Dylan’s breakthrough album, 'The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,' is released

Dylan’s breakthrough album, 'The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,' is released

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On May 27, 1963, Bob Dylan releases his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which goes on to transform him from a popular local act to a global phenomenon.

“Of all the precipitously emergent singers of folk songs in the continuing renascence of that self-assertive tradition,” wrote journalist and critic Nat Hentoff, “none has equaled Bob Dylan in singularity of impact.” Dylan’s impact on the folk scene stemmed at first from his mastery and idiosyncratic performances of a vast repertoire of traditional folk songs. His devotion to the music of the great Woody Guthrie is what brought Bob Dylan to New York in the first place, and his “Song To Woody” was one of only two original numbers on his widely ignored debut album, Bob Dylan (1962). The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, on the other hand, included only two non-original numbers, and the speed with which Dylan’s own songs from that album were added to the repertoires of other musicians is what really turned him into a household name.

In the summer of 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary turned the opening track of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan into an international pop hit. “Blowin’ In The Wind” gave most future Bob Dylan fans their first exposure to his songwriting talents, and soon his work had found its way into nearly every genre of popular music via cover versions by artists like Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash and the Byrds. But the impact of the best-known songs on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan—”Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”—was not nearly as great as the impact of Dylan’s fundamental approach to music. By writing nearly all of his own material, and writing it from a distinctly personal point of view, Dylan created a template that would alter the course of many careers other than his. As John Lennon once said in discussing The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which reached the Beatles in their Paris hotel fully a year after its release, "I think it was the first time I ever heard Dylan at all ... And for the rest of our three weeks in Paris, we didn’t stop playing it.”

Music 1963 Dylan’s breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, is released

On this day in 1963, Bob Dylan releases his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which goes on to transform him from a popular local act to a global phenomenon.

“Of all the precipitously emergent singers of folk songs in the continuing renascence of that self-assertive tradition,” wrote journalist and critic Nat Hentoff, “none has equaled Bob Dylan in singularity of impact.” Dylan’s impact on the folk scene stemmed at first from his mastery and idiosyncratic performances of a vast repertoire of traditional folk songs. His devotion to the music of the great Woody Guthrie is what brought Bob Dylan to New York in the first place, and his “Song To Woody” was one of only two original numbers on his widely ignored debut album, Bob Dylan (1962). The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, on the other hand, included only two non-original numbers, and the speed with which Dylan’s own songs from that album were added to the repertoires of other musicians is what really turned him into a household name.

In the summer of 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary turned the opening track of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan into an international pop hit. “Blowin’ In The Wind” gave most future Bob Dylan fans their first exposure to his songwriting talents, and soon his work had found its way into nearly every genre of popular music via cover versions by artists like Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash and the Byrds. But the impact of the best-known songs on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan—”Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”—was not nearly as great as the impact of Dylan’s fundamental approach to music. By writing nearly all of his own material, and writing it from a distinctly personal point of view, Dylan created a template that would alter the course of many careers other than his. As John Lennon once said in discussing The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which reached the Beatles in their Paris hotel fully a year after its release,” I think it was the first time I ever heard Dylan at all… And for the rest of our three weeks in Paris, we didn’t stop playing it.”

Why Bob Dylan turned his back on The Ed Sullivan Show

Bob Dylan’s standing in pop culture is now unquestionable. However, in 1963, he was just a young folk singer with a small following— far removed from the mainstream appeal of The Ed Sullivan Show. Yet the singer still decided that, after the show attempted to censor his performance, he would walk off set and refuse to sing, refuse the popularity and refuse any stardom bestowed upon him. It was quite the statement and one that would underpin his entire career.

After his self-titled album arrived in 1962, Bob Dylan suddenly became the name on everybody’s lips in the smokey coffeehouses of New York and his sound began to travel through the land. The natural successor to his idol, Woody Guthrie, Dylan was given a chance to impress one a national if not global scale, when the team at The Ed Sullivan Show spotted the young singer and offered him an audience like no other.

Bob Dylan’s second album, his breakthrough, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, had not yet been released, and his appearance at the March on Washington had given him some national acclaim and local grounding but had certainly not catapulted him into the charts. So, one might have thought the chance to perform for a national audience on one of the biggest shows on TV was too tempting to avoid—but Dylan proved his authenticity when he walked out on the show.

The highest-rated variety show on television provided Dylan ample chance to play some of his folk songs and continue his ascendency, but network executives were keen to change the setlist and keep tight control over the show’s proceedings. While it may seem trivial in a world where minute details are planned to the nth degree, it would seem there was a sincere attempt to censor Bob Dylan.

The offending track was ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’—a satirical spoken-word blues number that aimed at the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. In particular, the track poked fun at the Society’s desperation to find Communist Party members under every rock. It was a sad tale of the decade that almost every new and upcoming, as well as the longstanding, artistic face, was given a check over for Communist affiliations by the government. Dylan saw fit to do his own check.

Much of the lyrics are humorous and inoffensive, but the executives at the network decided that the line: “Now Eisenhower, he’s a Russian spy/ Lincoln, Jefferson, and that Roosevelt guy/ To my knowledge there’s just one man/ That’s really a true American: George Lincoln Rockwell” was too much to handle. In defence of the family show, its reference to the founder of the American Nazi Party only twenty years after the catastrophic war may well have crossed a line for the variety show.

During dress rehearsals, the fear of a defamation lawsuit and a public backlash pushed the executives at CBS to ask Dylan to either scrap the lines or change the song for his performance. In pursuit of his own artistic integrity, Dylan would not comply with the censorship and instead politely walked out of the studio, turned his back on arguably the biggest opportunity of his life so far and refused to return.

“I explained the situation to Bob and asked him if he wanted to do something else,” recalls Ed Sullivan Show producer Bob Precht for, “and Bob, quite appropriately, said ‘No, this is what I want to do. If I can’t play my song, I’d rather not appear on the show.’”

The walkout garnered a lot of attention from the press in the following days leading Ed Sullivan himself to denounce the decision to try and change the song.

Meanwhile, Bob Dylan asserted himself as an authentic artist and only added to his credibility amid the swelling counter-culture movement. It was one of the first steps of a long road for a young Bob Dylan.

‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’: Inside His First Classic

“I wrote a lot of songs in a quick amount of time,” said Bob Dylan of the creative explosion that resulted in his second album, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. “I could do that then, because the process was new to me. I felt like I’d discovered something no one else had ever discovered, and I was in a sort of an arena artistically that no one else had ever been in before ever.”

Dylan’s second LP was not only his first genuine masterpiece, it was also a landmark in the very way that popular music was created. After writing just two songs on his 1962 debut, he wrote 12 of the 13 songs on Freewheelin’ &ndash including such classics as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” &ndash permanently altering the relationship between singer and songwriter. And he did so with a collection of compositions that displayed a dizzying range, from blistering social commentary (tackling such topics as civil rights and nuclear holocaust) to nuanced romance, from comic talking blues to melancholy heartbreak.


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When the Beatles were first given the album by a French DJ, they could listen to little else. “For three weeks in Paris, we didn’t stop playing it,” said John Lennon. “We all went potty about Dylan.”

Unlike his debut LP (and unlike most of his albums to follow), Freewheelin’ was a project that Dylan, just 20 years old when recording began, took his time with. Where Bob Dylan was cut in just two days, this album was crafted over no fewer than eight separate visits to the studio, spanning a full year from April 1962 to April 1963. Over the course of those months, he continued to revise and refine the song selection, trying desperately to keep up with the breathtaking, high-speed evolution of his writing.

Though the world didn’t know it yet, Dylan had been writing songs nonstop since arriving in New York in 1961. “He was writing all the time, at night sitting in the clubs,” says Peter Yarrow. “You’d see him reading a newspaper, and then the next day he wrote a song about what he had read.”

The album was also informed by the constant influx of new experiences and ideas affecting Dylan at the time &ndash a burgeoning political awareness, his first trip overseas, the entrance of Albert Grossman as his manager. Above all, though, Freewheelin’ revealed the impact of his girlfriend Suze Rotolo, depicted huddling with Dylan on a snow-covered Jones Street for the album’s iconic cover. (“The cover’s the most important part of the album,” he would say to his friends.)

Rotolo was studying art in Italy during most of the album’s creation, and Dylan’s longing, even his anger, during her absence impacted many of these songs. Also crucial was the effect of Rotolo’s activist family on Dylan’s worldview both of her parents were members of the American Communist Party. Suze “was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was,” he said.

In April, just a month after the release of his debut, Dylan first entered Columbia’s Studio A in New York to start work on an album then being called Bob Dylan’s Blues. Over the course of two days, he demonstrated his intent to build an album around his own writing, recording eight new original compositions along with several traditional folk songs and numbers by Hank Williams and Robert Johnson.

He returned to the studio July 9th, recording the loose,
 absurd “Bob Dylan’s Blues,” “Down the Highway” (which included the only explicit reference to Rotolo’s travels &ndash “My 
baby took my heart from me/She packed it all up in a suit
case/Lord, she took it away to Italy, Italy”) and “Honey, Just
 Allow Me One More Chance.” Most notably, though, in this
 session he recorded a song that he had debuted at Gerde’s 
Folk City in April, built on the melody of the old spiritual “No More Auction Block” &ndash a song titled “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

The simple majesty of the lyrics, a series of imagistic questions that added up to a forceful plea for common-sense justice and equality, was unprecedented. “The first way to answer these questions in the song is by asking them,” he told Nat Hentoff for the album’s liner notes. “But lots of people have to first find the wind.”

