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Izzy Young: A folk man in Sweden defined by Dylan

Folk music impresario Izzy Young went from organizing Bob Dylan’s first concert to promoting small acts in Stockholm. Gabriel Stein charts the unusual journey of a man who dedicated his life to folk music.

Izzy Young: A folk man in Sweden defined by Dylan

Forty-nine years after organizing Bob Dylan’s first concert at Carnegie Chapter Hall in New York City, Izzy Young still promotes, but he is a long way from the Big Apple, and the likes of Bob Dylan.

Right at this moment, he is sitting at a little wooden table in his Folklore Centrum near Mariatorget in Södermalm. He wears an old flannel shirt buttoned to the neck. He is looking onto the snowy street, his hands wrapped around a coffee mug. Young is considered one of the most important movers and shakers of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the sixties.

“I want to be recognized for what I do,” says the 81-year-old, New York City native. “I work with Swedish music.”

Back in 1957, he borrowed $1,000 to open the Folklore Center on MacDougal street in the bustling heart of Greenwich Village. It quickly became the hub for the American folk music scene.

Since then he has presented the debut concerts for hundreds of musicians, many of whom are now famous, such as Patti Smith, Emmylou Harris and Tim Buckley. On November 4th 1961, Young lost over $200 promoting Dylan’s first concert, but he was able to persuade the 19-year-old to accept $10 in pay for his efforts.

Then in 1973, together with his French girlfriend, Young moved to Stockholm, in part, he says, because she wanted to, but also because he had fallen in love with Swedish folk music and he needed to get out of New York.

“When I was here the first time, I thought Sweden was utopia,” explains Young. “I said, ‘I don’t want to die in New York, I’d rather die in Stockholm.’ I mean look at these windows. It’s a luxury to sit here. There’s no bars, you can’t get that in New York City.”

Despite diabetes and a bit of a forward slouch, Young is full of energy. Every few minutes he percolates up out of his seat to show me a picture of his father’s bakery in the Bronx or a letter he has received from Dylan’s office.

He still presents concerts at the Folklore Centrum, which is the size of a small studio apartment. Here, floor-to-ceiling shelves overflow with folk music stuff; pamphlets, folders, books and who-knows-what-else. He has an extensive library on all types of folk, world, blues, Jewish and other types of music. He also publishes a newsletter seven times a year on the Swedish folk music scene. It costs 140 kronor per year and has about 3,000 subscribers.

In many ways, this son of Jewish, Polish immigrants picked the wrong country. He is a brazen New Yorker. He likes engagement, discussion and provocation, an attitude which clashes with reserved Swedes who avoid small talk, eye contact and confrontation.

“It’s sad that Swedes don’t come to see me…they can’t deal with me,” says Young. “Swedes come in and they say, ‘what do you do here?’ People don’t understand. It’s främmande. It looks strange to them. To have books on Sweden, in Sweden, they’re not used to it.”

If you can get beyond Young’s complaints and his hard exterior — and that is a big if — you will find a good-natured man. Three and a half hours, two cinnamon buns and a pot of coffee into our one-hour interview, I realized that he likes to tell stories. He talked about the haze which emanated from his bathroom on MacDougal street, how he led square dances at resorts in Upstate New York (think Dirty Dancing) and how he was scared to death of Patti Smith when “she was a kid because she was such a damn revolutionary force.”

If only words and memories were money. Young is apparently broke in real life and is living in a 36 square metre apartment in Fredhäll. “You know, it’s a first apartment for someone who just got out of high school in Sweden,” he says, laughing. “For me, it will be my last apartment.”

In one instant, like a Zen master who has figured out the meaning of life, he displays pride for never sacrificing his love of folk music to make a good living. But in the next breath he sings a sad song of regret and exploitation.

“Everyone wants to record me, have me speak for them, journalists want to interview me, but no one wants to pay me,” he says. “If I recorded everything I heard it would be worth millions of dollars today.”

He does, however, possess a few material treasures. Somewhere in a bank vault in Stockholm lie two original manuscripts of Dylan songs which Dylan gave to Young more than 40 years ago.

He has been offered tens of thousands of dollars for the “Talking Folklore Center” manuscript, which he says was hanging on the wall by a tack in his store in Greenwich Village for twenty years. But he won’t sell it. It is not his style. “I never earned $10,000 a year in my life, so it doesn’t change anything for me to sell it now,” he says.

The other manuscript, “Go Away You Bomb Go Away”, is a talking blues song which Dylan wrote in 1963 when he was 22. Young rediscovered it in his archives and published it for the first time in 2007.

Young is irritated with parts of the past and lots of the present, but he seems to live in the now, and appears to be happy. He doesn’t romanticize the sixties, or his time in New York. To him life is a continuum. When you ask him about his favorite concert or musician he is uncharacteristically quiet. He prefers live music and does not listen to “records,” as he calls them.

“You see I have wild ideas but I do it pretty much at room temperature,” he explains. “I am enjoying myself. That’s what I should be doing.”

For all of his accomplishments, Young’s greatest achievement is perhaps the hardest for anyone to emulate. He discovered at an early age exactly what he loved and then he devoted his life to it. “He had a lot of resilience,” Dylan wrote of Young in his book, “Chronicles: Volume One.”

