Where Did Bob Dylan Get That Huck Finn Cap?

Preview of Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!

At The Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside - January 17, 2015

By Ross Altman, PhD

Dylan with Huck Finn capShould auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot and days of auld lang syne? Not on my watch, Robert Burns; so here’s a cup o’ kindness, for one of my old literary friends.

America’s first literary rebel was not Woody Guthrie, or Jack Kerouac, or Bob Dylan, it was a young boy who sprang out of the imagination of our first world author—the one who inspired Ernest Hemingway to say that all of American Literature begins with Huckleberry Finn, a children’s book by Mark Twain. Huck was the source of and the Ur-story behind The Adam Myth in American Literature—an influential work of literary criticism in the 1960s—which posited the story of Adam—first articulated in so many words with Hemingway’s character of Nick Adams—to be the impulse behind many of our greatest literary heroes, including Billy Budd, Tom Sawyer, Holden Caulfield and Jack London’s Martin Eden—with similar echoes of the Adam Myth’s Garden of Eden in his very name. A long line of adolescent teenage rebels thus emanate from Mark Twain’s fertile imagination. What does this have to do with folk music? Dear reader, everything.

Remember the old song Where Did You Get That Hat? That’s what got me to thinking: Where did the young Bob Dylan get that Huck Finn cap? (Source: Robert Shelton, the New York Times, Friday, September 29, 1961)—the one he wore on his first album cover and which in one compelling image defined the folk singer as the consummate rebel, the outsider, the one who first said “If helping Jim escape is wrong and will send me to Hell, all right, then, I’ll go to hell.” He got it from Mark Twain.

Then Dylan passed that same cap (or Greek fisherman’s equivalent) on to Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Pete Seeger, until it became the de rigueur folk singer’s head piece—all inherited from Mark Twain’s original character of the rebel with a cause—in Huck’s fearless mind the cause of helping a runaway slave escape.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired Roger Miller’s Broadway musical Big River, Bob Dylan’s instrumental Huck’s Tune, and my own one-man show The Ballad of Tom Joad, which found its voice in Huck Finn’s magical opening lines, “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by Mr. Mark Twain. He told the truth—mainly.”

I first experienced those lines in all their naked glory from hearing Hal Holbrook’s one-man performance of Mark Twain Tonight!—the show he has now been performing for 60 years—an amazing endurance record which in all probability qualifies it as the longest-running show on Broadway—or even the American theatre. The show must go on, but it’s not going to go on forever, so I plan to buckle down and drive out to Riverside to see it for what may well turn out to be Holbrook’s last tour as the founding father of modern American literature.

Twain passed away in 1910, “with Hailey’s Comet,” as he said, “Two freaks of nature; I came in with Hailey’s Comet (70 years ago) and I am determined to go out with it.” He did. But in a larger sense Hannibal, Missouri’s native son will never really die, so long as his characters continue to inhabit our imaginations—as they have ever since we first encountered them—at an impressionable age. What we had no way of knowing back then was that they would continue to mature with us—Tom and Huck; and become lifelong friends. And to prove it, the Canadian rock band Rush wrote a song called Tom Sawyer.

Out of these two great children’s books—Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn—Twain, who was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, thus fashioned an American myth that has served both folk and rock music very well indeed. When I wanted to pay tribute to Arlo Guthrie as a singing storyteller the simplest way to describe him was “Mark Twain with a Guitar.” The reference didn’t have to be explained; it resonated with everyone who read it.

Hal HolbrookSo when I saw that Hal Holbrook was playing Mark Twain without a Guitar in what may well be his farewell tour I couldn’t resist; it was time to roll back the clock to the first time I saw him—at least forty years ago at UCLA’s Royce Hall. I’ve been telling some of his stories ever since—for welcome comic relief in between my often serious songs. My favorite modern folk singer/storyteller—U. Utah Phillips—the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest—also fashioned himself after Twain, mastering his perfect oft-kilter timing, delivered by Holbrook as a lesson in the art of the pause, and how long to make it. Twain himself—and Holbrook is as close to Twain himself as we are likely to come, despite some recent newcomers to the Twain “lecture circuit” like Val Kilmer. For those of us who grew up in the sixties there is still only one “Mark Twain,” and that is Hal Holbrook—who invented the widely copied but never equaled “one-man show” of Mark Twain Tonight! Holbrook is now 89 years-old; when he started portraying Twain at the age of 29 it took four hours to put on makeup to age himself to look 70. Now he has to “youth” himself almost 20 years to achieve the same effect. No wonder Life Magazine hails him as “one of the treasures of American theatre.”

As I was saying, Twain himself recreated himself as a popular lecturer to pay off his enormous debts accrued from his failed business venture of self-publishing the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant—former Civil War General and President—who somehow convinced Twain that his memoirs were going to make him rich. Not only did they fail in that regard, they virtually made of Twain an indentured servant as a lecturer—the only way he could make enough money to repay his creditors. He was an honorable man who refused to file for bankruptcy and instead went on the road—well, like a folk singer—in a cross-country tour of one-night stands which paid better than the sales of his books. He thus became the first literary celebrity, whose public readings and anecdotes earned far more than the books from which he read—again, much like touring performers today earn more from singing their songs in public than from sales of their recordings, especially with the advent of digital piracy.