Grossman played a demo of the song for his clients Peter, Paul and Mary. “I immediately said, ‘This is it, this is the anthemic song,'” says Peter Yarrow. “It was such a breakthrough, it was absolutely astonishing.”

Peter, Paul and Mary would release “Blowin’ in the Wind” as a single three weeks after Freewheelin’ came out. It sold 300,000 copies in the first week of release, and it peaked at Number Two on the Billboard chart.

More recording sessions in October and November illustrated that Dylan still hadn’t settled on the proper shape for the album. He tried a new direction, recording with a full band in a style that flirted with rockabilly (almost three full years before “going electric”). The only tracks that ultimately made it to Freewheelin’ were his rewrite of the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Corrina, Corrina” and the breezily bitter “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” written after he heard from Rotolo that she was considering extending her stay in Italy.

“It isn’t a love song,” Dylan told Hentoff. “It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better.”

Three more keepers were added on December 6th, as the album was finally starting to come into focus. “Oxford Town” was an account of James Meredith’s ordeal as the first black student enrolled at the University of Mississippi, and “I Shall Be Free” was a bit of a throwaway, a rewrite of Lead Belly’s “We Shall Be Free.” This session also yielded the album’s greatest moment, the brilliant epic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” based on the melody and structure of the British folk ballad “Lord Randall.”

Dylan had premiered the song at Carnegie Hall on September 22nd, but exactly one month later, President Kennedy announced the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba, prompting the Cuban Missile Crisis. Never one to miss a chance for some self-mythologizing, Dylan told Hentoff that “Hard Rain” was written as a response to the threat of apocalypse: “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”

Allen Ginsberg said that when he first heard the song, he wept with joy because “it seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation. From earlier bohemian, or Beat illumination. And self-empowerment.”

As he kept working, Dylan told friends that he still wasn’t satisfied with where the album was going. “There’s too many old-fashioned songs in there, stuff I tried to write like Woody,” he said. “I’m goin’ through changes. Need some more finger-pointin’ songs in it, ’cause that’s where my head’s at right now.” The first manifestation was the scathing anti-military-industrial-complex attack “Masters of War.”

In April 1963, he got this new batch of songs recorded. “Girl From the North Country” was a wistful love song seemingly inspired by old girlfriends Echo Helstrom and Bonnie Beecher as much as his recent yearning for Rotolo, who had just returned to New York. “Bob Dylan’s Dream” also had a nostalgic streak, reflecting on friendships and a community that perhaps Dylan sensed would be forever altered after this album came out.

“We were just kids,” says Yarrow. “We were just putting one foot in front of the other, thinking about what we were going to have for dinner. I remember Bobby had this bullwhip and we would go out on the street and practice cracking the whip. ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’ really captures all that.”

Those songs weren’t initially part of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, though they were included later when Dylan got a chance to revise the album, most likely in response to his label’s demand that he remove the potentially libelous “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.”

Regardless of the chronology, the result was an album that was better-rounded and more fully realized, replacing the reverence of more traditional folk blues with greater levity and depth.

Not that all of his earlier fans were ready to follow him. “The album floats away into never-never land, a failure,” wrote his Minnesota friends in the folk-purist journal The Little Sandy Review.

But around the world, the reverberations of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan were enormous. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, a kid named Neil Young heard the album and, as with so many others, considered entirely new possibilities for his life. “I just said, ‘Hey, there’s a guy who sounds different doing his thing, too &ndash I really like this guy. I can write songs.'”

Bob Dylan at 80: The master musician&rsquos 39 albums, ranked

He asked me to check out the used record stores and see had they any early Dylan on vinyl. This was his idea for a cheap Christmas present and sometime around that December of 1991, while in college in the US, I bought the self-titled debut album Bob Dylan as a gift for my younger brother.

So it’s his fault, really, because that first influence started something still not easily explained: from there I borrowed, or else stole, whatever other Dylan albums he had at the time, some on cassette such as Highway 61 Revisited, others such as Desire on vinyl, and after lifting too his copy of Robert Shelton’s biography, No Direction Home, there’s been no looking back.

Maybe Blonde on Blonde wasn’t meant to be listened to for the first time in the summer of 1992, or Saved for that matter, especially not in immediate succession. That made no difference to me.

Within a couple of years, I’d obsessively got hold of Dylan’s entire back catalogue, by then 28 albums. Hearing them for the first time – the creative sustenance of the songs, their phrases and rhymes, the startling authenticity of his voice – simply outplayed anything I’d heard before.

Dylan now has 39 official studio albums to his name, beginning with that self-titled debut, released in March 1962, up to Rough and Rowdy Ways, released in June of 2020. Not forgetting the 15 volumes of his Bootleg Series (another 60 CDs), his 12 live albums (comprising 68 CDs), the countless more non-album tracks and thousands of unofficial bootlegs.

To mark Dylan’s 80th birthday – today – I’ve ranked his 39 studio albums, which in many ways reflect not just his lifetime but also the vast influences around it and, of course, his often double-edged relationship with fans.

It’s a personal selection, based on what sounded – and still sounds – best to me. If I had ranked them yesterday or if I ranked them again tomorrow, the order could change again, couldn’t it?

39. Dylan (1973)

Despite the title, and interesting cover portrait, this was a throwaway album with no input whatsoever from Dylan or a single original song, made up of Colombia leftovers after he briefly jumped shop to Asylum Records. Favourite track: The Ballad of Ira Hayes

38. Christmas in the Heart (2009)

I lent my copy of this CD to Daniel Day-Lewis that Christmas of 2009 and never got it back. I’m not too bothered, although every Christmas I swear I can hear that startling old vocal range from across the other side of the Wicklow Mountains. Favourite track: Hark the Herald Angels Sing

37. Triplicate (2017)

His own personal homage to the great American songbook, and beautifully packed, these three CDs and 30 songs are well covered, and covered well enough after one listening. Favourite track: September of My Years

36. Down in the Groove (1988)

I only ever got this on cassette and it’s a proper Dylan late-1980s mess in parts, even if the cheap covers are somewhat redeemed by the songs he co-wrote with the Grateful Dead. Favourite track: Rank Strangers to Me

35. Shadows in the Night (2015)

The first of his Frank Sinatra cover albums, 10 songs neatly delivered and best to listen to while cooking or making the bed, the live performances were astonishing. Favourite track: Autumn Leaves

34. Knocked Out Loaded (1986)

Somehow I have this on vinyl and cassette, which is odd considering there is only one 11-minute song on the entire album that’s worth listening to in any depth – that favourite track he co-wrote with Sam Shepard. Favourite track: Brownsville Girl

33. Fallen Angels (2016)

More Sinatra covers anybody? This one gets in ahead of Shadows in the Night, if only because Dylan seems to be in better singing voice and mood. Favourite track: Melancholy Mood

32. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Still love the film and, even if the bootleg version of this is way better, any album that suddenly kicks in on side two with Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door will always hold up. Favourite track: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

31. World Gone Wrong (1993)

The second of his successive solo acoustic albums of mostly American traditional folk songs. Dylan is in fine voice, the guitar softly killing, the end result ultimately a little lonely and sad. Favourite track: Two Soldiers


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30. Good as I Been to You (1992)

The first of those solo acoustic albums, this is more upbeat and the delivery more telling, more Irish-influenced too, his Arthur McBride cut from the style of Paul Brady. Favourite track: Tomorrow Night

29. Bob Dylan (1962)

That first buy, which I duly borrowed back from my younger brother in April of 1995, when after hanging around the Point Depot for the afternoon and acting like one of the roadies before Dylan’s gig, I found out where he was staying and showed up the following morning with this album to sign, which he did. Favourite track: Song to Woody

28. Under the Red Sky (1990)

I rediscovered this during the 2012 Olympics in London, freshly copied on to my iPod, the strangely touching nursery rhyme lyrics were the perfect nightly antidote during the busiest two weeks of my life. Favourite track: God Knows

27. The Basement Tapes (1975)

Probably the most bootlegged album in record history, thanks to The Band. Still worthy of being passed around, it’s jaunty and still fun to play along with on my acoustic guitar. Favourite track: Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)

26. Together Through Life (2009)

Loved this at the time, even if now it sounds like it’s coming from a particular time and place in Dylan’s life, a tidy bluesy jam of a session with a wide range of musicians all around. Favourite track: Forgetful Heart

25. Saved (1980)

This I remember first buying on cassette in one of the old used record stores in Dublin and, even if warned off about Dylan’s Christian period, I was startled by the lyrics being so precise and music that still sounds so tight. Favourite track: Pressing On

24. Self Portrait (1970)

What is this s**t? That infamous opening line from the Greil Marcus original review still makes me laugh, because this is a delight, a double-album of 24 songs in part intended to frustrate certain fans and secretly entertain most others. Favourite track: It Hurts Me Too

23. Slow Train Coming (1979)

The first of Dylan’s so-called Christian trilogy, the devoutly evangelical lyrics are so sweetly delivered and musically wrapped up that the listening of it still draws me back every time. Favourite track: When He Returns

22. Street-Legal (1978)

A bit of Elvis in Vegas influence here. The sweeping production and delivery never cease to surprise. There are long rhythmic verses throughout and Dylan gives his all. Favourite track: Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)

21. Nashville Skyline (1969)

With the obvious exception of going electric, this marked the most surprising turning point in his recording career. His country-singing voice is all the more startling for its the sheer authenticity. Favourite track: I Threw It All Away

