Meet Izzy Young – the man who first promoted Bob Dylan
Israel “Izzy” Goodman Young
Born: New York, to Polish immigrants
Family: Two children, Thilo Egenberger and Philomène Grandin (a Swedish actress most famous for hosting children’s TV show Philofix) and three grandchildren, Paloma, Tim-Yasha and Helene.
Career: Baker, square dancer, impresario, folklorist, poet, essayist, radio DJ, Folklore Center proprietor from 1957 to present.
Within an hour of the announcement that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first TV news crew arrived at Izzy Young’s Folklore Centrum.
For the rest of that October afternoon, the small one-room store on a quiet street in Stockholm’s Södermalm district was a hive of media activity.
Izzy Young is widely acknowledged as the person who discovered Dylan. And he was clearly the closest the Swedish media was going to get to the man himself.
That evening, Young’s broad New York accent was heard on Swedish TV and radio news shows saying how he knew all along that his old friend Dylan was a genius. And the history books show that Young really did know that Dylan was special before most others had clocked it. Young organized Dylan’s first proper concert in 1961 at the Carnegie Chapter Hall.
“I was the first one to say ‘let’s have some concerts,’” Young enthuses. “People said, ‘you’re crazy!’ But I knew that this was the best guy I had ever heard.”
Young is 88 years old and still going strong doing what he has always done, which is promoting musicians through concerts at his Folklore Centrum. “I am still a fun-loving Jewish boy who grew up in the Bronx and never changed or tried to,” he says.
Concerts are held at the center about once a week and they are always very special evenings. The music covers everything from traditional Swedish folk music to American folk, blues and country and at times, genres as diverse as jazz and space rock can be heard. None of the musicians are household names. They are young and old, but they are usually incredibly talented and among the best in their fields. And they all love to play at Izzy Young’s.
Brian Kramer, an American blues musician who performs several times a week at various venues across Stockholm says, “Playing at Izzy’s gives you as a musician a direct link to a rich time and history of folk music and blues. He has been doing this the exact same way, intimate and all acoustic, since the 1960s. They are small concerts but have a huge vibe and presence. And Izzy makes you feel like you are a part of that history and lineage because he is right there in the room for every event. That’s something you don’t get anywhere else.”
The setup, which has never really changed, ironically resembles the hipster house concert phenomenon that started to make waves across the world a couple of years ago. This is, after all, more or less Young’s front room. He is here every day and has been forever. As he often says, “I am the luckiest person alive. I get to hear great music at my own place all the time.”
The musicians sit level with the audience, performing in front of Young’s great folklore library. “There is no other collection like it,” he says. Spectators at the front often have to dodge swinging guitar necks. For the busiest concerts, audience members are squeezed in so much that some have to sit on the floor, practically under the musicians. Sometimes, however, there are less than 10 people in the room, including the performers and Young. But usually there are around 20 to 30.
All of this is exactly as it always has been. And when it’s a slow night, Young often reminds young musicians that people who went on to become big names made their debut at his center playing for tiny audiences.
In its first New York incarnation, Young’s Folklore Center was, as Dylan writes in his 2004 autobiography Chronicles in which he spends several pages talking about Young, “the citadel of American folk music.”
Located in the heart of Greenwich Village, Young’s center became the de facto headquarters of the 1960s folk revival, which was the springboard for the careers of Dylan, Joan Baez and many others.
Other notable figures that performed concerts early in their careers at Young’s include Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith and Tim Buckley (father of Jeff). A live album by Buckley recorded at the Folklore Center in 1967 was released a few years ago. Young claims to have made the recording himself. “I switched the tape recorder on and off,” he says laughing – but saw no money from the release.
In 1973, Young moved to Sweden and renamed his center the Folklore Centrum. Young claims that he moved to Sweden because he fell in love with Swedish folk music after meeting a couple of Swedish fiddle players in America. The right-wing political climate of America in the early 70s also played a part in Young’s move, as did thoughts of having a child with his French girlfriend in a country that was family friendly. “There was no baby in New York and no baby in France, but we sure had a baby in Sweden,” Young bellows.
As well as his work with folk music, Young has been politically active, leading “3,000 beatniks” in a freedom of speech protest in New York, helping Cambodian refugees from the Vietnam War and later on in Sweden working with the Jews for Peace movement, meeting Yasser Arafat in the process.
He has written reams of beat-flavored poetry and was good friends with Allen Ginsberg, who often visited Young in Sweden. Ginsberg’s poem “Father Death Blues” hangs on the Folklore Centrum’s wall, with extra verses hand-written especially for Young. Less frequent these days, Young’s public poetry readings of his own and others' work are wonderful occasions.
Young also supported Swedish folk music by producing a monthly newsletter for 40 years, listing concerts, festivals, dances and courses taking place across the country. And he has written numerous essays and articles over the years for various publications, many of which can be found in his book, The Conscience of the Folk Revival: The Writings of Israel “Izzy” Young.
Although less busy now, Young still leads a very active life. At 88, he is in good physical shape, although unsurprisingly, he does have some memory issues. But he still travels across town from his apartment to the Folklore Centrum every day and opens it for business.
The Centrum is open Monday to Friday. Young sells second-hand CDs and books there, although by day it mostly serves as a sort of clubhouse for Young’s friends and fans. And Young has numerous fans across the world and many close friends nearby who visit him daily and in small ways help him keep the Folklore Centrum going.
For most of his life, like the majority of working musicians he has promoted, Young has struggled to make money. He has, however, been a prodigious chronicler of the folk scene and over the years kept numerous notebooks, scrapbooks, pictures and recordings, which were recently purchased by the US Library of Congress.
And while he hasn’t met Dylan for many years, Young did have some indirect financial help from him recently. Dylan wrote two songs for Young in the 1960s that a private collector bought recently. One is called “Talking Folklore Center.”
These cash injections have provided Young with enough money to keep doing what he loves, enabling fans of music worldwide the chance to come to Stockholm and visit one of the world's most historic and special music venues. The place where, in essence, the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature started his career.
Text: Danny Chapman
Published: November 22, 2016
Last edited: December 6, 2016