“I’m doing what I have to do,” says Young. “I’m fighting, but I’m succeeding in my way. Without money, without getting paid. But I have freedom.”

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MUSIC

What are the best concerts in Sweden this autumn?

Now that Sweden has lifted its audience restrictions for public events, The Local's Paul O'Mahony lists his recommendations for the best gigs to attend over the coming months.

Crowd at a music concert in Debaser, Stockholm
Crowds return to Stockholm venue Debaser after pandemic restrictions on events were lifted. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Sweden’s musicians, concert promoters and venue operators have struggled to varying degrees through the pandemic. One surefire way to help get them back on their feet is to give organisers and artists the financial reassurance they need by pre-booking concerts. 

Of course these recommendations only apply if you feel safe attending large events; remember that you should stay home and take a Covid-19 test if you experience any symptoms that could be linked to the virus, even if vaccinated. And make sure to check with organisers if there are any specific coronavirus requirements you need to be aware of. 

Coming up: top gigs in Sweden over the next few months 

As a regular gig-goer, live music is the one thing I’ve missed most over the past year and a half. So it is with some excitement (and, I’ll admit, a degree of trepidation) that I prepare to go see Norwegian band Pom Poko this Friday at Hus 7 in Stockholm. Their melodic art-punk album Cheater sparked the year into life on its release in January. They’re also playing Plan B in Malmö on Saturday night

Plan B is also the venue when Squid hit Sweden with a thrilling dose of post-punk on October 15th. Tickets remain available for the show at the time of writing (an absolute steal at 120 kronor), though that’s sadly not the case in Stockholm where their October 16th gig at Melodybox sold out a long time ago. (Although you can sign up to be added to a waiting list). 

Another artist well worth checking out in October is Gothenburg guitarist and singer Amanda Werne, better known as Slowgold. Her live shows are great and she is embarking on a Swedish tour on October 8th. 

Emma-Jean Thackray, one of the UK’s most interesting jazz artists, will be at Fasching in Stockholm on October 15th

For the best kind of sonic assault, Anna von Hasswolff’s band Bada are scheduled to play in Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg in late October. 

Have any of you ever seen Gothenburg electronic veterans Little Dragon live? I haven’t but might check them out in November when they swing by Malmö, Stockholm and Gothenburg

Amason are also heading out on the road for a Scandinavian tour in November. If you haven’t heard Amanda Bergman’s voice in a live setting before this will be a treat. 

The inimitable Sibille Attar released her superb second album A History of Silence at the start of the year and she’s finally getting the chance to play her eighties-inspired gems live at Slaktkyrkan in Stockholm on November 18th

Cassandra Jenkins long lurked in the background as a musician in touring bands for people like Eleanor Friedberger and Purple Mountains. But this year’s album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature has really established her as an artist to be reckoned with in her own right. She’s coming to Södra Teatern in Stockholm on November 26th

Always popular in this part of the world, The Jesus and Mary Chain return to Sweden for dates in Stockholm and Gothenburg at the end of November

Wry Finland-Swedish indie outfit Vasas Flora och Fauna have some of the funniest (Swedish) lyrics and catchiest tunes around. They’ll be in Stockholm and Gothenburg the first weekend of December

UK experimental rockers Black Midi are also playing Stockholm and Gothenburg on December 4th and 5th. So prepare to travel if you want to catch both them and Vasas Flora and Fauna. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Bob Hund’s annual ‘week 48’ show also takes place on December 4th. But that has been sold out for ages so no decisions to make there. It is also worth noting though that Sweden’s hardest working band has also written a musical that’s going to be performed in Helsingborg (October-November) and Gothenburg (November)

Bonus: For a post-Christmas pick-me-up try to get down to Little Simz at Slaktkyrkan on January 14th if you’re in Stockholm. The UK rapper’s new album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is one of this year’s best releases. 

Selected artists playing Sweden in 2022: Henry Rollins, Sarah Klang, Yann Tiersen, Mogwai, Pearl Charles, Wolf Alice, Lloyd Cole, Lord Huron, Future Islands, Josh Rouse + Vetiver, Tricky, Snail Mail, Porridge Radio, Aldous Harding, Shame, The Kooks, The War on Drugs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Kings of Convenience, Fontaines D.C., Alex Cameron, Lucy Dacus, The Divine Comedy, Mdou Moctar, Iggy Pop, Chubby and the Gang, Sparks, Belle & Sebastian, The National, Sharon Van Etten, Teenage Fanclub, Tindersticks, Suede, Viagra Boys, Pavement. 

For bigger arena shows, Ticketmaster covers a lot of the bases. Big-name acts with gigs in the offing include Ed Sheeran, Zara Larsson, Whitesnake and, lest we forget, ABBA

And that’s just a fraction of what’s going on. Tour schedules are busier than ever now that artists are finally getting back on the road. To keep track of what gigs are coming up I can recommend checking in with Luger, FKP Scorpio, and Live Nation. Follow your favourite venues too: sometimes they cut out the middleman and do their own booking and promotion. I also use the Bandsintown app, which comes with the added bonus of receiving messages from your favourite artists which let you pretend to be their friend. 

Enjoy the gigs, and stay safe! 

Paul O’Mahony is editorial product manager at The Local. In his spare time he plays the best new indie and alternative music as host of the Signals show on Nerve Music.

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