"Folk songs are evasive - the truth about life, and life is more less a lie, but then again that's exactly the way we want it to be." - Bob DylanAt this point it's almost impossible to know who or what Bob Dylan is or ever was. Mystic, poet, singer, sage, revolutionary, reactionary, wise man, fool, bomb-thrower, bible-thumper, washout and phoenix - all of these are hats that he's worn at one time or another. Often at the same time. Even the ones that contradict the other ones. As a public figure he's forever eluding your grasp, leaving behind brilliant music but no stable essence of who he is.
Standing here, on the far side of Dylan's massive career, knowing the seismic impact he would have on both popular music and American culture as a whole, it's almost impossible to put oneself into the mind of a listener first hearing his debut album in 1962 (not that there were many of them). Before he sang for Martin Luther King and dated Joan Baez, before he wrote anthems that defined a decade, before the drugs and the Beatles and the Pennebaker film, Bob Dylan, nee Robert Zimmerman was just a folk singer, a Minnesota boy with big ideas who played the New York clubs and managed to catch a break. He was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond who saw his talent and told him "We're gonna bring you in and record you, we'll see what happens."
The result was Dylan's self-titled debut album. On that acetate was captured a talented young man on the cusp of a run of absolute musical genius. He was poised between two worlds - one the closeted folk and blues scene that he'd inhabited ever since he'd started strumming in Minnesota, built on tradition and the other the new folk music explosion that would was about to grip the country and expand the genre wildly. Although it's a record in the old folk tradition, filled mostly with his interpretations of other people's songs, it's imbued with just the faintest spark of greatness. It's the music equivalent of the cup of water in Jurassic Park - a small but unmistakable sign of big things to come.
|New York in 1962|
What really set me apart in these days was my repertoire. It was more formidable than the rest of the coffee-house players, my template being hard-core folk songs backed by incessantly loud strumming. I'd either drive people away or they'd come in closer to see what it was all about. There was no in-between."Hard-core folk songs backed by incessantly loud strumming" would serve well as a one-sentence Robert Christgau review for the Bob Dylan. The album is eleven old folk songs and two originals, most of which the singer doesn't so much perform as attack. The immediate quality of the production lends a dry clicking sound to Dylan's strumming and lets you practically feel the strings slapping the fretboard on the hard-picked numbers. All of this is interspersed with what would become his trademark wheezing harmonica fits. The listening experience is worlds away from other folk records, be it the hazy, far off quality of Lomax folk songs, Guthrie's warbly recordings or the pretty, soft sounds of other members of the folk explosion such as Peter, Paul & Mary or the then-standard bearers the Kingston Trio. No, Dylan's approach to folk sounds almost proto-punk, bashing out chords and throwing himself into songs so wholeheartedly as to bowl you over and sweep you along with just his voice, guitar and a harmonica.
The album starts off with a small sop to commercial appeal via the catchy "You're No Good". Its story about loving a woman who does you wrong is familiar across the folk/blues/pop spectrum and Dylan starts off slowly, trying to sell it as an accessible entry point to his music. As the song progresses though, his vocal inflections become more pronounced and the strumming picks up speed until he flies into the harmonica break in the middle eight. Once he hits the harp part the song sails away with a choppy but masterful interlude where guitar and harmonica race to keep pace with one another. The last verse flies by with impressive vocal flourishes on the phrases like "you're the kind of woman I just don't understand" that show both improvisational genius and vocal talent that belie his reputation. After 1:40 the song has exhausted itself, a simple love song that's burned all it's fuel and it's clear that this Dylan character is something different.
Other early standouts include "In My Time Of Dyin'", where young Zimmerman shows off impressive slide guitar technique to lend menace to a desperate man circling the reality of his own death like a menacing buzzard. In the similarly dark "Fixin' To Die", he expands his vocal range even further going from the nasally whine of "You're No Good" to a ragged throaty snarl. In the song he plays a man half begging, half threatening God not to take him too early, lest his children suffer. Spirited versions of "Highway 51 Blues" and legendary folk song "Pretty Peggy-O" round out the first side and prove that he can take music from disparate genres and easily bend them into his own musical world.
What's impressive about Dylan's takes on these songs, however wasn't just that he could made them all his own, but that he simultaneously allowed himself to become theirs. In Chronicles, Dylan writes about hanging in the New York folk scene, singing old songs and through them, living the past just as vividly as he did the present.
Folk songs were the way I explored the universe... I knew the inner substance of the thing... Most of the other performers tried to put themselves across, rather than the song, but I didn't care about that. With me, it was about putting the song across.This ability to use songs as windows into other times and places and lives enabled Dylan to not just replicate songs but to inhabit them in a way that few could. This ability to live as another through song would later be useful in crafting songs such as "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carrol", "Hurricane" and "Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" with touching empathy and searing honesty.