20. Shot of Love (1981)

The most underrated and best of his Christian trilogy. The bold and, at times, treacherous delivery of the lyrics alone always brings me back for more. Favourite track: In the Summertime

19. Tempest (2012)

At times, this still comes across as violently moody. Strangely enough, it’s one of the few Dylan albums I enjoy listening to while running. Before he starts singing about the Titanic sinking that is. Favourite track: Long and Wasted Years

18. Modern Times (2006)

Smoothly produced and lyrically inspired and inspiring, there is also an economy about this album which is indefatigable. Like, where in the world Alicia Keys could be? Favourite track: Spirit on the Water

17. Planet Waves (1974)

His first venture on Asylum Records, and believe it or not Dylan’s first album to reach number one on the US Billboard chart, this reuniting with The Band is by turns of the track touching or warm and then punchy or sad. Favourite track: Forever Young (the slow version)

16. New Morning (1970)

Still best played in the morning, naturally, this is Dylan the new father at his cheerful best, a great mix of tracks and treats that finishes with a suitably simple prayer. Favourite track: Time Passes Slowly

15. Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)

His last all-acoustic album before he returned to the style some 30 years later, what a way to step out, all 11 songs reportedly recorded in the one evening, and without a protest line in sight. Favourite track: My Back Pages

14. John Wesley Harding (1967)

This still sounds timeless, even if it comes at a very specific time in his life – after his motorbike crash of 1966. The biblical influence is telling too, there was just no telling at the time it would unearth the ultimate Dylan cover, All Along the Watchtower. Favourite track: I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine

13. Empire Burlesque (1985)

Dylan at his most flamboyant and, at times, reckless 1980s prime. It has been produced to death perhaps, but something and everything about this album keeps me coming back for more. Favourite track: I’ll Remember You

12. Oh Mercy (1989)

Thank you Daniel Lanois, who on Bono’s advice approached Dylan with a view to producing this. Its surprise factor is not just that Dylan is still alive and indeed well, but that he has the audacity to leave a song such as Series of Dreams off the album. Favourite track: Most of the Time

11. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

Still, impossibly, only 21 when he recorded it, the second studio album that suddenly found his protest voice and a lot more in between, and ultimately contributed him to winning the Nobel Prize. Favourite track: Girl from the North Country

10. Desire (1976)

From that first opening hum of Hurricane, co-written with playwright Jacques Levy, everything about this album is pure Dylan storytelling. The accompaniment of Scarlet Rivera on violin still blossoms with every listen. Favourite track: Hurricane

9. Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)

Last June, driving over the Sally Gap towards Luggala, I first played this CD in reverse – that is, beginning with the end track, the 16-minute 56-second epic Murder Most Foul. I still adore its mighty turn of phrase. Favourite track: Key West (Philosopher Pirate)

8. Infidels (1983)

A sort of Second Coming all over again. The pleasant surprise that came with my first listen was doubled when I heard some of the songs played live, beginning with David Letterman from 1984. Oh yeah, and he left Blind Willie McTell behind too. Favourite track: Jokerman

7. Bringing It All Back Home (1965)

For years I had this only on cassette and would often play it on a continuous loop in my old Alfa Romeo Spider, and no matter how familiar it sounded, it never once got old. Favourite track: It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

6. Love and Theft (2001)

Mik Pyro said to me recently that Dylan always gets the best drummers and the drumming on this album, courtesy of David Kemper, is superb. Released on 9/11, it’s so emotionally charged too, it never once tires. Favourite track: Lonesome Day Blues

5. The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964)

I had the poster on my bedroom wall in college even before I bought the cassette. The dark and deliberately bleak sound of the songs are still held up by their magnificent, powerful telling. Favourite track: Restless Farewell

4. Blood on the Tracks (1975)

The break-up album. The problem for me at the time of my first listen was that I hadn’t yet gone through a particularly sad or turbulent break-up. Now, the pitch and tone make perfectly ragged sense. Favourite track: Idiot Wind

3. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

The album I had in mind in the summer of 1997, when I spent a chunk of my savings on a 50th anniversary edition Fender Telecaster, because this is pure brilliant rock ‘n’ roll. He signs off on Desolation Row. Favourite track: Like a Rolling Stone

2. Blonde on Blonde (1966)

I think this is the only Dylan album I own on cassette, CD and vinyl. Nothing else comes close to that thin, wild mercury sound, or what Dylan himself said is “the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind”. Favourite track: Visions of Johanna

1. Time Out of Mind (1997)

The first Dylan album I bought on the day of its release in September 1997, cycling into Golden Discs on St Stephen’s Green, then playing it on my Walkman on the way home. It sounded then like nothing could top the stripped-down honesty of the opening track, Love Sick, or the 10 more that followed. Still nothing has. Favourite track: Not Dark Yet

When Bob Dylan Came to New York City

On Jan. 20, 1961, the dashing John F. Kennedy placed his hand on a Bible and duly became the 35th U.S. President, ending the drab Eisenhower years and ushering in the Swinging Sixties.

Locally, New York City, too, was making history, though of a more forgettable type, experiencing its roughest winter in 28 years.

Against this backdrop, on the late afternoon of Jan. 24, the book “Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan” related, a four-door Pontiac stopped on 62nd Street. A recent college dropout from the Iron Range in northwest Minnesota, Dylan grabbed his valise and guitar and jumped on the downtown subway to Greenwich Village. (Some Dylanologists insist he arrive at the George Washington Bridge and headed downtown from there.)

Like so many others, he was determined to make his mark in the Mecca of the burgeoning U.S. folk-music scene.

There was no fanfare, and nobody would forever circle the date for posterity. But it nonetheless a momentous occasion.

Bob Dylan, all of 19 years old and with ten bucks stuffed into his pocket, had arrived in New York City.

“I knew I had to get to New York,” Dylan mused to interviewer Cameron Crowe in 1985, when he was 44 years old. “I’d been dreaming about that for a long time.”

He told Crowe, in the booklet accompanying the box-set album Biograph: “You just didn’t get on a plane and go there, you know, New York. New York! Ed Sullivan. The New York Yankees. Broadway. Harlem . You might as well have been talking about China . It was some place which not too many people had ever gone, and anybody who did go never came back.”

Dylan had recently left the University of Minnesota midway through his sophomore year, showing more interest in the Twin Cities folk community than his studies. But he quickly outgrew the small clubs and knew it was time to head East to meet his hero, Woody Guthrie, and test himself with the best in New York City.

Full of chutzpah, he managed to talk his way on to the stage his first night in town, in one of the Village’s pass-the-hat clubs. He was so unknown in town that he had to ask from the stage if anyone could let him crash somewhere that night.

He was not exactly an instant success right away. He had a lot to live down, dressed in rags, even by MacDougal Street’s casual standards. Further, folk-music purists initially dismissed him as yet another Woody Guthrie wannabe and scoffed that he sang like a hillbilly. Later, a critic would dismiss his voice as that of a dog who had its hind leg caught in a wire fence.

But Dylan was determined. He kept playing the clubs, sometimes earning only a dollar a day accompanying local bigshot Fred Neil, who some eight years later would make his name when he wrote “Everybody’s Talkin” for the film “Midnight Cowboy” (Dylan, a megastar by the late Sixties, had, it turned out, submitted his contribution to the movie, “Lay, Lady, Lay” too late for the producer’s deadline. But I digress.).

A few months after his arrival in the city, Dylan finagled a gig playing harmonica on the title track of the album “Midnight Special” by Harry Belafonte, then a major star. And in September 1961, Dylan opened for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerdes Folk City. He had a career-altering breakthrough and earned a rave review from music critic Robert Shelton, who wrote in The New York Times:

“Although only 20 years old, Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play a Manhattan cabaret in months. Resembling a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik, Mr. Dylan has a cherubic look and a mop of tousled hair he partly covers with a Huck Finn black corduroy cap. . Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty.”

A Simple Twist of Fate

In a simple twist of fate, Dylan was scheduled to play harmonica behind Carolyn Hester the day the Times review came out. The legendary music-industry executive John Hammond, who had furthered the careers of everyone from Bessie Smith to Count Basie, signed Dylan to a recording contract with Columbia Records, then a middle-of-the-road label known for fare like “Sing Along with Mitch.” (A decade later, Hammond would sign another distinctive ragamuffin, named Bruce Springsteen, who became known as “The New Dylan,” to the annoyance of Hammond, Springsteen and Dylan).

Released in March 1962, his first album, Bob Dylan, however, contained mostly cover songs and the album failed to sell well. (Naysayers at Columbia Records started calling Dylan “Hammond’s Folly”).

Things changed with the release in 1963 of Dylan’s second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” The record, featuring “Blowin in the Wind” and “Masters of War,” propelled Dylan to be anointed as the king of folk music. Freewheelin’ was so well received that when George Harrison heard it in Paris in January 1964 he sat John Lennon and Paul McCartney down to listen. They all promptly became Dylan converts.

Journalists and fans started calling Dylan The Spokesman of a Generation – a title he dreaded, because it reduced him to a symbol and made it harder for him to be accepted as a multi-dimensional songwriter and musician. He did go on to conquer rock and roll, western swing, country, gospel and blues music.

To his chagrin, he has never quite lived down the burdensome moniker of Spokesman for a Generation.

And it all started 60 years ago, on a snowy Tuesday afternoon in January 1961.

