The specific target of the song is generally thought to be Dylan's critics in the
Greenwich Village folk scene, especially Irwin Silber (the then editor of Sing Out!),
who were down on Dylan for going electric and abandoning the protest
song movement. Many other possibilities have been suggested ranging from
Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs to Suze Rotolo. Positively 4th Street functions
as a kind of universal put-down and, like other great songs, it transcends
any specifics to offer multiple meanings to listeners. And as with some
other his songs, it might even have application to Dylan himself.
The 4th Street of the song title most likely refers to West 4th Street in
Greenwich Village, where Dylan had an apartment during his folk days.
But 4th Street in Minneapolis is fraterity row at the University of Minnesota,
which Dylan "attended" for some six months. And then there is the famous
Fourth Street Drug Store in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Some related links:
The 4th Street entry in the EDLIS Dylan Atlas
The Booing of Dylan in 1965 Things Twice page
Originally compiled: June 21, 1997
Last revised: August 23, 1997
From Paul Williams' Peforming Artist: The Music of Bob Dylan, Volume One, 1960-1973:Four days after Newport, Dylan got his revenge on the "folk crowd" who rejected him (and who had been attacking him, baiting him, condescending to him since the release of Another Side of Bob Dylan twelve months earlier), by recording "Positively Fourth Street" as his single to follow "Like a Rolling Stone." The song functions as a kind of universal put-down, "the perfect squelch," but it also speaks quite specifically to Dylan's critics in the folk community (Dylan lived on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village in his folk days), particularly Irwin Silber, editor or Sing Out!, who wrote a piece in the November 1964 issue of Sing Out! called "An Open Letter to Bob Dylan": "Dear Bob . . . I'm writing this letter now because some of what has happened is troubling me. And not me alone. Many other good friends of yours as well..." And so forth. Dylan over the years has had to put up with an endless succession of public admonitions from "friends" and strangers telling him what he should be doing; this song serves as his permanent, all-purpose reply (especially for those who think "Maggie's Farm" and "It Ain't Me Babe" aren't addressed to them). On the videotape of the December 1965 press conference, someone tells Dylan he's hard on people in a lot of his songs -- "Rolling Stone," and "Fourth Street" -- and asks, "Are you hard on them because you want to torment them, or because you want to change their lives and make them know themselves?" Dylan screws up his face into a very serious and rather demonic grin and says, "I want to needle them."
1960s: Who and Where was Positively 4th Street?
By John Bauldie
From All Across the Telegraph, Michael Gray & John Bauldie (eds), Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987
4th Street is right at the heart of Greenwich Village. Dylan lived with "Avril the dancer" on East 4th Street, had his photo taken for his union card in a booth on West 4th Street, and rented the apartment in which he first lived with Suze Rotolo on West 4th Street.
In 1965 when Dylan began to renounce the folk scene, or rather, 1eave it behind, there was a lot of predictable griping from some of the folkies. For the purposes of Dylan's response, "4th Street" is a kind of abstraction for that whole holier-than-thou, purist, he-was-an- arriviste-anyway scene, inside which many people had resented both Dylan's folk success and his apparent abdication from it.
The song was released in September 1965, and Scaduto writes:
[It] moved a lot of temperatures up the scale. Dylan was slicing up one specific individual on the Village scene or all of them, all of his friends and former friends... Everyone in the Village wondered who the song was about, and many took it personally, and were hurt by it. Terri Van Ronk: "Everybody was especially upset by the song because they felt they were the people he was talking about. We didn't think the nastiness was called for, or the putting down.And Israel Young:
At least five hundred came into my place [the Folklore Center]... and asked if it was about me. I don't know if it was, but it was unfair. I'm in the Village twenty-five years now. I was one of the representatives of the Village, there is such a thing as the Village. Dave Van Ronk was still in the Village. Dylan comes in and takes from us, uses my resources, then he leaves and he gets bitter. He writes a bitter song. He was the one who left.
