Suze Rotolo: More than a muse

On International Women’s Day, I’m thinking about a woman who was best-known for hanging on the arm of a much more famous man. Suze Rotolo recently passed away in New York City, at age 67, after a lifetime of civic engagement and creating art.

Suze Rotolo became a household name because she was Bob Dylan‘s girlfriend. She’s the smiling young woman holding his arm in a winter street-scape on the cover of his 1963 album, Freewheelin’. There’s also a story in the liner notes of Dylan’s eponymous first album that says Dylan fretted his guitar with Rotolo’s lipstick holder while recording “In My Time of Dyin'”.

Beyond that, Rotolo was the person who introduced Dylan to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and plays Bertolt Brecht, and the civil rights issues that inspired songs like “The Death of Emmett Till” and “Masters of War.” When she left him to study art in Italy for six months, he wrote “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.”

When Rotolo and Dylan met in Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, she was a whip-smart 17 year-old. Though he was a few years older than she, their relationship was an exchange of ideas in which Rotolo was often in the role of teacher.

Rotolo grew up in Queens NY, the child of Communist parents, and was from an early age engaged in political actions. She worked as a secretary for the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) during the time she and Dylan shared a tiny Fourth Street apartment. Rotolo would come home with stories from within the civil rights movement, and she arranged for Dylan to play at a CORE benefit–where he met Pete Seeger for the first time.

After a few mutually productive and emotionally ecstatic years together, Dylan and Rotolo drifted apart in 1963.

“I just felt that that I no longer had a place in this world of his music and fame,” Rotolo said in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. “I felt more and more insecure, that I was just this string on his guitar; I was just this chick. And I was losing confidence in who I was… I saw it as a small, cloistered, specialized world that I just didn’t belong in.”

Rotolo spent much of her life trying to avoid the Dylan-related fame that had eventually done in their relationship. She went by her married name, focusing on her own creative work, and on her familial roles as wife and mother. Until the time of her death, Rotolo taught at the Parsons School of Design. By all accounts, she thoroughly enjoyed the life she created for herself.

In 2005, she participated in Martin Scorcese’s film about Dylan’s life, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.

Perhaps nudged by this opportunity to tell her own side of the story, in 2008 she wrote A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. Rotolo was a good writer, and the book offers a unique and honest perspective on an pivotal time for American music. She writes of the album Freewheelin’: “It was folk music, but it was really rock and roll.”

For all that she did to inspire one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 20th century, it’s necessary to recognize Suze Rotolo’s work both as an activist and as an artist in its own right. It’s perhaps appropriate that one of Rotolo’s favourite memories from her time with Bob Dylan was the parting piece of advice he offered:

“Never let anybody take up your space.”

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  1. avatar
    Sebastian Agnello 8 March, 2011 at 22:26

    If I’m not mistaken, Suze inspired, in my opinion, one of Dylan’s greatest songs concerning ‘male /female conflict’, “Ballad In Plain D”. Though the song exposes the bitterness against Dylan by Suze’s Mom and her sister, it’s totally appropriate on IWD to acknowledge Suze’s ‘independence’.

  2. avatar
    Meghan Sheffield 8 March, 2011 at 23:09

    Hi Sebastian, thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right, “Ballad in Plain D” was written, pretty unambiguously, about Dylan’s experience with Suze and perhaps more specifically, about her sister Carla. He also said, years later, that he regretted writing such an unkind song.

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