Bob Dylan Album Reviews

Favourite Album: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
Overlooked Gem: New Morning

Bob Dylan

1962, 7/10
Dylan was invited to play harmonica on a recording session by folk singer Carolyn Hester, where he was signed to his own record deal by Columbia Records talent scout and producer John Hammond. Surprisingly, given that he’s known as a preeminent song-writer, Bob Dylan’s first album is comprised almost entirely of covers. It’s a personality driven record, and Bob Dylan’s charismatic and braying vocals are intriguing. Only four of these songs were drawn from Dylan’s live set at the time, so that the album serves as a summary of the early 1960s New York folk scene – Dylan used arrangements devised by contemporaries like Dave Van Ronk and Eric Von Schmidt.

Even if you think of early Dylan as a folk artist, many of these songs are blues based – Led Zeppelin later stretched out ‘In My Time Of Dying’ into an epic, while the album ends with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’. The two original songs here show Woody Guthrie’s influence – ‘Talkin’ New York’ is in Guthrie’s style, while ‘Song For Woody’ is a lovely tribute piece that’s one of Dylan’s most unguarded moments.

It’s essentially a false start to Dylan’s career, not preparing listeners what was to come with his phenomenal second album, but Bob Dylan is an enjoyable, albeit minor work.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

1963, 9.5/10
Dylan’s first album failed to make an impact, and producer John Hammond was determined that the second album would succeed. Perhaps shaped by the parents of girlfriend (and cover companion) Suze Rotolo, who were members of the American Communist Party, Dylan peeled off an astonishing number of phenomenal original songs. Early Dylan is known as a protest singer, and some of the most notable songs here are in that vein – the anti-war and universal ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ is early Dylan’s signature song, and was his breakthrough piece, thanks to Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version. But he’s hardly a po-faced protest singer here, balancing the ultra serious material like ‘Masters of War’ with fun songs like ‘Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance’.

There are at least five towering achievements of song-writing here. The three most notable protest songs are the ubiquitous ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, the nuclear commentary of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, and ‘Masters of War’. The latter is notable for perhaps the most righteously stinging rebuke in recorded music “even Jesus would never forgive what you do.” But Dylan’s also gentle on ‘Girl From The North Country’, a beautiful original that I’d always assumed was a traditional folk song, while the brilliant ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ navigates personal relationships the line “I gave her my heart/But she wanted my soul” is another of Dylan’s most cutting lines.

When you consider that other defining rock acts of the 1960s were still reliant on covers in 1963, Dylan’s effort in delivering a masterpiece on his second attempt is even more impressive.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

1964, 6/10

Dylan focused on a very specific aspect of his musical vocabulary for his third album, stretching the pessimistic protest songs from Freewheelin’, like ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ into a full length statement. The result is a stark album that doesn’t capture Dylan at his most musical. Strong outtakes like ‘Percy’s Song’, which was later covered magnificently by Fairport Convention, and ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’, which The Byrds later recorded, are more musically interesting than the songs that were included on the completed album. Songs like ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ are ultra- serious and not particularly tuneful, and a whole album of them is exhausting.

The album’s most famous song is the title track, which has always felt like a uninspired retread of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ – additionally, Dylan’s version has been diluted by insipid versions by terminally uncool acts like The Seekers and Simon and Garfunkel. Dylan recycles the melody of the title track for ‘One Too Many Mornings’, a song which shines in electric versions like on Live 1966, but which isn’t terribly exciting here. My favourite song is ‘When The Ship Comes In’, inspired by an incident when an unkempt Dylan was refused entry to his hotel room, while like ‘Girl From The North Country’ on the previous record, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ is another pretty melody inspired by English folk music.

Dylan succeeded in creating the album he was trying to make with The Times They Are a-Changin’, a pessimistic collection of protest songs, but fortunately he’d be more musically interesting on his next record.

Another Side of Bob Dylan

1964, 7.5/10
Another Side of Bob Dylan is Dylan’s last guitar and vocal album from his early folk records and was recorded in a single session. After the dour Times, Dylan’s sense of humour is back on songs like ‘Motorpsycho Nitemare’. The political “finger-pointing” songs are gone entirely and Dylan rejects his previous status as a protest singer on ‘My Back Pages’. Dylan’s songwriting is becoming more sophisticated and outgrowing the simple acoustic format. This combination of the more expansive melodies and simple arrangements highlights Dylan’s vocal limitations, like his high notes in the opener ‘All I Really Want To Do’. Many of these songs are better heard in cover versions – several turned up on Byrds records, most notably ‘My Back Pages’.

Another Side is one of Dylan’s lesser known 1960s albums, perhaps because it doesn’t have a single iconic song – ‘My Back Pages’ is the best known, but The Byrds’ version is more celebrated. But there’s a lot of strong material here – my favourite is the downbeat closer ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’, with its nihilistic attitude to love, and it suits the simple acoustic presentation. I’ve always enjoyed the gentle ‘To Ramona’, while Dylan plays piano of ‘Black Crow Blues’. Among all the well-written songs, there’s one tough listen ‘Ballad in Plain D’ is an account of Dylan’s breakup with Suze Rotolo, a vehicle for self-expression and a turgid eight minutes.

There are many strong songs here, but Another Side of Bob Dylan is an album that feels weaker than the sum of its parts – put a full band on some of these songs, and drop ‘Ballad in Plain D’, and it would be one of Dylan’s best records.

Bringing It All Back Home

1965, 8.5/10
Bringing It All Back Home is a candidate for the most groundbreaking album in the history of rock music, combining the energy of rock and roll with sophisticated, introspective lyrics, expanding the scope of popular music. A couple of years earlier, Dylan was the golden child of protest folk he’d largely abandoned the genre lyrically on Another Side of Bob Dylan, and now he abandoned it musically, utilising a rock band on the album’s first side.

The album’s divided into two clear sides – the first side sees Dylan accompanied by a band. They’re not as sharp as his later accompanists, and they’re best on the relaxed grooves of ‘She Belongs To Me’ and the excellent ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, but tracks like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ could arguably use some more firepower. Opening track ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ works fine with its minimal arrangement it was accompanied by the first significant music video, while the song’s beat poetry inspired lyrics and delivery were another boundary broken. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” is perhaps Dylan’s most quoted line.

The second side is almost entirely solo, with four longer compositions. If you’re accustomed to The Byrds’ version, Dylan’s original of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is in 2/4 time and has extra verses. I always assumed it was a drug reference, but it’s literally about producer Tom Wilson owning a very large tambourine. The seven and a half minutes of ‘It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ are hypnotic, and it’s full of quotable lines (“He not busy being born is busy dying”). ‘Gates of Eden’ can be a tough listen, and four lengthy acoustic tracks in a row can drag, but it’s one of Dylan’s most intriguing LP sides.

For all of the historical significance of Bringing It All Back Home, it’s overshadowed by its two successors. But there are a lot of essential songs here, and it’s a worthy first installment in Dylan’s renowned mid 1960s trilogy of electric albums.

Highway 61 Revisited

1965, 9/10
Dylan was in full electric mode on his second album of 1965. He recruited a classier backing band, featuring musicians like Al Kooper and young guitarist Mike Bloomfield, and kick-started the record with the classic rock chestnut ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. If Dylan sounded ornery on his earlier records, here he’s an amphetamine fuelled whirlwind of disdainful wordplay.

Highway 61 Revisited isn’t all intense – ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’ is pleasant, relaxed blues, while ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ is pretty and sweet. The banging piano of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ features Dylan’s wordplay at its most surreal, with lines like “give me some milk or else go home,” although my favourite line is from ‘Tombstone Blues’ “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”.

But the album has its most notable songs as bookends – ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ is a disdainful put-down of a socialite and features Al Kooper’s organ playing – unrehearsed, his organ changes are a beat behind the rest of the band, giving the song a distinctive sound. ‘Desolation Row’ is the epic closer, featuring some of Dylan’s most vivid imagery with Nashville guitarist Charlie McCoy supplying the background colour. If there’s a weakness, some of the tracks are a little long, and it doesn’t quite have the stylistic range of Blonde on Blonde.

In the mid 1960s Dylan was at the height of his powers and at the height of his cultural significance – his next record was even better.

Blonde on Blonde

1966, 10/10
Dylan had started using The Hawks as his live band, a largely Canadian bar band who had previously backed Ronnie Hawkins and who would later become famous as The Band. They recorded the non-album single ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’, but attempts to record an entire album were difficult, and the only song captured was ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)’. Dylan instead recorded in Nashville, bringing Al Kooper and Hawks guitarist Robbie Robertson along with him. At the peak of his creativity, Dylan recorded rock and roll’s first double album.

Blonde on Blonde is a logical successor to Highway 61 Revisited, expanding that record’s parameters – the blues songs are more aggressive, with Robertson’s lead guitar, while the slower songs are prettier. It’s less verbose and more musical – closer ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ arguably isn’t quite as lyrically exhilarating as ‘Desolation Row’, but it’s more musically satisfying.

Unlike almost every double album that’s followed in its wake, Blonde on Blonde barely has a dispensable track. Dylan’s perhaps a little over-reliant on blues, but the blues songs are memorable – due to Robertson’s lead guitar or hilarious lyrics like ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’. For all the charm of highlights like the the opening Salvation Army band style ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ and the prettiness of ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)’, the real stunners are the slow songs. ‘Visions of Johanna’ is slow and meditative, one of Dylan’s most accomplished yet mysterious songs. ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ is a melodic tribute to Dylan’s new bride, Sara Lownds.

