Dylan – In The Beginning….
In the beginning was a nervous young Jewish boy, way up in a mining town Hibbing; in North Minnesotta. But they had the radio, and he heard that early rock’n’roll in the fifties and knew he had to be a part of it. He left for New York some time in 1961 and headed for the emerging ‘folk’ movement in Greenwich Village. But this folk was a million miles form the ‘hey-nonny-no’ folk of England. This was basically the blues of the old black bluesmen of the deep south, transfigured by white singers with guitar and harmonica in New York. And Bob joined and caught and changed the wave, copying more established singers like Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin Jack Elliot. He got a few gigs in the coffee houses and eventually to the Gaslight and Gerdes and then miraculously he was spotted by a CBS scout and allowed to make an album. Bob Dylan – the debut album was not a very auspicious beginning however and the record sold only a few copies in New York. I worked my way back to this record and I too disliked much of it – too many songs about dying, too many other people’s songs; the only really stand out tracks were ‘Talkin’ New York’ and ‘Song To Woody’. But it was a beginning. There were already the tell-tale signs, the wheezy harmonica, the voice – of course, that high nasal whine but he was still a long way from the finished article. Amazingly in the space of a single year he was there, almost completely formed. His next album The Freewheelin was the real deal. With its brilliant cover of Bob and Suze Rotolo walking in a snowy New York street, it set the scene for the Revolution which Bob would soon become. Sometimes form the vantage point of almost 2020 I can see that really it was only ever The Beatles and Dylan who created that 60’s revolution which swept all before it. He had already written and published his earliest classic ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ which everyone was playing and raving about. The album opens with this and is followed by one of his most beautiful love songs ; ‘Girl From the North Country’. The anti-war song ‘Masters Of War’ is next, followed by a real humdinger or two ‘Down the Road’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s Blues’. Now Dylan was already being accused as a too-serious protest singer – but he had such a lot of fun and humour in his songs, especially recorded ‘almost live’ with just his voice and guitar that (as always) people misunderstood him. Almost his greatest song ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’ follows – which is actually far more in the old English folk tradition – with its brilliant poetic lyrics which students are still arguing about. Just when you think he cannot come up with anything else amazing he produces ‘Don’t Think twice, It’s Alright’. Other notable tracks are the traditional ‘Corrina Corrina’ a beautiful ballad, ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’ a thoughtful song, ‘Oxford Town’ maybe his first song about racial injustice – and ‘Talkin’ World War 3 Blues’ which is actually quite funny. An incredible record – and yet, this wasn’t how the record was initially planned. Or so rumour has it, and that even a few hundred were pressed with different tracks. Who know – and who cares. But I did buy The Freewheelin Out-takes to see what else had been recorded in these sessions. It is okay, but many of the tracks seem quick takes and then abandoned, or were later polished up and appeared in later albums – so this record is not his best – and was never intended for release…
The following year 1964, and Bob was into full protest song mode, or maybe he was just pushed in that direction. The Times They are a Changin was the album, and the stark black and white photo of him was matched by a similar album by Joan Baez, who he was then dating. There were ‘Protest Songs’ – the title track of course, which became an anthem for youth; ‘With God On Our Side’ the most ironic of songs; ‘Only a pawn in Their Game’ about the lies of politicians (almost as true today). But there were also love songs ‘One Too Many mornings’ – one of my favourites and ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’. And a couple of songs about the killing of blacks, as Bob was involved in the Civil Rights Movement; ‘Hollis Brown’ and ‘Hattie Carroll’. All splendid songs – but he saved the best to last ‘Restless Farewell’ which may have actually been the most autobiographic song he wrote at this time. This was really the record which broke Dylan, he was suddenly famous, the word on everyone’s lips. In fact he became (reluctantly we now know) the Voice of the Young. Sometimes re-listening to these early albums you can barely believe how good they were. Just like the Beatles in England, though on a completely different trajectory, each album was a giant leap forward.
A year later (65) and he released Another Side of Bob Dylan. Whether the title was really supposed to distance him from the ‘Protest Singer’ label or not – it barely worked, as he was still pushed and pulled and his words were now being pored over for clues; he was becoming the Messiah. The album contained barely a ‘protest song’, only ‘Chimes of Freedom’ really. And the songs were becoming longer 7 and 8 minutes even. There were a couple of comedy songs and a whole batch of slower numbers – the lovely ‘All I Really Want To Do’ and ‘To Ramona’, the mystical ‘My Back Pages’; ‘I don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)’ ‘The hauntingly beautiful ‘Ballad In Plain D’; and maybe the first of his great kiss-off songs to former partners ‘It Aint me Babe’. The whole album is quite a rollicking fun event, Bob even laughing mid song occasionally. He was definitely moving, into what we weren’t quite sure. I think he was trying to lose the mantle of a Political voice and moving into a more poetic phase, his lyrics more rounded and yet less obvious too. It mattered not, his audience was growing; it used to be the folkies, the civil-rights crowd and then gradually more and more ordinary Americans discovered Dylan. He was barely known in Europe but did appear in London and Paris, but he was still mostly a secret – we were all still obsessed with Beatles and Stones. But Worldwide fame was just around the corner….as was electricity.