Robert Shelton (critic)

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Cover of Hootenanny magazine, co-edited by Shelton

Robert Shelton, born Robert Shapiro (June 28, 1926, Chicago, Illinois, United States – December 11, 1995, Brighton, England) was a music and film critic. His most enduring claim to fame was that he helped launch the career of a then unknown 20-year-old folk singer named Bob Dylan. Dylan was performing at Gerdes Folk City in the West Village, the ne plus ultra of New York City folk venues, opening for a bluegrass act called the Greenbriar Boys. Shelton's positive review, in the New York Times, brought crucial publicity to Dylan, which led to a Columbia recording contract and a Peter, Paul and Mary cover of "Blowin' in the Wind".[1]


Shelton was born in Chicago in 1926 under the name Robert Shapiro, the son of Joseph and Hannah Shapiro, Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, a research chemist, was born in Minsk and came to the US in 1905. Robert was raised in Chicago, served in the US Army in France during 1944-45, and attended the School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He moved to New York in the 1950s, joining the staff of the New York Times not long after. In 1955 he was one of 30 New York Times staffers subpoenaed by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, who were informed by Times counsel Louis M. Loeb that they would be fired if they took the Fifth Amendment. Shelton refused to answer questions from the committee about any affiliation with the Communist Party or about fellow Times staffer Matilda Landsman, and was indicted by a grand jury for contempt. Because he did not plead the Fifth he was allowed to continue working at the Times but was transferred out of the news department to the less sensitive entertainment desk, where he became a music critic. Convicted and sentenced to six months in prison, he appealed his conviction and had it reversed on a technicality, only to be indicted, retried, convicted, and have the conviction overturned on a technicality again. After several years of appeals in which he was represented by noted civil liberties lawyer Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. the case was finally dropped in the mid-1960s.

For a decade (1958–1968), Shelton reviewed music, in particular folk music, but also pop and country music, becoming a good friend of many of the artists and extending his influence beyond the pages of the Times. His other work included writing the programs at the Newport Folk Festival; and doing album notes for several artists, including Dylan, as "Stacey Williams." During the early 1960s, he co-edited a magazine, Hootenanny, at the same time as his friend Linda Solomon edited a different magazine titled ABC-TV Hootenanny.

Shelton spent decades writing and rewriting his Dylan opus, No Direction Home, The Life and Music of Bob Dylan which was published in 1986, following years of wrangling with publishers over taste and length. Shelton's intention from the outset was to write a serious cultural study, not a showbiz biography; as a result, he always said his life's work had been "abridged over troubled waters". The title is taken from the lyric of a Dylan song, "Like a Rolling Stone", from the Highway 61 Revisited album. The title of Shelton's biography of Dylan was borrowed by Martin Scorsese for his 2005 film about Dylan's early career. Other books include "Electric Muse: The Story Of Folk Into Rock" and "The Face of Folk Music".

In 1982 Shelton moved to Brighton, England, where he wrote mostly about films for a number of publications up to the time of his death. Much of the collection of his early work has been donated to the University of Liverpool.


  • No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, 1986, Da Capo Press reprint 2003, ISBN 0-306-81287-8. A new edition, with some 20,000 words of Shelton's original text restored, will be published in spring 2011 to mark Dylan's seventieth birthday. (UK: Omnibus Press; US: Backbeat/Hal Leonard; Australia: Hardie Grant; Germany: Edel; Brazil: Larousse.


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