One of the most intriguing, yet musically satisfying, albums in the classic rock canon, Blonde on Blonde captures Dylan at the height of his considerable powers.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert

1998, 10/10
Dylan’s switch to rock and roll was disconcerting to his audience, who preferred him to keep producing folk anthems such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are A Changing’. He and his band were constantly heckled at concerts, and the records that he produced during the period were sometimes harangued by critics: the sleeve notes report that one critic dismissed ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ as “sub-standard Dylan” with “monotonous melody line and expressionless intoning….going over to the electronic enemy.” Live 1966 was recorded at the height of the controversy just before ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, a member of the audience shouts “Judas” at Dylan. Dylan’s famously backed by most of the musicians who went on to form The Band – while Levon Helm sat the tour out, tiring of the controversy, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson are all present.

The two discs of the live album document the different halves of the show (which was actually in Manchester, the original bootleg was misnamed so the official release continues the tradition): the first is a solo acoustic set, while the second is an electric set with most of The Band backing Dylan. The first disc is very focused and intimate, with some excellent vocal performances as Dylan tackles epics ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’. The second disc is even better with The Band providing fire and intensity with guitarist Robbie Robertson’s aggressive leads. As well as highlights from recent electric albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, Dylan reaches back into his catalogue for electrified versions of ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’ and ‘One Too Many Mornings’.

Albert Hall is a great live album, given extra impetus by its historical significance.

John Wesley Harding

1967, 9/10
Bob Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident was a catalyst for a major change in lifestyle – he retreated from the limelight, embracing family life, and moving to Woodstock. While he was the forefront of stretching the parameters of popular music in 1965 and 1966, his 1967 music was markedly different, acoustic and inspired by Hank Williams and The Bible. Despite the changes, 1967 was his most prolific year as a writer, recording dozens of demos with The Band as The Basement Tapes, which weren’t released until 1975, and then recording John Wesley Harding in Nashville.

After the rich textures of Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding is stark, with Dylan’s writing newly economical and mostly centred on a trio, just Dylan with a rhythm section of Kenny Buttrey and Charlie McCoy. it was originally planned for The Band’s Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson to overdub parts but it was decided to let the original recordings stand, a decision at odds with the rich, psychedelic albums of the era, like Sgt. Peppers and Surrealistic Pillow.

The minimalist treatment suits these songs – while they may initially appear slight, they’re some of Dylan’s best work. The most well known song is ‘All Along the Watchtower’, taken from the book of Isaiah in The Bible it was an unsuccessful single but Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic cover placed it in the annals of classic rock. Songs like ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ are melodically rooted in British folk. After a bleak set of morality tales like ‘The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest’, John Wesley Harding ends with two warmer, country flavoured songs, notably ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’..

It’s hard to know what Dylan’s audience would have made of John Wesley Harding at the time – it’s almost a 180 degree reversal from the musical richness and verbal verbosity of Blonde on Blonde. But in retrospect it stands as one of Dylan’s best records.

Nashville Skyline

1969, 6.5/10
Van Morrison made a trio of tuneful, satisfied albums that are known his domestic trilogy, and which reflect his happy settled life in Woodstock. Nashville Skyline, which marginally pre-dates the Morrison records, is very much in the same vein, a tuneful, but often slight record of country tunes. While John Wesley Harding offered a unique take on country, with the minimal arrangements and Biblical, foreboding lyrics, Nashville Skyline is lyrically conventional, sticking to common country themes. There’s little to identify it as a Dylan album, and even his voice is different – Dylan quit smoking temporarily, and his voice here is a pleasant country croon.

Aside from the reworking on ‘Girl From The North Country’ with Johnny Cash, there are only two songs that have been identified as definitely written before the recording sessions. Perhaps not coincidentally, they’re the two strongest tracks .’Lay Lady Lay’ is the best known song, filled with alliteration, (“lay lady lay”, “big brass bed”). My favourite interpretation of the excellent, introspective lead single ‘I Threw It All Away’ is that it concerns Dylan’s relationship with his muse. But elsewhere the material does sound a little like a writer struggling for inspiration, and making songs up in the studio – pieces like the endearingly silly wordplay of ‘Peggy Day’ are fun, but not among Dylan’s best.

Nashville Skyline is a likeable record, but at the same time it’s surprisingly dispensable for a 1960s Dylan album.

Self Portrait

1970, not rated
I’ve never heard this – it’s a double album largely made up of covers, and in some quarters it was viewed as a mechanism for Dylan to shed his mystique. Greil Marcus started his Rolling Stone review with “What is this shit?”, while Dylan described it as “Well, it wouldn’t have held up as a single album—then it really would’ve been bad, you know. I mean, if you’re gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!”

New Morning

1970, 7.5/10
New Morning opens with the sweet country of ‘If Not For You’, which gives a misleading impression that it’s a retread of Nashville Skyline. But New Morning treads deeper, stranger waters. The catalyst for the album was Dylan’s involvement in a play by Archibald MacLeish, a musical version of The Devil and Daniel Webster titled Scratch. At least three songs were written for the play before Dylan withdrew from the project, and they were the catalyst for the rest of the album. Dylan’s often on piano for these songs, and, as on John Wesley Harding, there’s plenty of religious flavour the record ends with the Jewish prayer of ‘Father of Night’.

New Morning is notable for some of Dylan’s most unusual material in particular, ‘If Dogs Run Free’ is most of his bizarre moments, with Dylan reciting beat jazz with scat singing in the background. There’s also the short ‘Winterlude’, which rhymes the title phrase with “dude”, and where it’s difficult to ascertain whether Dylan’s serious. But there are plenty of excellent, and prettier than usual, songs – ‘If Not For You’ is a breezy opener, while ‘Sign on the Window’ is a beautiful composition based around Dylan’s piano.

While it’s flawed, New Morning is a consistently interesting record that’s somewhat overlooked in Dylan’s extensive catalogue.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

1973, not rated
Dylan’s soundtrack for the 1973 Sam Peckinpah western was largely instrumental, but also features one of Dylan’s best known songs ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’.


1973, not rated
Dylan left Columbia for Asylum, and Columbia responded with a collection of outtakes from Self Portrait and New Morning. It’s entirely covers, and often regarded as a career nadir.

Planet Waves

1974, 6.5/10
Dylan joined Asylum Records, and reunited with The Band for his fourteenth studio album. While there have subsequently been other releases with Dylan and The Band – The Basement Tapes and Live 1966 were both recorded earlier – this was the first full album available with the pairing, and perhaps the hype contributed it to it becoming Dylan’s first number one album.

The material is often personal and mellow, so that there’s less outlet for The Band’s ensemble playing than you might expect, while Dylan purposefully limited rehearsal times to give the album a raw sound. It’s less intricately arranged and disciplined than The Band’s own records, with Robbie Robertson’s guitar leads as the dominant instrument.

‘Tough Mama’ is the piece that utilises The Band’s prowess best Helm and Danko lay down a funky groove, while Hudson’s organ and Robertson’s guitar duel for attention. The best known song is ‘Forever Young’, with an unusually straightforward sentiment from Dylan but also one of his prettiest tunes. Elsewhere there’s some nice material like ‘Hazel’, and some surprisingly straightforward and emotionally open material from Dylan like ‘You Angel You’.

Planet Waves has some strong moments, but it’s not one of Dylan’s best and it’s thoroughly overshadowed by his next two records.

Blood on the Tracks: The New York Sessions

Recorded 1974 (bootleg), 9/10
In 1974, Dylan started taking art classes in New York. Dylan later said in an interview: “I went home after that first day and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. That’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about, and I couldn’t possibly explain it.” Blood on the Tracks was recorded after the Dylans separated while Dylan’s denied the album is autobiographical, Jakob Dylan, leader of The Wallflowers, describes the lyrics of the album as “my parents talking”.

Dylan initially recorded the album in New York, and again attempted the spontaneous approach to recording that he’d used on Planet Waves. Much of the New York Sessions are Dylan on acoustic guitar backed only with Deliverance bass player Tony Brown. It’s minimal, but it suits the solemn and articulate songs.

Song for song, Blood on the Tracks covers the stages of grief of a relationship ending – there’s the anger of ‘Idiot Wind’, the sad resignation of ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, and the gracious acceptance of ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ and ‘Buckets of Rain’.

This wasn’t the version of Blood on the Tracks that was eventually released (read below for details), but I prefer it to the finished version. Until recently it was only available on bootleg, but the New York sessions have recently been released as More Blood, More Tracks.

Blood on the Tracks

1975, 8.5/10
When Dylan played a test acetate of Blood on the Tracks to his brother, he was persuaded that the arrangements were too stark for the album to succeed commercially, and he re-recorded five of the tracks in Minnesota. Blood on the Tracks is among Dylan’s best collections of songs, but the final version is marred by some tacky arrangements.

The prime culprit is ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ – it’s an intriguing set of lyrics, an ambiguous tale of two women and a bank robbery, but Dylan’s accompanied by a jaunty country rhythm section with a repetitive bass line that outstays its welcome on a nine minute song. On the other hand, the excellent opener ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ benefits from the bright, fuller arrangement, but overall the original album is stronger to my ears. There are also notable lyric changes between some of the New York Sessions and the eventual release, particularly prominent on ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, where the second to last verse is markedly different.

It’s still one of best Dylan’s albums either way, but the painfully repetitive rhythm section on ‘Lily….’ makes the originally recorded version of Blood on the Tracks preferable.