The second side of the album begins with "Gospel Plow", burst out of the station like a runaway freight train with a seemingly steam-powered harmonica followed by equally an frenetic guitar. By the time he starts spitting out biblical lyrics and yelling to "keep your hand on that plow, hold on!" the mind's eye can't help but imagine that you're holding on for dear life. Meanwhile, speaking of trains, Dylan's version "Freight Train Blues" takes a skiffle track and stretches it to the breaking point. Beyond his usual injection of fire into the song, Bob decides to have some fun on this song by stretching out the world "blues" in the chorus each time it's sung. On the second verse this elongation goes from long, to silly, to straining credulity as he holds the syllable for a full :15 until his voice nearly morphs into the sound of tea kettle left on the stove. It's an impressive display on a song that's otherwise already brimming with life.
"Freight Train Blues" highlights another remarkable thing about this album. For a guy coming from a folk scene often viewed as full of self-serious sweater wearing intellectuals, Bob Dylan is remarkably funny on this first album. He imbues it with the feel of a live set, adding spoken word introductions to several songs that are genuinely funny, even on repeated listens. In his intro to "Pretty Peggy-O" he pokes knowing fun at the song's long history in folk circles, saying "I've been all around this country but I've never yet found my Fennario". He also lovingly sends up the idyllic imagery of the album's sweetest song, by telling the crowd he learned it from "Rick" (not Erick) von Schmidt, after meeting him "one day in Cambridge, in the green pastures of Harvard University". Elsewhere he'll add sudden vocal hiccups or little "woo-hoo!" asides that add loose and unabashed levity not seen again from Dylan, even in his later, folk-hipster goof-off songs. There's a silly, grinning midwestern eagerness to these songs that he would never quite capture again on tape.
Perhaps the song most well known to modern listeners is "House Of The Rising Sun", another traditional ballad that Dylan tears into. His cover would go on to inspire the Animals, who electrify it and push the tempo, to great commercial success. Dylan, however uses just his guitar and voice as dual instruments to wrench every last mote of pain out of the depressing lyrics. Here he maintains a steady for most of the song, his fingers clicking over the strings as he moans the tale of gambling and despair, which creates tense, creepy build before hitting a release more depressing than cathartic. The ability to build tension and carry an epic narrative without accompaniement would eventually flower on songs like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)".
Of course, the real knockout punch of this album were the two near-bookend songs, the Dylan originals. These are both mere glimpses of the giant talent yet to be unleashed but each one shines impressively in its own right and it's no surprise that Dylan's greatest folk hero Woody Guthrie hangs heavily each work.
There's perhaps not a funnier song on the album than his autobiographical sketch, "Talkin' New York". It's the first example of a vocal melody/harmonica pattern that Dylan would reuse throughout his folk period, mostly in similarly jokey story-songs ("Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues", "I Shall Be Free, No. 10" and "Talking World War III Blues"). It's a recounting of that first bitterly cold winter in New York, written in a Guthrie-esque same homespun, earnest voice. He pulls out all his considerable storytelling tricks that he can fit into three-and-a-half minutes. Whether it's the sardonic way he ends his complaints about weather by noting "the New York Times said that it was the coldest winter in seventeen years... I didn't feel so bad then" or recounting how he was thrown out of a folk club because he "sound[ed] like a hillbilly", both the tone and timing are suberb. The melody and harmonica pattern are also immediately memorable and by the time he ends his tale by leaving the city to head west by saying "so long New York / howdy... East Orange", John Hammond's judgement has been more than vindicated.
But Dylan's unmistakable high point on the album is his tribute, "Song To Woody". Dylan had first come to New York to meet his idol and had met with him a few times as he lay dying in a hospital. Dylan's idolization of Guthrie had lead to him to ditch his rock band for folk music back in Minnesota, inspired him to travel the country and ride the rails, brought him to the city where he'd meet his destiny and would later send him to protest and union rallies across the country. The Guthrie legend was so integral a part of Dylan-as-folksinger that it had to be acknowledged. The song itself is built around a simply picked guitar pattern that already sounds dusty and worn before the first verse is over. Dylan pours his heart out to his idol in a laconic, world weary voice. The song is about the espirit that infused Dylan at this time and about everything he loves, travel, struggle, human experience, music and above all, the attempt to live life and leave something behind.
As we all know, Dylan went on to become a larger-than-life figure starting right after this release with his masterful follow-up, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. For his 70th birthday he's been fêted with magazine issues and multi-part radio retrospectives, all deserved. But this deification doesn't threaten to obscure a lot of the rough edges, silliness and raw emotion that made Dylan so effective in the first place. Part of what makes listening to Bob Dylan so invigorating is that you can hear all of that without the hoopla and hype. This is Dylan playing and writing with love and abandon, discovering who he's about to become by working through the music that shaped him. It's an exhilarating experience.
Talkin' New York - Bob Dylan
Gospel Plow - Bob Dylan
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down - Bob Dylan
Song To Woody - Bob Dylan
Buy the album.