Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg Visit the Grave of Jack Kerouac (1975)

Above you can watch a rare 1975 meet­ing, of sorts, of three huge­ly influ­en­tial twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry cul­tur­al minds: Bob Dylan, Allen Gins­berg, and — in spir­it, any­way — Jack Ker­ouac, who died six years before. This clip, though brief, would be fas­ci­nat­ing enough by itself, but Sean Wilentz pro­vides exten­sive back­sto­ry in “Pen­e­trat­ing Aether: The Beat Gen­er­a­tion and Allen Ginsberg’s Amer­i­ca,” an essay fron the New York­er. “On a crisp scar­let-ocher Novem­ber after­noon at Edson Ceme­tery in Low­ell,” as he describes it, “Bob Dylan and Allen Gins­berg vis­it­ed Kerouac’s grave, trailed by a reporter, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, a film crew, and var­i­ous oth­ers (includ­ing the young play­wright Sam Shep­ard).” There “Gins­berg recit­ed not from Kerouac’s prose but from poet­ry out of Mex­i­co City Blues [ … ] invok­ing specters, fatigue, mor­tal­i­ty, Mex­i­co, and John Steinbeck’s box­car Amer­i­ca, while he and Dylan con­tem­plat­ed Kerouac’s head­stone.” Why that par­tic­u­lar col­lec­tion? “Some­one hand­ed me Mex­i­co City Blues in St. Paul in 1959,” Wilentz quotes Dylan as hav­ing told Gins­berg. “It blew my mind.”

In the piece, which comes adapt­ed from his book Bob Dylan in Amer­i­ca, Wilentz goes into great detail describ­ing Dylan as a link between two some­times com­pat­i­ble and some­times antag­o­nis­tic sub­cul­tures in mid­cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca: the folk music move­ment and the Beat gen­er­a­tion.  “I came out of the wilder­ness and just nat­u­ral­ly fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemi­an, Be Bop crowd, it was all pret­ty much con­nect­ed,” Wilentz quotes Dylan as say­ing in 1985. “It was Jack Ker­ouac, Gins­berg, Cor­so, Fer­linghet­ti … I got in at the tail end of that and it was mag­ic … it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Pres­ley.” Wilentz describes Dylan relat­ing to Ker­ouac as “a young man from a small declin­ing indus­tri­al town who had come to New York as a cul­tur­al out­sider more than twen­ty years earlier—an unknown burst­ing with ideas and whom the insid­ers pro­ceed­ed either to lion­ize or to con­demn, and, in any case, bad­ly mis­con­strue.” The Beats showed Dylan a path to main­tain­ing his cul­tur­al rel­e­vance, a trick he’s man­aged over and over again in the decades since. “Even though Dylan invent­ed him­self with­in one cur­rent of musi­cal pop­ulism that came out of the 1930s and 1940s,” Wilentz writes, “he escaped that cur­rent in the 1960s—without ever com­plete­ly reject­ing it—by embrac­ing anew some of the spir­it and imagery of the Beat generation’s entire­ly dif­fer­ent rebel­lious dis­af­fil­i­a­tion and poet­ic tran­scen­dence.”

Note: Do you want to hear Sean Wilentz read Bob Dylan in Amer­i­ca for free? (Find an audio sam­ple here.) Just head over to and reg­is­ter for a 30-day free tri­al. You can down­load any audio­book for free. Then, when the tri­al is over, you can con­tin­ue your Audi­ble sub­scrip­tion, or can­cel it, and still keep the audio book. The choice is entire­ly yours. And, in full dis­clo­sure, let me tell you that we have a nice arrange­ment with Audi­ble. When­ev­er some­one signs up for a free tri­al, it helps sup­port Open Cul­ture.

Relat­ed con­tent:

‘The Bal­lad of the Skele­tons’: Allen Ginsberg’s 1996 Col­lab­o­ra­tion with Philip Glass and Paul McCart­ney

Allen Gins­berg Reads His Clas­sic Beat Poem, Howl

Bob Dylan and Van Mor­ri­son Sing Togeth­er in Athens, on His­toric Hill Over­look­ing the Acrop­o­lis

Two Leg­ends Togeth­er: A Young Bob Dylan Talks and Plays on The Studs Terkel Pro­gram, 1963

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (6)
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  • Carl Tilchen Singer/Songwriter says:

    I’m glad I saw this meet­ing. Bob said he does­n’t want a tomb­stone with his name on it, that’s cer­tain­ly his choice, but he is a very inspir­ing, & moti­vat­ing singer/Songwriter, & if he had a mon­u­ment it would inspire his musi­cal chil­dren as wood­dy Guthrie inspired Bob & many more of Woody’s Chil­dren Includ­ing me.

  • Jim says:

    This was dur­ing Rolling Thun­der in 75,not 79.

  • psteve says:

    This is fun­ny. First, at Jim says, please do change the date. This was the fall of 1975, not 1979.

    And their dia­log is a riot. Bob pre­tend­ing he does­n’t know what’s writ­ten on Keats grave; of course he does, and that he does­n’t know where Keats is buried. And of course these two had prob­a­bly had these con­ver­sa­tions before. Telling that Bob asks about Chekhov.

  • Kathy McCarthy says:

    I live about 2 min­utes from this Cemetary.Its Edson Cemetary in Low­ell Mass.Imagine If I was tak­ing a walk in there and I saw Bob.Wouldnt that be awesmome.Someone told me he goes there every­time hes in town to vis­it Jacks grave.Of course no one knows when he goes.After I seen this pic­ture in a Dylan book I went to the grave myself where Bob was sitting.It was cool.

  • J.C. says:

    Ker­ouc passed away in ’69, not 65.

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