The Basement Tapes

1975, 7.5/10
After his motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan and his young family moved to upstate New York. In Woodstock he linked up with most of his backing band from his 1966 tour, who would later become The Band – Levon Helm wouldn’t re-join the group until after the Dylan sessions. The music that Dylan and The Band played in the basement of Big Pink was the opposite of the aggressive rock and roll from their 1966 tour – they started playing covers, re-engaging with traditional American music, and Dylan’s originals were in the same vein. The Basement Tapes are notable for Dylan’s unguarded persona – while he was hiding behind imagery in his mid 1960s peak, he’s having fun here, making songs up as he goes along.

The Big Pink sessions were bootlegged as Great White Wonder, and many of the songs emerged in versions from other artists, but the results of the basement recording weren’t officially released until 1975. Robbie Robertson took charge of the project, and was the dominant voice in selecting the songs for the double album. There’s been some justifiable criticism of Robertson’s selections – strong pieces like ‘Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)’, ‘I’m Not There’, and ‘I Shall Be Released’ were left off, while 8 of the 24 songs don’t feature Dylan, and there’s conjecture that some of The Band songs were recorded later than the original summer 1967 sessions. In particular, ‘Bessie Smith’ is the standout of The Band songs, but it’s from a later period, and it’s an odd fit for this record.

Otherwise the non-Dylan material drags down the album – Manuel and Robertson hadn’t fully developed as writers yet, relying on blues songs. A regular twelve song version of solely Dylan songs would have been much stronger, as there’s plenty of very good Dylan material. The soaring, mournful ‘Tears of Rage’ was written with The Band’s Richard Manuel, while the jaunty ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ had already surfaced on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. ‘Goin’ To Acapulco’ is world weary and mournful, while the more down-home songs like ‘Apple Suckling Tree’ are fun.

There are lots of strong Dylan compositions on The Basement Tapes, and it’s fun to hear him in a more relaxed mode, but a more succinct version, focused on Dylan’s songs, would be even stronger.


1976, 8/10
Dylan was riding a peak of confidence in the mid 1970s, with the successful releases of Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes. He’d watched a performance by the emergent Patti Smith, and admiring her tight band had formed the Rolling Thunder Revue. Desire was released in between legs of the tour and features many of the same musicians. Unusually for Dylan, Desire features the contributions of several distinctive collaborators – Scarlet Rivera plays exotic violin while Jacques Levy wrote most of the lyrics for the record.

The most controversial piece on Desire is ‘Joey’ – it’s apparently an unreasonably positive portrayal of gangster Joey Gallo. Unaware of the context, it’s just not a very good song, dragging over eleven minutes. The other biographical piece, ‘Hurricane’ about the boxer Rubin Carter is widely loved, providing the album with a confident start. My favourite piece though, is ‘Isis’, which rides a simple four chord sequence for its engrossing story. Backing vocalist Emmylou Harris shines on ‘One More Cup Of Coffee’ and ‘Mozambique’, while the closing ‘Sara’ is a pretty paean to his estranged wife – I love the couplet “I stayed up for days in the Chelsea Hotel/writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands’ for you.”

Desire was one of Dylan’s highest selling albums, and it’s a confident and colourful effort. It’s also the end of an era – I’m not sure that Dylan’s made such an accomplished album since.


1978, 8.5/10
This compilation was released only in Asia and Australasia and it’s now out of print, but it was my first Dylan album. In hindsight, after Desire was a perfect time to release a career spanning retrospective – it marked the end of Dylan’s prime phase. Spanning 36 tracks and including rarities like ‘Rita Mae’ and ‘George Jackson’ and non-album singles like ‘Positively Fourth Street’ and ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’, Masterpieces was one of the first box sets.

Even 36 tracks isn’t enough to properly cover Dylan’s first 15 years, and presumably because of space restrictions, significant long tracks like ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Sad Eyed Lady if the Lowlands’ are omitted. Planet Waves, released on Asylum, is skipped, and some songs are represented on live versions – I enjoy the intense Hard Rain take on ‘Idiot Wind’, but would rather have the studio version of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.

Despite all these quibbles, Masterpieces is essentially one great song after another. It’s worth seeking out the non-album tracks, but Dylan’s catalogue is so vast and rich that even this three-CD set isn’t a sufficient one stop shopping solution.


1978, not rated
I’ve never heard this – it’s regarded as one of Dylan’s lesser albums from the 1970s.

Slow Train Coming

1979, 5.5/10
Dylan became a born again Christian in the late 1970s, and released a trilogy of Christian albums. Slow Train Coming is the first and the best received of the trilogy. Dylan’s musical palette has shifted along with his beliefs – I’ve always found it interesting that Christian artists believe that God prefers smooth music. While Dylan often preferred off the cuff recording sessions for albums like Planet Waves, Slow Train Coming is slick and carefully rehearsed. The band includes Muscle Shoals keyboardist Barry Beckett, three female backing singers, and Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers from Dire Straits.

The smooth sound of Slow Train Coming works as long as the material is good, and the first side is tangibly stronger than the second. The record’s strongest song is the opener ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, Dylan reciting a list over a smooth groove. On the other hand, the reggae-tinged, quasi-children’s song ‘Man Gave Names to All the Animals’ is one of Dylan’s most awkward pieces.

It’s interesting to hear Dylan operating in a different idiom, but Slow Train Coming is dispensable unless you’re a Dylan fanatic.

1980-1993 Albums

I’m skipping a bunch of records here:

  • Saved (1980)
  • Shot of Love (1981)
  • Infidels (1983)
  • Empire Burlesque (1985)
  • Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
  • Down in the Groove (1988)
  • Oh Mercy (1989)
  • Under the Red Sky (1990)
  • Good as I Been to You (1992)
  • World Gone Wrong (1993)

Of the above, I want to come back and cover Oh Mercy sometime – it’s certainly the most acclaimed album on the list, and I’ve enjoyed the songs I’ve heard from it. Otherwise, I don’t think I’m missing out on too much, although ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ from Shot of Love is a lovely song.

Time Out Of Mind

1997, 7/10
Dylan hadn’t released an album of original material since 1990, and expectations weren’t high. The album’s often associated with Dylan’s health scare in 1997 – Dylan was hospitalised with a near fatal infection, and given the pensive nature of songs like ‘Not Dark Yet’, it was assumed to be inspired by his health issues. But in fact, the record was completed before his July hospitalisation. Time Out Of Mind is produced by Eno disciple Daniel Lanois, who gives Dylan a rich, atmospheric backdrop to his meditative songs, giving them gravitas. It’s a great sounding record, and one that I’m arguably underrating, but at the same time, I listen to Time Out Of Mind much less often than his key 1960s and 1970s record.

Among all of the dignified blues songs, there are two pieces that break the mould. ‘Highlands’, the closer, is the longest piece that Dylan’s recorded on a studio album. It’s fun and engaging, with Dylan rambling about eggs and waitresses over a blues sequence in a way that’s reminiscent of his mid-1960s heyday. ‘Make You Feel My Love’ is a surprisingly straightforward sentiment from Dylan, and it’s become something of a standard, covered by Adele, Billy Joel, and Garth Brooks. Otherwise, individual songs like ‘Cold Irons Bound’ and ‘Not Dark Yet’ are strong, but the lack of diversity and length makes it blend together.

Time Out Of Mind won a Grammy for album of the year, and it’s a very respectable late period effort, but for me it’s nowhere near Dylan’s best.

“Love and Theft”

2001, 7/10
Love and Theft continues Dylan’s late career resurgence, and I’ve always thought of it as a companion piece to Time Out Of Mind. They’re both blues-based albums, but while Time Out Of Mind is a refined, studio product, Love and Theft sounds like it was recorded in a dusty studio in the 1940s, with Dylan (using the pseudonym Jack Frost) in the producer’s chair and utilising his live band. It’s not purely a blues album Love and Theft is rooted in other traditional American music, like country and swing. Oddly, some listeners pointed out similarities between some of Dylan’s lyrics and passages from Junichi Saga’s book Confessions of a Yakuza.

The first half is the more upbeat, with a rawer sound. My favourite from the half is ‘Mississippi’ – it was originally intended for Time Out Of Mind, and was recorded by Sheryl Crow before Dylan’s version emerged. It’s a memorable melody, and the chorus line (“Only one thing I did wrong/Stayed in Mississippi a day too long”) is cutely reminiscent of the vintage Dylan of ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’. My other favourite musical moment of the album is the violin riff that drives the old-timey ‘Floater’. Dylan also mines old time American music for pieces like ‘Po’ Boy’ and ‘Sugar Baby’, and that’s he able to do so in such an authentic way speaks volumes for his love of this music.

Like Time Out Of Mind, I’m arguably underrating this record – it’s a remarkable accomplishment for someone forty years into his career I just rarely feel like listening to it when he has so many excellent earlier albums.

I’m Not There

2008, 7.5/10
The 2008 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There was notable for portraying Dylan using six different actors, representing six different stages and aspects of his career. Cate Blanchett’s take on the wired Dylan of the mid-1960s was particularly noteworthy.

The soundtrack’s an interesting collection of Dylan covers – it’s impressive how wide a net it draws over Dylan’s career, skipping over the best known tracks like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and mining lesser known albums like Saved and Empire Burlesque’. The artists featured are generally guitar wielding and rootsy there are plenty of representatives from the indie class of the decade, but also contemporaries of Dylan like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Willie Nelson, and Roger McGuinn. A super-group with Lee Ranaldo, ‘Tom Verlaine, Nels Cline, Steve Shelley, and members of Dylan’s road band perform on a number of tracks, while Dylan himself appears on the terrific title track, rescued from the Basement Tapes sessions.