When Holbrook discovered copies of some of those lectures as a young actor he felt like John Sutter when he discovered gold—he immediately recognized the role of a lifetime. Indeed, there was enough material there for two lifetimes—both Twain’s and his. I was fortunate to discover Twain as a literary character of his own creation while earning my doctorate at the State University of New York at Binghamton, which was one of the tri-cities of Binghamton, Endicott and just across from the Susquehanna River, Elmira, New York, where Twain had a cabin and wrote some of his later books, like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Prince and the Pauper. Elderly residents of his era who still remembered Twain loved to talk about him when I was a graduate student and looking for subjects for papers to write to earn my PhD. in English. One of them told me of Twain’s reputation as a fisherman who liked to take breaks from his daily writing chores and stroll down to the banks of the Susquehanna to take after his greatest creation—and go fishing like Huck and Tom. And just like those natural-born anarchists he didn’t much care if it was in-season or out.

The Fish-and-Game Warden of New York State had just finished posting big “No Fishing Allowed” signs near their newly stocked river with baby trout, and had no patience for poachers like Twain—who had found a pleasant spot right underneath one of those signs, baited his hook and started reeling them in just like Huck and Jim along the Mississippi. When the Warden found him Twain was most forthcoming and said, “Mr., if you want to catch some big ones just set yourself down along this shore—right under that sign like I done. They’re really biting today!”

The Warden didn’t miss a beat, “Mr., you just saved me a lot of time by admitting that you’ve been catching fish right under that sign that clearly states, “No Fishing Allowed.” You don’t know it, but you happen to be talking to the Fish-and-Game Warden of New York State and this is posted land. I’m going to have to take you in.” Twain was more than his equal, though; he put out his hand in the friendliest of gestures and said, “Well, Mr., you don’t know it either, but you just shook hands with Mark Twain—the biggest liar in this whole country.” The Warden let him go.

The year Bob Dylan released his eponymous debut album, 1962—the one where he wore that Huck Finn cap—he also appeared as an uncredited harmonica player on the title song of Harry Belafonte’s RCA Midnight Special album. It is worth mentioning in this regard because it was Belafonte’s own debut album in 1954 that introduced Mark Twain to folk audiences; it was called Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites. 1954 turned out to be a big year for Twain—for in that the same year 60 years ago Hal Holbrook premiered his show Mark Twain Tonight! Harry Belafonte’s title song Mark Twain was a monologue with snatches of traditional songs Belafonte constructed to tell the story of where Samuel Langhorne Clemens found his pen name—from the folklore of the Mississippi River on which for a time he handled a riverboat and which inspired his memoir Life On the Mississippi. “Mark Twain” was coined as an abbreviation of the phrase “gaugers” used to measure the depth of the river for the pilots who needed to know—“Markin’ on the twine.”

Many years ago on the Mississippi riverboats

They had men called gaugers

And the job of a gauger was to hang off

the side of the boat with one hand

And in the other hand he had a ball of twine

with a hunk a lead on the end of it

He’d wield the lead above his head

And let it fly into the river

Wherever the water marked the twine

He’d call up to the skipper and say

Marking on the twine is four fathoms

Cause then and there, year after year

It was getting pretty monotonous

Until in the 18 hundreds a little man

Came along and revolutionized the

Whole gauging industry

Instead of saying marking on the twine

He cut it short and said Mark Twain.

So Mark Twain’s very name derives from the folklore of the Big River, and it is therefore no accident his literary creations have become embedded in the folklore and costuming of the modern folk singer—from Woody Guthrie—who first wore the distinctive cap that took on Huck’s name—to Bob Dylan to Phil Ochs to Tom Paxton to Pete Seeger.

But Mark Twain the original—or as close as we can now come—is coming to town, so I am putting my guitar down and sailing out to Riverside to enjoy Hal Holbrook in his fabulous recreation of an American legend—Mark Twain Tonight! They’ve all told me not to go; theatre is a waste of time; it was only a children’s book after all; and Twain used the “N” word so many times his book was banned for indecency—and had to be officially revised to make it politically correct. They’re probably right.

But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

I plan to wear my own “Huck Finn” cap I got for Christmas from Jill’s daughter Toni, who lives in Riverside and has never seen this show before. How wonderful—to be able to see it for the first time.

So here’s a hand my trusty frien’ and gie’s a hand o’ thine

We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet for auld lang syne.

Happy 2015! Happy New Year!

Hal Holbrook performs his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! At the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside one night only, Saturday, January 17 at 7:00pm. (doors open at 6:00pm) Tickets are available at foxriversidelive.com, ticketmaster.com, at Fox Performing Arts Center Box Office or by phone at 800-745-3000 .

P.S. Alas, the best laid plans o’ mice and men, another line from Robert Burns, “gang aft agley,” and Ross is not able to attend this show due to the fact he is in the Steinbeck show (who borrowed Burns’ line for his novel Of Mice and Men) at Beyond Baroque in Venice, the same evening Hal Holbrook is holding forth in Riverside. Both shows must go on!

Saturday, January 17 – 8:00pm

STEINBECK CALLING

A celebration of Steinbeck's works with readings and music, including: Pastures of Heaven, Cannery Row, Travels with Charley, Of Mice and Men & Grapes of Wrath. Performers include Lee Boek, Eric Vollmer and Ross Altman on guitar.

Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center is at 681 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, CA. 310-822-3006 .

Los Angeles folk singer Ross Altman—with his Huck Finn cap—has a PhD in Modern Literature; Ross may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com