But was Dylan's target a general one, or a specific one? The vindictiveness, the accusatory "you" seems precise, doesn’t it? Yet that is exactly what makes it so effective a curse upon the whole lot of them. It seems designed to provoke feelings of individual unease on a quite widespread scale: a lesson in the if-the-cap-fits process - the process Carly Simon invoked with playful knowingness in her later chorus of "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you". Dylan knew "Positively 4th Street" would set lots of people in the Village gnashing their teeth. No doubt he enjoyed contemplating the prospect of Izzy in a tizzy, and so on. But Bob Dylan has always chosen his targets with a kind of clear-sighted moral rigour. (Look, for instance, in "Don't Look Back", which catches Dylan at exactly this period, at how his mercilessness with the phoney and parasitical is balanced by immediate kindness whenever he encounters warmth or open frailty in people.) In the case of the Village in "Positively 4th Street", no doubt he felt adamantly that only the pious and teasable would feel savaged - and that they had it coming.
And after all, it might be mere insular egotism that "the Village" assumed itself the target of the song at all. When, in Thompson's "Positively Main Street", our hero Toby gets shown around Dinkytown - the bohemian section of Minneapolis where Dylan, as it were, dress- rehearsed, around the end of 1959, his prospective Greenwich Village debut - the author is guided past the university by Ellen Baker:
"This," Ellen exclaimed, "is 4th Street." She pulled to the kerb for a moment and put the car in neutral.
"You mean. . ?"
"Whether this 4th Street is "positively" the one, who can say but Bob? Everyone here in Dinkytown always thought their main drag was the one Bob sings about, though. It makes sense. Dinkytown is the student neighborhood where not just Bob lived, but everyone he hung around with. The Scholar and The Bastille coffee-houses were in Dinkytown. As you can see, now that we're on it, 4th Street would represent all that to Bob: the social scene, the university crud... the old folk people."
Subject: Positively 4th Street - Who Directed At?
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Seth Kulick)
: > Does anybody know who Positively 4th Street was directed at? I would
: > really like to know. Was it Sara or Suze??
: I believe it was directed at Phil Ochs, another popular folk singer in
: reference to Phil's comments about Dylan's songs having lost all meaning
: after he went electric. Ochs committed suicide in 1976, but
: his career had also gone down the toilet, so we can't necessarily blame
: Dylan for pushing him over the edge.
Phil Ochs was one of Dylan's supporters when he went electric. It is true that Dylan reportedly got pissed off at Ochs when Ochs didn't go crazy over Dylan's current single (Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window, or One of Must Know, depending on the story). But as far as I know, Ochs never made any such comment about Dylan's songs having "lost all meaning". To the contrary, he is quoted as saying that after he listened to Highway 61 Revisited that it was just impossibly good, or something like that.
And now I'll digress for a moment:
Ochs should not be confused with the rather disgusting way in which he's been canonized by segments of the left-folk community. I had the misfortune of attending a Phil Ochs song night a few years ago and the basic theme was "Phil could have been a big star, but he didn't want to sell out by writing non-political songs." This is utter garbage. He did write non-political songs (at least not journalistic like his earlier stuff), and he even picked up an electric guitar in his time - after all, this is the guy who said he wanted to combine Che Guevara and Elvis Presley. He was a human being, a bit mixed up, with some good songwriting talent, although not in Dylan's league, with a great sense of humour, judging by the tapes and records that I've heard. He should be allowed to rest in peace instead of being turned into a one-dimensional caricature.
As for Positively 4th Street, it could have been Izzy Young or Irwin Silber, but who knows? Probably not one specific person.
Subject: Positively 4th Street
From: Peter Stone Brown (psb@NEWTECH.NET)
> Can anybody please explain why Positively 4th Street is more about
> Paxton than Ochs?
The song is not necessarily about either. Most likely it is aimed at then-editor of Sing Out! Magazine Irwin Silber and similar folkies of the time who were incensed that Dylan went electric.
However, Ochs strongly supported Dylan's switch to electric while Paxton condemned him in a rather vicious article in Sing Out! called "Folk Rot," that had lines like "...for Bob Dylan there will be no more "Hattie Carrolls.' " However within two years (maybe less) Paxton too had bands and electric instruments on his albums though they never approached rocking--and I seem to remember him at the very least regretting that article later on. But, the song was written long before that article saw print. I don't think it was directed at any one person in particular. Dylan's falling out with Ochs didn't occur till much later.