There’s an eclectic selection of artists here, and favourites probably depend on which artists you’re already familiar with. Surprisingly, my favourite track is John Doe, from X, with a loving rendition of ‘Pressing On’ from Saved. My Morning Jacket’s Jim James delivers a soaring version of ‘Goin’ To Acapulco’, while acts like Sufjan Stevens and The Hold Steady bend Dylan’s compositions to their own signature sounds.

The movie is a more interesting portrait of Dylan than the soundtrack is, and I’d recommend seeing it first, but I’m Not There is a loving trawl through Dylan’s back-catalogue.

Accolades [ edit | edit source ]

President Obama presents Dylan with a Medal of Freedom, May 2012

Sara Danius announces the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016.

Dylan has won many awards throughout his career including the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, twelve Grammy Awards, one Academy Award and one Golden Globe Award. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Songwriters Hall of Fame. In May 2000, Dylan received the Polar Music Prize from Sweden's King Carl XVI. 𖔟]

In June 2007, Dylan received the Prince of Asturias Award in the Arts category. 𖔠] Dylan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in May 2012. 𖔡] 𖔢] In February 2015, Dylan accepted the MusiCares Person of the Year award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, in recognition of his philanthropic and artistic contributions to society. 𖔣] In November 2013, Dylan received the accolade of Légion d'Honneur from the French education minister Aurélie Filippetti. 𖔤]

Nobel Prize in Literature [ edit | edit source ]

The Nobel Prize committee announced on October 13, 2016, that it would be awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". ΐ] 𖔥] The New York Times reported: "Mr. Dylan, 75, is the first musician to win the award, and his selection on Thursday is perhaps the most radical choice in a history stretching back to 1901." 𖓔] Dylan is the only person in history apart from George Bernard Shaw to be a recipient of both an Academy Award and a Nobel prize.

On October 21, a member of the Swedish Academy, writer Per Wästberg, termed Dylan "rude and arrogant" for ignoring the Nobel Committee's attempts to contact him. 𖔦] Academy permanent secretary Sara Danius answered, "The Swedish Academy has never held a view on a prizewinner’s decision in this context, neither will it now." 𖔧]

After two weeks of speculation about Dylan's silence concerning the Nobel Prize, 𖔨] he said in an interview with Edna Gundersen that getting the award was: "amazing, incredible. Whoever dreams about something like that?" 𖔩]

On November 17, the Swedish Academy announced that Dylan would not travel to Stockholm for the Nobel Prize Ceremony due to "pre-existing commitments". 𖔪] At the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm on December 10, 2016, Dylan's banquet speech was given by Azita Raji, U.S. Ambassador to Sweden. The speech stated: "From an early age, I've been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words." 𖔫] Patti Smith accepted Dylan's Nobel with a "transcendent performance" of his song "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" to orchestral accompaniment. 𖔬]

On April 2, 2017, the Academy secretary Danius said: "Earlier today the Swedish Academy met with Bob Dylan for a private ceremony [with no media present] in Stockholm, during which Dylan received his gold medal and diploma. Twelve members of the Academy were present. Spirits were high. Champagne was had. Quite a bit of time was spent looking closely at the gold medal, in particular the beautifully crafted back, an image of a young man sitting under a laurel tree who listens to the Muse. Taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, the inscription reads: Inventas vitam iuvat excoluisse per artes, loosely translated as "And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found mastery." 𖔭]

On June 5, 2017, Dylan's Nobel Lecture was posted on the Nobel prize website. The New York Times pointed out that, in order to collect the prize’s 8 million Swedish krona ($900,000), the Swedish Academy’s rules stipulate the laureate "must deliver a lecture within six months of the official ceremony, which would have made Mr. Dylan’s deadline June 10." 𖔮] Academy secretary Danius commented: "The speech is extraordinary and, as one might expect, eloquent. Now that the lecture has been delivered, the Dylan adventure is coming to a close." 𖔯] In his essay, Dylan writes about the impact that three important books made on him: Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and Homer's The Odyssey. He concludes: "Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, 'Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story'." ⎛] Alan Pasqua provided the uncredited piano accompaniment for the recorded speech. 𖔰]


In 1941, the same year the United States entered the Pacific Theater of World War II, a child by the name of Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Hibbing, Minnesota. The son of a middle class Jewish family, Robert grew up writing poems, playing piano, guitar, listening to rock and roll and feeling somewhat isolated. He would often stay up half the night entranced by the sounds of early rock and blues musicians such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf played on the radio. While still in high school Robert was inspired to start a band, determined to eventually join his idol Little Richard.

In 1959, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota where he was exposed to a much larger world than he had known in the small town of Hibbing, and began listening to early roots rock and country musicians such as Hank Williams and most importantly, folk legend Woody Guthrie.

Folk music is a form of music that has been with us for a long time. In America, folk is based on early American and British music that was passed down through generations by oral tradition. Like the blues, it is a simple, acoustic music about common people and everyday events. Both Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger followed this tradition, but they began to add new material, which was often political, to the genre and both influenced Robert, who is credited with starting the modern era of folk. Robert's growing obsession with music and the pioneers of folk influenced his Guthrie-style of acoustic guitar and singing that was more like talking. It was at this time that Robert stopped going to class, started playing music in local cafes, and changed his name to Bob Dylan.

By adopting the new name, presumably after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan made a break from his past and soon after dropped out of college. In 1960 he moved to New York, to realize his dream of becoming a folk musician full time and meeting Woody Guthrie, who in the last several years of his life suffered from a rare nervous disorder. He would spend hours in the hospital room of his ailing hero, often playing traditional folk songs along with those that he'd written himself to an audience of one.

Dylan was also playing in Greenwich Village coffeehouses and clubs where within a short time he gained the attention of folk audiences, critics, and record companies. His nasal voice and song writing ability set him apart from other popular folk musicians of the early 1960's and led to a recording contract with Columbia Records.

In 1962, he released his first self-titled album, although his (or Columbia Record's) confidence in his writing talent was not yet established. The record consisted of only two original songs and a collection of traditional folk and blues songs. Although many found it hard to believe that the twenty-one year old from Minnesota had the course sincerity of an older black blues musician, they were deeply impressed with the young singer's ability. Dylan's second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" established him as one of the most important and poetic voices in rock history.

This album featured the trademark civil rights anthem "Blowin' in the Wind", that reinvigorated the folk movement and prepared both folk and pop audiences for what was to come. Although Dylan wrote the song in 1962 and recorded it in 1963, it only became a top 10 hit when recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1963.

The song's hard-hitting lyrics, clearly relating to the civil rights struggle, demonstrate a power rarely seen in popular music. When Dylan (or Peter, Paul and Mary, for that matter) sang "Yes, n' how many years can some people exist, before they're allowed to be free", he was hitting at the heart of struggle for equality that marked the civil rights movement. Dylan often called these political songs called "finger pointing songs."

What came next would forever change the content of pop music when "The Times They Are A-Changin'" was released in 1963. Reflecting the assassination of president Kennedy and the increasing momentum of the civil rights movement, Dylan's third album chronicled the chain of events shaping history in the 1960's. The title song from the album became an anthem for young people beginning to resist a government that was viewed as unresponsive and increasingly authoritarian. The words of this song were not only a call to arms for the counterculture but a warning to the older generation.

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don't criticize what you can't understand
Your sons and daughters are beyond your command

In the same year he refused to perform on the Ed Sullivan show, an exhibition of his commitment to noncommercial folk traditions. Dylan was on the front line of the protest movement and his lyrics deeply effected the consciousness of an increasing audience.

But Dylan, a restless and innovative artist more committed to music than politics, grew weary of his position as a musical leader in the civil rights movement as well as the counterculture and became tired of playing strictly acoustic folk music.

In 1965, he recorded an album that featured more rock inspired songs such as "Subterranean Homesick Blues", and "Mr. Tambourine Man." Additionally, he introduced folk-rock with half of the album's tracks recorded using an electric guitar.

In the same year he performed at the Newport Folk Festival where he was booed off stage for performing the new electrified material. His transition away from biting social commentary and from folk to rock was shaky because loyal Dylan fans weren't ready to see a new side of their folk hero. Many felt that he had sold out to the more popular rock genre and viewed him as something of a traitor. In retrospect, what appeared to be a sellout was in reality the creation of a new genre on music, Folk Rock.

The controversy continued in 1966, when Dylan performed at the legendary Royal Albert Hall Concert in May. The concert, which actually took place in Manchester, England has long been known to Dylan's fans through poor quality bootleg tapes. In 1998, newly discovered tapes of the concert were re-mastered and released as "Live 1966." This release, for the first time, gives us a very clear impression of the birth of Folk Rock. The first set of the concert was acoustic, with Dylan singing and playing the guitar and harmonica. Although Dylan sounded fine, rather than singing the "finger pointing songs" that the crowd expected, Bob emphasized the poetic nature of his recent work and many of the songs lacked social commentary.

