't merely an advocate, however, because he could get involved. It was he who persuaded Mike Porco, proprietor of the six-storey late- 19th-century brownstone building on West 4th Street, to run Monday-night amateur talent nights at Gerde's Folk City, and it was he who suggested calling them hootenannies, the name Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers had given to their 35-cents-a-head Sunday-afternoon singarounds 20 years earlier. The term passed into the jargon of the burgeoning folk scene, lending itself to a magazine and a television show (which, ironically, blacklisted Seeger, because of his left-wing views).

Unlike some critics, who habitually laud their own percipience, not to mention omniscience, Shelton was quick to admit that he missed Dylan's first appearances at Gerde's, because he was more interested in the bill-topping blues singer, John Lee Hooker. And while his description of Dylan in the New York Times of Friday 29 September 1961, as "one of the most distinctive stylists to play in a Manhattan cabaret in months . . . it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up", probably did for Dylan what he had done earlier for Baez, in his biography of Dylan Shelton claimed that it was an accidental space at the top of the review page which gave the piece undue prominence: "The layout, the picture and the headline trumpeted Dylan even louder than my story."

He was working on the biography when he came to London in the late Sixties, and for many years it seemed like an ungainly albatross around his neck. He wanted to produce a measured, literary appreciation of a great popular poet, but publishers wanted the personal minutiae that are supposed to make good pop books. Unusually, for someone who shunned the press unless he could play mind games with them, Dylan was fairly co-operative in its creation, encouraging family, friends and acquaintances to co-operate as well, and the result was a fascinating melange, moving swiftly between critical judgements of his subject's words and music to deftly sketched word pictures of places like Hibbing, Dylan's home town, "a running sore" from which "was extracted a billion gross tons of earth - more than was dug for the Panama Canal - which yielded 500 million tons of iron ore".

Shelton was not an analytical critic in the tradition of George Bernard Shaw, or even of Wilfrid Mellers, whose musicological analyses of the Beatles' cadences caused his highbrow colleagues to scoff. He was rather an enormous enthusiast, who conveyed with the accuracy of a great reporter exactly what it was like to be there, and how great it must have been.

He was also a great professional. I remember that when Dave Laing assembled the unlikely quadrumvirate of Shelton, Robin Denselow, himself and me, to collaborate in documenting the development of folk rock from folk in The Electric Muse, it was Shelton who went through the proposed contract with an old pro's eye, and spurred us on to demand a larger advance, which to our surprise was promptly agreed by Methuen, the publishers.

What was amazing was that this great, historic documenter of a turning- point in the history not only of popular music but of world music was not given a British platform worthy of his eminence when he came to live in England. He wrote for the Times for a while, but then settled for a lowly arts-page editing job on the Brighton Evening Argus, leaving that as he struggled with diabetes to contribute film reviews to the Birmingham Post. Eventually, in 1986, his book on Dylan had come out, under the title No Direction Home, and it turned out to be well worth waiting for, not merely creating a fully rounded portrait of its subject, but also of the era that gave him birth.

But even the book's success did not land him the sort of work his eminence deserved. Strange are the ways of commissioning editors.

It was not Shelton's only book. He also wrote the text for Dave Gahr's wonderful collection of photographs The Face of Folk Music, as well as the somewhat pot-boiling Country Music Story, in collaboration with Burt Goldblatt. But his true monument exists, not in hard covers, but in the yellowing files of newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, the history of how when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.

Karl Dallas

Robert Shelton, journalist: born Chicago, Illinois 28 June 1926; died Brighton 11 December 1995.

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