Album Review

Bob Dylan changes speed and consequently changes the game

Bob Dylan

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan


Release Date: May 26th, 1963

Words by: Roland Ellis
May 27th, 1963


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As the story goes, Dylan was extremely unhappy with his first album. Almost immediately after dropping the needle for the initial playback, he decided that he needed to return to the studio to work on new material. He could do better, so he thought.

Iconic A&R man John Hammond agreed that it was worth putting the young singer/songwriter up for another go-round. In fact, Hammond believed in Dylan's talent so much that he put his reputation on the line in order to keep Dylan from being dropped by Columbia altogether following the commercial failure of his debut album.

"Hammond's folly", as Dylan had become known to other staffers at Columbia, was only allowed to continue because of Hammond's track record as a talent scout. He had, before Dylan, been instrumental in sparking and/or furthering the careers of Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Pete Seeger and Count Basie; and later he would go on to discover Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen. But even though he possessed what was arguably the best radar in the business, it's hard to imagine that he could have predicted The Freewheelin' was to follow Dylan's debut.

Bob Dylan changes speed and consequently changes the game Bob Dylan & Suze Rotolo Dylan is a genius, a singing conscience and moral referee, as well as a preacher

Tracks like "Song to Woody" (from Dylan's debut album) demonstrated that Dylan had real songwriting ability. But to expect that ability to mature into "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" in the space of less than a year would have been outlandish, even for a guy like John Hammond. Such a development makes descriptions like 'exponential growth' into the world's biggest understatements. To be sure, Hammond deserves all of the credit for championing the record's production and release through Columbia, and for mentoring Dylan through the uncertainty that must have followed the soft response to his first album. But he can't have believed that Dylan—still just 22 years old—would, figuratively speaking, go from building a modest home to constructing something akin to the Giza Pyramids in a matter of months; from "folly" to "the voice of a generation"; from gifted yet unremarkable folk singer to a visionary whose prophetic poetry and overall sense of the times stood all but unrivaled.

Perhaps talk show host Steve Allen put it best when, after the release of The Freewheelin', he said "[Dylan is] a genius, a singing conscience and moral referee, as well as a preacher".

Such was the rhetoric that surrounded Dylan after The Freewheelin'. It was, without question, the record that his whole steez was built on: that of a cameleonic character with an uncanny ability for cutting to the core of just about anything—love, politics, the mentality of the beat generation, blue collar culture, the spirit of the oppressed and marginalized; and moreover, for doing it in a way that is subtle and sophisticated to the point where you have guys like Allen Ginsberg in tears over the over profundity of the lyrics (see Scorsese's No Direction Home for full details).

The Freewheelin' was rightly the catalyst of such regard for Bob Dylan. All but "Masters Of War"—a track that feels locked to its context and made somewhat blunt-edged by the intervening years—have stood the test of time. More than that, "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" seems a timeless summation of heartbreak; and "Bob Dylan's Dream" reminds us that he was equal to just about anyone in terms of sharp political satire. But it's "Hard Rain" that leaps out above the pack: still baring a phosphorescence and raw-power that situates Dylan amongst the very rarest of artists.

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