Recorded: April 1962-April 1963
Released: May 27, 1963
Like I said, I can’t recreate what it was like to listen to Dylan’s progression in real time, but honestly, this is shocking. People talk endlessly about all his radical transformations — going electric! being born again! — but I think the artistic progression he made from his debut to this album may be his greatest transformation. His first album, honestly, was pretty forgettable. But “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” — written and recorded before he was 22 years old — is where he became BOB DYLAN.
The album contains at least five absolute classics: “Blowin’ In The Wind”, “Girl From The North Country”, “Masters of War”, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”. This right here is a career! How many artists have written five songs like this??? How many cover versions of these songs have there been? Certainly thousands… I really don’t think I have to say anything about these songs that hasn’t already been said.
And many of the lesser songs are pretty great, too. “Oxford Town” is, I think, Dylan’s first topical song. It’s short, to the point, and — for such a dark subject — a warm, appealing listen. “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is darkly funny, and I love his delivery on so many lines: “Good car to drive, after a war”. “I’ll let you be in my dreams, if I can be in yours. I said that”. And I’ve always had a soft spot for “I Shall Be Free” – pretty much pure silliness, despite references to “sitting in the back of the tub” and Martin Luther King.
A word about “topical” — I don’t consider “Blown’ in the Wind”, “Masters of War”, or “A Hard Rain” to be topical songs. Maybe they’re “protest” songs, but I think the better framing is to call them visionary or prophetic. The topical songs come in full force next album.
Recorded: November 1961
Released: March 19, 1962
As I understand it, this was what early 1960s Greenwich Village folkies were up to. They recorded “traditional” “folk” songs, more specifically gospel, blues, Appalachian/English/Scottish/Irish, maybe country. This album draws on pretty much all of these.
I find the non-originals on here enjoyable. Dylan really wails on ‘em. Totally non-original observations: he’s trying to take on the persona of someone who’s done some “hard travelin’”… but he’s 20 years old! So, as I said, while I enjoy these songs, I think he comes across like trying to fill shoes that are a bit too big for him. My favorite songs are Gospel Plow, See That My Grave is Kept Clean, and Man of Constant Sorrow.
The originals Song To Woody and Talkin’ New York are an almost-teenagers’ sincere tribute to Woody Guthrie and a pretty good talking blues.
In honor of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, I decided to listen to all of his “official” recordings in order. This is a bit trickier than it sounds, because: (a) I want to order them by recording date(s), rather than release date, and (b) I want to include all the Bootleg Series releases. So, for example, I’m treating the Basement Tapes as coming between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding and using the Bootleg Series version. I’m doing the obvious thing with concert recordings (including in the Bootleg Series), slotting them in by the date of performance. The tricky part is compilation albums, like Biograph and The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, which collect recordings from a range of time. My plan is to not commit to any particular strategy for these, but to listen to individual songs in their proper order. For example, I’ll listen to Blind Willie McTell with Infidels, Series of Dreams with Oh Mercy, etc.
There’s obviously no way for me to capture what it was like to listen to these albums as they came out. (By the way, I guess I started listening to Dylan about 1975, and I think the first album I got was Blood On The Tracks… I’m pretty sure I still have that LP. Probably Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan came next, maybe in that order.) But I want to try to simulate this to whatever extent I can.
I don’t know how fast I’ll get through the albums, but let’s get started!