Subject: Who was Dylan singing about in Positively 4th Street
From: email@example.com (Ed Ricardo)
> I have always maintained that he was writing about Irwin Silber, editor of
> "Sing Out!" who reacted to Dylan's electric performance at the 1965
> Newport Folk Festival with a blistering editorial that called Dylan a
> sellout and a traitor to his musical heritage. (My paraphrasing of the
> original words.)
> However, people on this list have quoted a chronology that they insist
> makes it impossible so I will stand to the side and watch the river flow.
I seem to have missed the chronological proof you mention?
The Newport Folk Festival was 24-25 July 1965. The song was recorded 29 July 1965 [1/107].
Certainly in 1965 many of my friends thought there was reference to Irwin Silber. Few could forget his, "An Open Letter To Bob Dylan" in the November 1964 Sing Out! "Dear Bob - I'm writing this letter now because some of what has happened is troubling me. And not me alone. Many other good friends of yours..." and on it went...
Even if someone has proof the song was written before Newport [and if so please direct me to it] a composition date before November 1964 is required to even begin to get Irwin Silver off the hitlist, whoever else is there with him.
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Rob Patterson)
Subject: 4th Street
Date: 4 Mar 1997
: > What and where is 4th street? Was it where Dylan lived in NY? I don't
: > think it could be about Donovan as Dylan was never among his crowd. I
: > always figured it was an old girlfriend.
: 4th Street, otherwise known as "Frat Row", is the street on which all of
: the fraternities at the Univ. of Minnesota are located. Dylan who
: attended the U of MN for less than a year lived in the Jewish
: Fraternity. Having gone there myself for a year, I can definitely attest
: to the appropriateness and accuracy of the song: Positively 4th Street.
Hey folks, the spin in most Dylan bios, and what I feel is most accurate, is that 4th Street is a farewell to the very incestuous, competitive, back-biting and small-minded crowd that was the ostensibly progressive humanistic Greenwich Village folk scene (isn't EVERY crowd like that?). Gerde's Folk City, where Dylan debuted and the prime NYC folk joint, was at W. 4th & Mercer. Having spent time in NYC and around the Village folk scenes that followed, I have met many people who are positively 4th St there (and everywhere).
There are those who say the song is a slam at Suze Rotolo after she and Bob broke up.
The fact that the U Minnesota frat row is 4th St. may have only been a bonus for Bob.
After lurking here a while, I think people sometimes miss the BIG point of songs by trying to pin them to the specific. Most songwriters I know and have talked to (I know many fine, noted writers, and interview them as part of how I make a living) usually filter the personal through the muse so it comes out less specific and more universal. It is fascinating to tie works to Bob's life, but I am just as interested in how these songs affect the lives of the people who hear them. The best songs transcend any specifics to offer multiple meanings to listeners and even sometimes the creators. That's one sure sign of a great song.
Subject: 4th Street
From: Peter Stone Brown (email@example.com)
I second that emotion. And I also think that the song is directed at the Folkies who got on his case for not only going electric, but abandoning (in their view) the protest song movement. Of course within 2 years many of these people who put Dylan down soon had bands and electric guitars on their records (the ones who were musicians) and were also writing inner-directed, non-protest songs. But a lot of the people who put Dylan down, we're not musicians, but politicos disguised as music critcs. And btw, Phil Ochs was *not* among them. Ochs was totally supportive of Dylan's move to rock 'n' roll.
Peter Stone Brown
Subject: 4th Street Where?
From: Glen Dundas (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Andrew Muir (Andrew@ZIMMY.DEMON.CO.UK) wrote:
I think that the CD-Rom gives a huge clue to this. For this with extra-ordinarily arcane info at their fingertips it actually gives two clues.as clinton heylin points out, 4th street was recorded just 4 days after newport. one would think that answers the question.
>> A friend, upon noting that my new office here in Minneapolis
>> is on 4th Street, said that he heard Positively 4th Street
>> refers to this street. He wondered if I could get confirmation
>> in the neighborhood, but nobody here was around then. Anyone
>> know about this?
