60 Years of Bob Dylan

The title of this post refers less to our six fortunate decades in the presence of one of history’s greatest recording artists than to the man’s eponymous debut album, released this day in 1962. And this is because most mainstream record-buyers didn’t discover Dylan until they heard one or the other of his two subsequent albums, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964). And this is due to the fact Bob Dylan didn’t chart upon its release, although later, after Dylan made a big splash, lots of folks went back and discovered it.

Bob Dylan is a record for die-hard folk lovers. It’s probably not for everybody, although it’s definitely for ME and I’ve probably listened to it a hundred times. And those who don’t know it are heartily encouraged to check it out, for it contains much of the rest of Dylan’s subsequent career in embryo. The English were particular fans of this LP, and it is by way of the Brits that the world knows its most famous song. “House of the Rising Sun” was an old traditional folk standard, performed by many artists by the mid 20th century. Dylan performed Dave Von Ronk’s arrangement on this record, and since this version sold more copies than any previous one, it is this arrangement, and these lyrics, that became the basis of The Animals #1 hit single in 1964. Less well known is that The Animals’ PREVIOUS single was also lifted from this album. It’s another old standard called “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”, arranged by Eric Von Schmidt, whom Dylan credits in his patter on the record. The Animals recorded their own version as their first single “Baby Let Me Take You Home” a few months before “House of the Rising Sun”, although it obviously didn’t do as well.

This being early days, there are only two of Dylan’s own compositions on the album, and naturally they are the next best known songs from the record. “Talkin’ New York” was the first of Dylan’s countless talking blues tunes, which paints a vivid picture of NYC at the time, drawing humor from the culture clash between his country rube stage character and the fast-paced, chaotic 20th century metropolis he found himself in. Honestly, it’s a number he could have played on Hee Haw with great success. Also from this record is the moving “Song to Woody”, a tribute to Woody Guthrie, his principal hero at the time. According to the lore, he once sang the song to Guthrie in his hospital bed in New Jersey towards the end of his life.

This is the kind of statement people get in fistfights over but is nonetheless defensible (even if I’m not): Bob Dylan’s debut album is also the blackest of his records. While at the time and ever after his repertoire certainly contained plenty of cowboy songs and ballads from Appalachia and the British Isles, the majority of material on Bob Dylan tends to be folk blues, or country blues stuff, including Bukka White’s “Fixin to Die”, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”, Mississippi Fred McDowell’s version of “Freight Train Blues”, Jesse Fuller’s “You’re No Good”, and Curtis Jones’ “Highway 51”, which Dylan later referred to obviously in “Highway 61 Revisited”, perversely renumbering the highway just slightly enough to be vexing in just the way Dylan likes to vex. Those who know their American popular music history won’t balk at calling this material “black”, since it was generated by black artists and Dylan emulates their style. Arguments (and I’ve been in some with people over this issue) stem from the fact that mainstream listeners, both black and white, don’t read this kind of stuff according to their own preconceptions of what is “characteristically” black. The source material predates the amplified, electrified urban city blues that came out of Chicago in the ’40s and ’50s and led to rock ‘n’ roll; and it is also unlike the rhythmic, upbeat, peppy, danceable sounds of the many types of popular jazz. In fact it is manifestly DOWNbeat. The songs are about death and loss and sadness and violence and hard work. If your knee-jerk response to what the black cultural experience is happens to be limited to funk and soul and rap and hip hop, and you think that only those forms are authentic or legitimate or whatever, you’re going to come into conflict with someone familiar with all the countless other modes of black expression over the centuries.

Anyway, elephant in the room, Dylan is white anyway, but he’s performing mostly black compositions here, incorporating their intricate, ragtime influenced mode of fingerpicking, and the gravelly growling vocal style of Delta blues singers, both largely through the influence of Van Ronk. To my mind, Dylan’s technical musicianship on this record is the most impressive-sounding of his entire career. I’m guessing it had to be, given the heavy competition in Greenwich Village’s folk scene at the time. Those familiar with Dylan’s later return to folk standards 30 years after this album on Good As I Been to You (1992), and World Gone Wrong (1993) will surely register that his playing is much simpler and more elemental on those records, and not in a way that sounds like an artistic choice, but more like he didn’t have the flashy chops any more. Experts may quibble, but relatively speaking, he once had flashy chops, or flashier ones, at any rate.

Another major takeaway from this record is that this Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota sure sings a lot about Jesus! This is among the reasons that Dylan’s more devoted fans weren’t flabbergasted (as much of the public had been) when Dylan went “Christian” for a while in the late ’70s and early ’80s. That Biblical imagery had been in his material right along, it’s in the lyrics to so many of these old songs, and he spent so much time exploring this material. It seems inevitable in a way that this particular performer would spend at least SOME time diving deeper into the messages of this content. It turned a lot of people off when he went there, but it was hardly NEW.

From where we sit now, we have an advantage that the buyers of this record did not in 1962, and that is that there exists tons of other material recorded by Dylan around this time (I mean, prior to his next official LP in 1963), and it has largely been released on The Bootleg Series and elsewhere, and though I haven’t done a tally, I’m certain the volume of that stuff equals the number of songs on Bob Dylan many times over.

In recent decades, Dylan has enhanced his role as a kind of ambassador of folk, a curator and educator of the music he loves, on his own radio show, in his writings, and on record. But honestly he had always been that. Bob Dylan is like a gateway drug into the whole huge universe of music that inspired it, and for that reason, though it may not be one of Dylan’s best-known and loved albums, it is among his most important.

This post goes out to my high school buddy Matt Mania and his dad Paul, who were instrumental in introducing me to this music when I was a teenager. Listen to them (and other rotating hosts) on their WRIU radio show Shades of Blue, here.

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