Release Date: March 19th, 1962
Words by: Roland Ellis
March 20th, 2017
Dylan's first album is often regarded as somewhat of a stepping stone before 'The Freewheelin'. A learning curve fraught with growing pains. A time before the "Voice of a generation" etc etc. Dylan himself has contributed to the critical flatness surrounding his first release by inferring that he went home after the recording sessions, put the freshly pressed LP on his turntable, listened through once and decided he wasn't happy with it and that he straight away felt the need to go and record another album.
11 covers and 2 originals that owe a whole bunch to traditional folk patterns, a voice that was definitely still looking for itself, and an all round uncertainty to the sound. Dylan lacks the confidence that he would ooze on later records here, he seems to hold back from his trademark howl into the microphone and even his harp playing shies away from that loose and visceral quality it would later become known for. And yet there's still something undeniably special ringing out on this album that was obviously noted by John Hammond who thankfully kept Bobby on the Columbia roster after completely underwhelming sales figures. However, it's quite difficult to put your finger on what exactly that 'something' is, except to say that it was a sound that had never been heard before in folk music.
At this time the world had Pete Seeger to gauge the spirit of folk. The family loving, working class, song of the people, serious folk man. Dylan was a new breed – he took what he needed from the traditionals and left their slowly cooked polish at the door, he didn't take Seeger and co's folk ideals seriously, and most importantly he possessed a cheek, a personality, and a spark that hadn't been present on the politically/culturally driven folk records of the past. Folk was serious and selfless music and from the beginning Dylan was something more. He wasn't interested in passing on old wisdom from generation to generation, he was instead concerned with using this genre and the stories of America in order to deliver something far more introspective and entirely of his own.
Sure it's not his greatest record, but what this album achieves is to mark the arrival of an otherworldly artist whom always existed beyond the establishment that loved to take credit for him, and it's tracks like 'Baby Let Me Follow You Down' that affirm this. There's something very personal about Dylan's delivery, and although this tune had been covered many times before his version, Bob approaches it with a unique take that manages to present a playful character who has the power to cut to the core of the lyric and make the melody his own.
The same could be said for Dylan's version of 'House Of The Rising Sun', although Dave Van Ronk might have something to say about that. But Van Ronk aside, 'Rising Sun' and 'Follow You Down' display the foundation of something that's central to the genius of Bob Dylan: his ability to be a vessel for the characters and lives going on around him. In the same way that Peter Sellers could inhabit a character to the point where his own personality was no longer discernible, Dylan possesses this ability as reflected in his music. The folk singer, the rebellious protest singer, the rock star, the wild surrealist, the funny kid – nothing has proven beyond his ability and this record represents the starting point from which the flood gates would open.
His debut also marks a transition from simply inhabiting the songs and characters of others, over to writing his own tunes and forming his own stories. It's very interesting to see how obviously important Woody Guthrie was for Dylan in pushing him into songwriting. The first of two originals on this album, 'Talkin' New York', is so heavily weighted with a Guthrieesque drawl that one could easily be forgiven for thinking that it was 'Pretty Boy Floyd' blasting from their stereo. However, it demonstrates Dylan's natural topical songwriting ability, and his unique way of resolving a verse.
It's 'Song To Woody' though that really signifies the arrival of Bob Dylan the songwriter, and really lives on as the lasting landmark from his debut record. Lyrically insightful and adoring of his hero, 'Song To Woody' seems to lament the diminished state that Guthrie was in at the time, while at the same time reassuring him that it's okay, someone has arrived to carry the dustbowl into a new world. That new world was indeed stumbling into existence in early 1962, and along with it was a man that would come to embody everything that the children of the revolution wanted from the 1960′s. Cometh the hour and cometh the boy from Minnesota on a freight train constructed in his own mind.