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Dave Morton, 1939-2020

Dave Morton never really looked like the clean-cut young American he played in his Freedom Rider mug shot. Before and after, he had a long flowing beard and longer flowing hair. “I looked like the Lutheran Christ,” he told me in 2006. Morton died in April in Duluth, MN, of diabetic complications. He was 80.

Twenty-one years old at the time of the Rides, Morton was already deep into his life as folksinger and poet and “reigning guru” of Dinkytown, the Greenwich Village/Haight-Asbury of Minneapolis. “I was the only one with long hair and funny clothes,” he later told Howard Sounes for Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan. “The Beats looked like fucking Frank Sinatra. They didn’t have long hair and a beard. I was just wild.”

Morton was “Dinkytown’s link between the mystical 1950s Beats and the emerging 1960s hipsters,” writes Robert Shelton in Bob Dylan: No Direction Home. He was “a rigorously avant-garde experimenter in alternative cultures.” 

A gaunt six-foot-six, Morton looked like Abe Lincoln strung out in the East Village. Hair flowed from every pore; he had forelocks, a beard and mustache, and a mop cascading nearly two feet down his back. He radiated gentle, distilled wisdom, [and] had a reservoir of Eastern aphorisms. 

Morton was also, writes Shelton, “a considerable influence on [Bob] Dylan,” one of “the best professors in Dylan’s peripheral university,” aka Dinkytown, during Dylan’s brief stint at the University of Minnesota.

Morton grew up mostly in St. Paul. His father was a jeweler who taught art at the U of M. He began playing music as a child. “I didn’t get my own guitar until I was 12, but I played my mother’s, and the piano, of course.” In 1948, when Morton was 8, his mother took him to see the influential folk and blues musician Lead Belly. That gave him enormous street-cred a decade later in the emerging folk scene in Dinkytown, where Morton had taken up residence after dropping out of the university. The 10 O’Clock Scholar, a tiny coffeehouse, was the heart of the scene for musicians, poets, artists, activists. Morton is credited with giving the first live music performance there, playing from the tiny stage below the street-facing window, in 1958. The next year, Dylan would play some of his first gigs there.  

Vic Kantowski was a classics student, and he did old, old English songs. He played the banjo, and we become a duo. He’d do a song, I’d do a song, we’d do a song together. Vic and I were the first guys to play the Scholar. And then, in the spring and fall [of 1959], [John] Koerner and Dylan showed up on the scene, and that’s when I met them. 

I was playing folk music, a little blues, but I ain’t a blues band like my buddy, Dave Ray, who was a student of mine. He’s younger, and he’s gone, but he was a student of mine. He lived right by the Scholar, and I’d go down there after school and go down the basement and give him a few lessons on chord changes. 

His dad would say, “Jesus Christ!” because I looked like I do today, except my hair was brown. So I looked like the Lutheran Christ. He’d say, “Jesus Christ!” but he didn’t get mad. He just said, “What are you doing to my son?” 

But Dave and both of his younger brothers all turned out to be really good guitar players and musicians, you know. All I did is a little bit of tweaking. You didn’t teach them. You just said, “Well, here’s a few little tricks I know,” and then they go on with them, eh, so. 

What I asked him what he had taught Dylan, he said, “I didn’t teach him anything because you couldn’t teach the dumb son of a bitch anything,” and then laughed heartily at his own well-worn joke.    

I can’t say that I taught Dylan anything because he was just one of the boys. My buddies David Whitaker and Herschel Kaminsky taught him politics. Whitaker was a high school buddy of mine and a radical, very intelligent on politics. Kaminsky from New York, he was a socialist. They kind of took him and talked to him. Whitaker was as small as Dylan, like my daughter. I got a daughter like that. I got a tall one. I got a short one. Dylan’s short. Whitaker was short and intense. And they kind of taught him his politics, because he wasn’t political when he showed up. He was playing the guitar and this and that.

I did tell him, “If I can write songs, you can write songs.” Eh, he turned out pretty good.

In June 1961, Morton joined five Minneapolis friends to go to Jackson on the Rides. “I had a nice apartment, a cute girlfriend, and then one day Zev [Aelony] calls me up and says, ‘Eh, you want to go to jail?’ ” 

For Morton, it was an easy yes.  

How can I explain? I was raised radical. I’m still a radical. My kids are radicals, trust me. My parents weren’t commies but they were radical. 

I happen to be an anarchist and a pacifist rather than a bomb-throwing anarchist. What I always say is, “The problem with voting is the government always gets in.” I’m not a socialist or a communist. My folks were kind of red when they were young, not members, but you know, what do you call them, fellow travelers. That means I know people like Pete Seeger, who I do know and etc., etc. I grew up that way, and I’m an anarchist. 

He was also an anarchist who knew how to dress for successful protest. “I don’t remember much about the early planning,” emailed Gene Uphoff, another member of the Minneapolis group, when I asked him recently for any memories of Morton. “But we all felt it was important to present ourselves as ‘clean-cut all-American students’ so as to blunt public criticism of our motives. Consequently we were all clean-shaven. Dave left his beatnick/hippie identity in Minneapolis. He took seriously the importance of what we all hoped we might accomplish. I think his willingness to engage so conscientiously in the movement was testimony to the depth of his convictions.”