The second set was very different. Dylan played an electric guitar as was backed by a group called "The Hawks," who later became "The Band", who played a heavily amplified electric rock. Near the end of the set, which has shocked the audience, he sang "Ballad of a Thin Man" with its antagonistic lyric:

After that song, one of the audience members yelled "Judas" at Dylan who replied with "I don't believe you" and "You're a liar." He then turned to the band and snarled "play fuckin' loud." They then played "Like a Rolling Stone" in what is considered by many to be the most intense and personal version of this much recorded song. Although there are many interpretations of this song, the lyrics in this version seem autobiographical in that he may very well be singing about himself and the radical change in his music.

How does it feel, how does it feel
To be on your own with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?

This was the last song in the second set. At the end he says "thank you", there is a bit of applause and the concert is over with no encore and no requests for an encore. The new music, folk-rock, that was so hard for this audience to accept, becomes the basis of much of the rock music which follows in the 1960's and to the present.

In 1967, Dylan withdrew to his Woodstock, New York home to recover from injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident. He reappeared in 1969 with a much more mellow voice and appeared with Johnny Cash on "Nashville Skyline". His career and personal life in the 1970's and 1980's had many ups and downs, but,throughout that time he produced important music, and in 1997 his CD, "Time Out of Mind" received great critical and commercial success, winning a Grammy.

It is nearly impossible to overemphasize the importance of Bob Dylan. His role in the history of rock music has been rivaled only by the Beatles, and his lyrics affected the consciousness of an entire generation in both a political and personal way.

© 2021, Department of Arts Administration, Education and Policy, The Ohio State University
Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Counterbalance: ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’

Klinger: It seems like it’s been forever since we checked in with our old friend Bob Dylan. Bob has an astonishing 20 albums on the Great List of the most acclaimed albums of all time, although the triptych of LPs he released in 1965 and 1966 (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde) established Dylan as a critical force and have always garnered the lion’s share of critical acclaim. We’ve covered all three of them, as well as the 1975 Blood on the Tracks, and you have been, to put it charitably, a tough sell regarding the works of His Bobness, so I’m curious as to how you’ll respond to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his pre-electric second album and the one that launched him into the public consciousness.

For a long time, I was pretty sure I had this album completely internalized — after all, I picked it up when I was a college kid, and songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, and “Masters of War” are songs that I might think are completely ingrained in any pop fan’s DNA. But this past trip through the album just keeps revealing stuff to me. Yes, Dylan’s lyrical facility is obviously stunning, but you might sometimes forget the sheer breadth of his capabilities, his ability to turn on a dime from blinding anger to infectious humor to warm tenderness throughout this album. Not to mention the fact that The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was released a few days after the guy’s 22nd birthday. Twenty-two, Mendelsohn. Think of that.

Mendelsohn: I’m not going to lie, I find that fact truly amazing. Dylan goes from being an unknown teenage singer-songwriter whose debut album sold just enough records to cover expenses to penning one of the most transformative records of the 󈨀s. He was so young it simultaneously hurts my head to think about and makes me jealous. Although, at 22 I was pretty good at Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. The thing I don’t really understand is exactly how he goes from being an untested commodity to becoming the voice of a generation. Was it organic growth? Or did he sell his soul to the Devil?

History tells us that Dylan’s growth had a lot to do with him moving in with his girlfriend in New York, Suze Rotolo, who subsequently went to Italy to study art. Her absence apparently had a profound effect on him and spurred his songwriting. He also took a trip to England and picked up some first-hand experience with traditional British folk music. The combination of Dylan’s American blues and the British folk music lies at the heart of this record, creating a firm foundation for his expanding lyrical explorations. That sounds completely plausible however, I’m more inclined to lean toward demonic intervention. How else do you explain Bob Dylan?

Klinger: It’s also possible that he was able to absorb so much from all of his surroundings because he didn’t have access to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. I’m not sure why we’re bringing Satan into all of this, especially since he’s lived long past the age of 27. Dylan began absorbing everything around him from the time he started hanging out around the University of Minnesota to his move to Greenwich Village, he was picking up everything he could get his hands on. (He also apparently had a habit of not necessarily returning the stuff he was borrowing from people, which may serve as an apt metaphor somehow.)

And yes, those influences crop up all over The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but unlike his debut album, he was making all these influences and making them his own. Whether he nicked a bit here or there from whatever to make “Blowin’ in the Wind”, he still managed to write “Blowin’ in the Freakin’ Wind”. And even if he hadn’t managed to take his career where it was about to go, “Blowin’ in the Wind” would still be with us today. But (and I hate to point this out), I can’t help noticing that you’ve dodged my initial question: Is The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan the Dylan album that’s finally turned your head around on Dylan?

Mendelsohn: You can sell your soul to the devil and live past the age of 27, Klinger. It just requires certain other, uh, concessions. And I think it’s pretty obvious that Dylan did indeed do the deal and I don’t really want to think about what else he had to do aside from handing over his everlasting soul. Have you seen him lately? Pencil mustache, black suits, and dead, soulless eyes. Let’s just jump to the obvious conclusion.

I dodged your initial question because you didn’t really ask it in the first place and I didn’t want to blithely lead with, “I hate this record — what have I done to you to deserve this torture?”

I don’t really hate this record, but I find myself yelling at the record player from time to time and then skipping ahead to the next song, especially while I’m listening and trying to do something else. There is a droning quality to it that I can’t shake. Freewheelin’ can be so monotonous. I’m a little more forgiving of the record when I’m listening through headphones. It’s much easier to pick up the nuance, the hidden melody, and the lyrical acuity. But even then, I want more. I want electric. I want a beat. I know I’m a little ahead of myself but I can only take so much folk music, even with heavy influence blues and British traditionals, it starts to grate upon my ears like a malfunctioning refrigerator after a while. It’s not Dylan and it’s not you, Klinger. This is all on me. Ok, well, maybe it’s Dylan.

Klinger: No, it’s you. Because I can’t help but find it odd that you’re not hearing the full range that’s going on here — especially the humor. Between “Talkin’ World War III Blues”, “I Shall Be Free”, and “Bob Dylan’s Blues”, this is often a very funny album. (Funny Bob is a Bob that doesn’t get much ink, but there are terrific examples on nearly all of his albums throughout his career.) His offhanded delivery and palpable love for wordplay and perfect turns of phrase have kept his comic songs fresh even after 50-plus years.

And yes, “Masters of War” is based on a drone-like chord progression, but it works because it’s completely in service to the song. The angst and rage that he feels comes through in every line, and it’s made all the more powerful when you consider that, for 21-year-old kids like him across the country, the threat of war was just beginning to be made real, both in the Cold War terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis (I don’t think people from our generations fully grasp how it meant to feel like nuclear annihilation was standing on our doorstep) and in the (at the time) more abstract worries in Southeast Asia. I don’t want to tell you how to listen to this album or anything, Mendelsohn, but I might suggest that you lean forward a little bit with this one.

Mendelsohn: I know its me. I got this thing with Bob, it’s hard to overcome. The more I lean forward, the more I want to lean back, reach over to the shelf, and grab a different record. The thing is, I understand how great this album is. It is at turns funny and wistful, a sad lament for the love of his life who is off in a far away land, and a searing indictment of the worst part of humanity. He covers all of the ideas with an ease that is unmatched for almost anyone, let alone a 22-year-old kid, and he does it with such self-assuredness that it’s hard to question his conviction. Freewheelin’ flows from point to point, turns on a dime, and then wanders off into the absurd only to bring reality crashing back down with stark witticism.

As great as the lyricism is on this record, Dylan still needed work on the music side of the equation. He’s a little rough, a little repetitive, and while that may be the nature of his folk music, it can be bland and that makes me wonder if Freewheelin’ is just a one-trick pony. Let me ask you this: if “Blowin’ in the Wind”, wasn’t on this record, would we be having this conversation?

Klinger: Well we would, because I’m going to make you talk about Dylan until you finally kill me. In fact, just to punish you further, Empire Burlesque is now on the docket. Brace yourself. But yes, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, to name but two examples, could also have served as tipping points for Dylan’s career, whether for the lyrics or, to counter your argument, the melodies. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating — part of what makes Bob Dylan’s songs so compelling and so coverable is his gift for melody. And yes, with his not-conventionally-beautiful voice, that gift becomes all the more necessary. Also, the album was actually a hit, reaching No. 1 in the UK and a respectable No. 22 Stateside.

But I can only assume that you’re just being your usual delightful contrarian self here, Mendelsohn. Because I simply cannot imagine that someone could sit and listen to an album that’s this varied and yet so consistent and not be in awe. And then to think that this is only the very beginning of his rise is almost too much to contemplate. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan might not be Dylan’s debut, but it does mark the official arrival of one of the 20th century’s driving musical and cultural forces.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

If The Times They Are a-Changin' isn't a marked step forward from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, even if it is his first collection of all originals, it's nevertheless a fine collection all the same. It isn't as rich as Freewheelin', and Dylan has tempered his sense of humor considerably, choosing to concentrate on social protests in the style of "Blowin' in the Wind." With the title track, he wrote an anthem that nearly equaled that song, and "With God on Our Side" and "Only a Pawn in Their Game" are nearly as good, while "Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" are remarkably skilled re-castings of contemporary tales of injustice. His absurdity is missed, but he makes up for it with the wonderful "One Too Many Mornings" and "Boots of Spanish Leather," two lovely classics. If there are a couple of songs that don't achieve the level of the aforementioned songs, that speaks more to the quality of those songs than the weakness of the remainder of the record. And that's also true of the album itself -- yes, it pales next to its predecessor, but it's terrific by any other standard.

Watch the video: Blowin In The Wind (June 2022).


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