This (£) deserves to be rescued from behind the Times paywall.
The date: 1969. The place: the Isle of Wight. The topic: how Bob Dylan changed my life....
As a young Gypsy boy trying to grow up in the 1960s in a country very hostile to our lifestyle and with access to education almost non-existent, the opportunities to listen to music, let alone attend a festival, were just not available.
By chance my family were on holiday in the Isle of Wight during the famous 1969 festival, staying at the Needles in Alum Bay, and I was door-knocking, trying to drum up trade with our home-made clothes pegs (yes, I know this sounds bonkers but in those days we made fine pegs from the hawthorn bushes on the side of the road — if pushed I can still knock them out).
I was about 12 going on 30 — we all smoked and fought like dogs. We were tough kids. Mostly our clothes were hand-me-downs — belts were bits of bailer twine — no designer labels.
While I was there I came across a very large house, somewhere in the middle of the island, and was welcomed in by a very charming American who was strolling down the long drive. He invited me into the house, gave me orange juice and asked me a lot of questions about my life: where did I come from, how many brothers and sisters did I have, where was I educated? He talked really quietly: he couldn’t understand what I was saying because of my accent and I couldn’t understand him. I sat at his large wooden kitchen table — I remember there was an enormous cooker that I was particularly impressed by — and told him all about Gypsy life, how hard it could be but also the fun we had.
I must have been there for most of the morning and he got me to sing a couple of the Gypsy songs I knew. There were a good many people coming in and out — a lot of laughter, a lot of banter — but he ignored them all. He was particularly interested in our slang and music. Before I left he played me a song on his guitar and gave me a record which he said was his and had the song on — he also signed it. He said he was playing at the festival and would dedicate one of the songs to me. Not having a record player I soon lost it.
I had no idea who he was and pretty much forgot about him until I was in my early twenties. Unfortunately I had got into some serious trouble and was banged up in Brixton prison on a two-year stretch for aggravated burglary. There was little prospect for me and I pretty much knew this would be my lot.
We had a vicar who used to visit twice a week and to relieve the boredom we would attend his sessions. At one of the sessions he played some music on a beaten-up old record player and as soon as I heard it I recognised the singer. He informed me it was a man called Bob Dylan and if I liked it he would bring more of his records to the next meeting and I could listen. He was true to his word and the following week I spent two hours transfixed as I went through his back catalogue. One song stuck out — North Country Blues — it was the song he sang to me in the kitchen on the Isle of Wight all those years ago. When the song had finished I was crying — all the trouble and hardship I had lived with just poured out of me. I was in some kind of shock and it took days for me to come round.
Those sessions with the vicar became my education — with his guidance and Dylan’s poetry a world opened up to me. He taught me to read and write and by the time my sentence came to an end I had started a journey that transformed my life. With his support I entered college and became a carpenter — I didn’t look back.
I know now it was the commitment of the vicar who turned my life around, but it was Dylan who inspired me and Ballad of Hollis Brown became my life song. He had planted a seed in me on that day and the flower has been growing ever since.
I’m not a religious person, but I reckon this comes as close as it gets for me. Without that meeting with Dylan I think I would still be locked up. He was just a really nice bloke.
The author wishes to remain anonymous.