Huge thanks to Danica for the inspiration and for coordinating this project, and to Bruce for the art work. I’m super-excited to participate in this one day blogosphere Bob Dylan extravaganza, wonderfully-titled BLOG DYLAN.
THIS LINK is both the introductory post to the collaborative effort, and the place you can find links for everyone’s Blog Dylan posts!
For my entry, I was tempted to write about many points of interest along the way in this man’s incredible (storied) career. But ultimately, I chose to go back to the very beginning. 1962. The debut album, simply titled Bob Dylan.
Recording 17 tracks in three short afternoon sessions in November of 1961, the final result of the first-ever Dylan album gives us 11 folk standards and traditionals, as well as 2 originals. 13 tracks in an economical 36:54.
Now, you can read all about it right here. I recommend that you do. That link has all the info on the whole history of this record, and on the four tracks that didn’t make the record, and how things were done, etc etc.
Instead of re-typing all of that and making it sound like I know more than I do, I am (instead) going to tell you about what I hear in the songs…
The first notes of recorded Bob Dylan are on Jesse Fuller’s You’re No Good, a quick-strum shouter that can’t help but make you smile. Dylan’s rapid-fire harmonica work is also damn sweet on this one. Next up is one of the two Dylan originals, Talkin’ New York. This ode to the city that never sleeps keeps the tempo up, but it’s pure Dylan as we know him now. Funny how we take so much of him for granted now, but back in ’62 this must’ve hit like a truck. “People going down to the ground, buildings going up to the sky.” Hell yes.
The next two are traditionals arranged by Dylan. In My Time Of Dyin drips blues, oh I loved it. I think he really nailed the howl in the vocals too. Definitely a highlight track, only three songs in! And Man Of Constant Sorrow somehow comes out sounding like it’s a Dylan original. Amazing how he does that…
Then it’s Bukka White’s Fixin’ To Die, which Dylan seems to turn into a race. Man, he’s really pounding this one out, like he’s barrelling head-long into death instead of trying to slow it up. Wow. I checked out the White original, and it’s got a good pace to it, but not this fast. Another traditional (arranged by Dylan) is Pretty Peggy-O, another Dylan sing/talker with that quick strum and harmonica work. And rounding off side A of the LP is Curtis Jones’ Highway 51, a raunchy fast blues with that great soulful shout again. He really goes for broke on the vocals, here.
Flipping over to side B, we get three more traditional tunes. Gospel Plow (arranged by Dylan) lets us know we’re in for another round of rapid-fire strumming and harmonica work. Love the growl in the vocals, even with his young voice when he goes from the shout to the growl it’s very powerful. Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (arranged by Eric von Schmidt) is a sweetly picked blues that we all know well. What a tune, and this version is a killer. House Of The Rising Sun (aaranged by Dave van Ronk), the tune we all learn to play early on in our guitar learning, is turned into mournful blues as (I think) it should be. This could be a definitive version for me. Gorgeous.
John Laird’s Freight Train Blues (arranged by Dylan) is aptly-titled, as once again we’re off down the tracks, chugging with speed while Dylan emulates a train whistle with his voice (and what a held note, there on the second round, ye gods!), and the harmonica glues the verses together and the whole thing crashes to a close and it takes a moment for you to decelerate from the momentum. The penultimate track is the second Dylan original, Song To Woody, a picked blues masterpiece. Since Dylan had Guthrie in his blood from the get-go, this track is pretty bold for him, too, placing his idols and influences right in front of him as if to say ‘here they are, now let’s go.’ It’s a nod to those influences, and a signal of what’s to come. Glory. And the album draws to a close with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. Holy hell, what a track. It’s like a punch to the gut, buried down here at the bottom of the album. Just… wow.
This album is incredible, honestly. It makes you sit up and listen. This is not a passive experience – you’re drawn in and made part of the immersive, engaging proceedings. It’s a fun exercise to try to wrap your head around how this release started off a lifetime (and varied) career of one of the most iconic singer/songwriters ever. As for the tracks, I loved the freight-train breakneck folk and traditional stuff, but for me the real hits here are the bluesier numbers. This is protest Dylan, this is country Dylan, and it’s blues Dylan. And it’s one helluva record.
I mentioned (ages ago) this when I bought it, but my copy has this different cover. It’s probably a remaster of a re-release of a re-release of a re-release, but I don’t care. It sounds good to me!