When I asked Morton what he remembered about the trip, he talked about their stop in Nashville, where they stayed for a few days before going into Jackson. 

We came to Nashville, and we got put up in a house. A black woman owned the house, and there was no guy around. We took her out to lectures. That would be my favorite thing. I mean, this old lady – I can’t remember her name – she took us in, and she had the little rag rugs, like the Finlanders make up here [northern Minnesota], and she fed us. She said we were heroes. 

I didn’t feel like a hero. She would be the hero.

When the six Minneapolis Riders flew home after their time in Parchman, they were met at the airport by then-mayor Arthur Naftalin and a boisterous crowd of several hundred, all there to celebrate. The Riders responded by breaking into song, leading an impromptu hootenanny of freedom songs on the tarmac. Mayor Naftalin then whisked the six off to city hall for a more formal official welcoming and press conference.  

When we got out of jail, after putting our month and a half in, we flew into Minneapolis, and we were met at the airport with hundreds of people. We had a parade from the airport to the courthouse. There were cars after cars. The mayor was [Arthur] Naftalin, who was a pretty radical politician, and welcomed us as heroes.

Didn’t particularly feel like a hero, but I knew the guys from Michigan and California I was in jail with, I knew they didn’t get a reception like that. It was on the news. It was on the front page of The Star. The best thing, I went to Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown. He wouldn’t take a penny from me. “You’re money is no good here.” He was just a straight working guy, but he had all these college students and graduate students, so he got radicalized. 

Freedom Riders singing at the airport after their return to Minneapolis.

Airport hootenanny, summer of ’61. The Minneapolis Freedom Riders, from left: Marv Davidov, Zev Aelony, Dave Morton, Gene Uphoff (kneeling, on guitar), Claire O’Connor, and Bob Baum. Photograph by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

After the Rides, Morton was on the move for rest of the ’60s. He traveled back and forth to both coasts, spending time in New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, New Mexico, and Minneapolis, among other places. “I wandered around,” he told me.

In 1964 he was living in Los Angeles, and with friends started the New Improved Jook Savages, a rock-n-roll jug band. Richard Moon, one of the original members, described the Savages as “an extremely loose congregation of poets/film-makers/poster artists/musicians/hipsters/and general all-round weirdness.” All were welcome, and there were sometimes 20 or more people on stage during a performance, playing a variety of instruments that included jugs, washboards, washtub bases, and kazoos. One of their most popular songs was “Smokin’ My Dope,” a Morton composition.      

As in Dinkytown, Morton was once again at the heart of the scene. “We moved into the house on Miramar Street with a bunch of crazy artists from Chouinaurd Art Institute,” said Moon. “Alan Ginsberg was around, came to our rehearsal and taught us to chant and meditate.” 

In early 1966, the Savages played Ken Kesey’s Watts Acid Test (which apparently was actually held in Compton) along with the Grateful Dead. They played a few more acid tests in Los Angeles, then headed north. Moon’s account:   

We moved up to San Francisco, where we landed in the middle of the ’60s as part of the explosion of the Haight-Ashbury scene. We played at the psychedelic shop where Rick Griffin made our poster and overnight became one of the icons of the SF poster scene.

We played the Fillmore and many of the trips festivals, and we played all the acid tests, including the big one at Muir beach, with all the bands and Richard Albert, not yet Baba Ram Dass.

SF was the most exotic event in the world then. The Dead, the Airplane, the Charlatans, Quicksilver, Big Brother, Country Joe, Blue Cheer were all on the scene and we played with all of them. We were part of the Committee Theater. We lived up on the hill in Larkspur Canyon, and tortured the entire area with our music.

We were unquestionably the weirdest thing out there. The Mothers of Invention used to invite us out to their gigs to “freak people out.” Elliot, their guitar player, said, “You guys make us look like the Beach Boys!”


The Jook Savages and friends on the steps of the Grateful Dead house in San Francisco, on the day of the Peace March on April 3, 1967. Dave Morton sits in the middle right, wearing a red suit and looking at the camera. That night the Savages played a houseboat party that was a celebration of the wedding of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.


Dave Morton and his wife, Shirley Morton, in 1966


Rick Griffin was an art student in Los Angeles and an original member of the Savages. He soon became one of the most celebrated poster artists of the San Francisco scene. Above and below are two posters he created for the Savages.

In the early ’70s, Morton left the road and returned to Minnesota. He lived outside Angora, in the northern part of the state, and worked as a cement finisher on industrial construction projects until he retired in 2001. All the while he continued to make jewelry, make art, and play music with friends,  occasionally with members of the Savages as they passed through. 

“Music was Morton’s lifeblood; life was a party,” wrote his daughter Maija Jensen in an obituary for her father. “He sang until the day he died.”

Dave Morton at his home outside Angora, MN. 2006.