> Much debate over this. My own thoughts are that *the* 4th St is
> indeed in Minneapolis, on account of the NY 4th Street never being
> referred to as such--it is *always* either East 4th or West 4th,
> which Dylan would have been well aware of. On the other hand, he
> could have been just playing with words. He's known to do that,
> you know ;-)
> Robin (NYer born and bred)
Subject: Dylan on "Positively 4th Street"
From: email@example.com (Mark Gonnerman)
Reading through ~The Fiddler Now Upspoke~ (Dr. Filth's excellent compilation of Dylan interviews) I find:
San Francisco Press Conference, December 3 1965:
Q: In a lot of your songs you are hard on a lot of people . . . in "Like a Rolling Stone" you're hard on the girl and in "Positively Fourth Street" you're pretty hard on a supposed friend. Are you hard on them because you want to torment them or because you want to change their lives, to make them notice?Scott Cohen Interview, California, September 1985:
Dylan: I want to needle them.
Dylan on "Positively 4th Street": Outside of a song like "Positively 4th Street," which is extremely one-dimensional, which I like, I don't usually purge myself by writing anything about any type of quote, so- called, relationships. I don't have the kinds of relationships that are built on any kind of false pretense, not to say that I haven't. I've had just as many as anybody else, but I haven't had them in a long time. Usually everything with me and anybody is up front. My-life-is-an-open-book sort of thing.--Mark
And I choose to be involved with the people I'm involved with. They don't choose me.
Subject: Positively Fourth Street
From: Paul Schnee (Paul.Schnee@DARTMOUTH.EDU)
Date: 12 May 1995 08:55:49 EDT
All of this talk about the song got me to thinking about the actual street in NYC. I've since moved from Manhattan to Vermont, but get back fairly often. Since the West Village was (and is--I still own my apt there) my neighborhood, 161 West 4th Street, just off Sixth Avenue, conveniently on my way home from Tower Records, was always a buidling I stopped in front of just to look. It is the location of one of Bob's first apartments.
It's been a while since I read all the bios, so I don't remember the timeline, but I think he lived there pretty early on in the early days in the Village. Two of his old haunts - the Bagel, and Music Inn Records (although more a bizarre percussion-music store than a record shop) - are still there. I guess I'm only reminiscing, but the depressing thing is that, at least the last time I was in the City, the building looked pretty run-down, if not abandoned, and there is one of those scrolling light-up signs saying "FOR RENT". Very depressing. Maybe we should rally the Landmarks commission for a plaque. I mean Willa Cather, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and others got plaques. What's one more poet to Mayor Giuliani??
Subject: 4th Street
From: John Freeman (freemajo@ELWHA.EVERGREEN.EDU)
Date: Sat, 1 Mar 1997 19:13:21 -0800
4th Street, otherwise known as "Frat Row", is the street on which all of the fraternities at the Univ. of Minnesota are located. Dylan who attended the U of MN for less than a year lived in the Jewish Fraternity. Having gone there myself for a year, I can definitely attest to the appropriateness and accuracy of the song: Positively 4th Street.
Subject: Aaron Henry
From: Ed Ricardo (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I know many readers of rec.music.dylan have Medgar Evers' pages bookmarked, such as
But others might like to know that the person of the week there now is Aaron Henry. For those who have not heard the news Aaron Henry died on 19 May 1997 in Clarksdale. The funeral was 23 May 1997 in Clarksdale and the burial was at Elmwood Cemetery in Jackson.
The famous Fourth Street Drug Store in Clarksdale was his business, and much of significance in the civil rights movement went on there. Black Dalli Rue indeed. There are a lot of Fourth Streets in America, positively and negatively. And a lot of reasons to turn your back and not to turn your back...
I've never had my house firebombed. I've never had my business firebombed. I've never been chained to a garbage truck and paraded through the streets. I've never served in a segregated army. I've never been refused membership of a major political party because of the colour of my skin. I am very impressed by someone who channels those kind of things into positive and relevant changes. Very impressed.
Easy to turn away. Easy to meet hatred with more hatred. Changing things, that takes real commitment.
Pull out your old videotapes and have a look at that boy singing on that wagon on Magee's Farm. 6 July 1963. And if you want to send a message Aaron Henry is survived by his daughter, Rebecca Agbar. (c/o the NAACP in Clarksdale, Mississippi, USA, would be bound to reach her.)
Subject: Who was Dylan singing about in Positively 4th Street
From: R Lapworth (email@example.com)
J-DOG (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes:
> Robert Zimmerman
Spot on, J-DOG.