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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan


1) You're No Good; 2) Talkin' New York; 3) In My Time Of Dyin'; 4) Man Of Constant Sorrow; 5) Fixin' To Die; 6) Pretty Peggy-O; 7) Highway 51; 8) Gospel Plow; 9) Baby, Let Me Follow You Down; 10) House Of The Risin' Sun; 11) Freight Train Blues; 12) Song To Woody; 13) See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.

There was never, ever a time, really, when Bob Dylan would be a «folk singer». Folk music has always provided him with base fuel, for sure, but such is Bob Dylan that one cannot even be one hundred percent certain that he likes what usually passes for folk music, much less «admires» or «respects» it. The Freewheelin', his first complete album of (formally) original compositions, had very quickly eclipsed his self-titled debut — but in a way, that debut is not any less original than Freewheelin', and remains an essential listen for even the casual listener.

For the most part, «folk music» around Greenwich Village in the early 1960s had a reverential nature. Rural tradition had to be respected, cherished, almost «sanctified» for its depth and purity, as opposed to commercial music. Robert Allen Zimmerman, a quiet, but troubled, and also slight­ly mischievous, Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, would have none of that. By the time he was spotted and signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond — the same John Hammond that, almost thirty years earlier, «made» Billie Holiday — Bob was already a pretty nifty guitar picker and harp blower, but his technical singing abilities left a lot to be desired. The answer? Quit singing? Nope — redefine singing.

Bob's guitar, harmonica, and vocals do immediately form a holy, interdependent trio, but it is naturally the voice that takes the gold. From a «natural» point of view, it is utterly unlistenable, except for when the singer is in «talking blues» mode, where it is just a blurry murmur, consci­ous­ly or subconsciously devoid of any particular shade of color; whenever the artist actually shifts his natural pitch, the results — by the standards of 1962 — are aurally hideous. And as if simply showing his style wasn't enough, Bob blows the top off the cauldron on ʽFreight Train Bluesʼ, where the vowel in the word "blues", prolonged for a staggering thirteen seconds, produ­ces an effect not unlike the «nails-on-chalkboard» or «fork-on-plate» variety.

If they pressed him into a corner and demanded nothing but the truth, Bob could probably say something about the «far-from-perfect» singing abilities and styles of many of his blues and folk predecessors, both black and white, and how it actually makes things more realistic and closer to the listener and such. But that would not be the entire story. Take a listen to Jesse Fuller's original recording of ʽYou're No Goodʼ, the song that Bob chose for his opening number — old man Ful­ler's set of pipes is nowhere near «angelic», but it does not go against the grain: in his hands, the song is just a gruff traditional folk-dance number. With Dylan, the guitar melody is insanely sped up and «fussified», the vocals are filtered through a nasal twang effect, the pitch sometimes rises to absurdly high levels that he cannot properly hold, and the «gulping» trick that he occasionally plays out certainly does not make him sound like a regular guy — more like someone suffering from a light case of cerebral palsy.

In all actuality, this is not just «folk»: this is some sort of early form of «folk-punk», and from that point of view, Bob Dylan is the natural predecessor (and potential inspiration) to such early and little-known «odd-folk» bands like The Holy Modal Rounders or The Fugs, who would, I think, be quite likely to rate Bob's then-inauspicious debut over the glorious Freewheelin'. The fact that such an album, not only thoroughly uncommercial in general but also extremely radical for the tastes of Bob's folk audience, could get an official release by a major record label in 1962 is nothing short of miraculous, and has everything to do with John Hammond's status and influ­ence — there is little doubt that Bob would have made it anyway, but who knows when, how, and what would the actual revenue have been...

So, anyway, what you get with Bob's exuberant, hyper-energetic renditions of traditional funereal standards like ʽIn My Time Of Dyin'ʼ and ʽFixin' To Dieʼ is neither reverential carbon copies (or would that be «cardboard copies»?) of exhortations done by scary bluesmen, nor reverential scho­larly interpretations, smoothly and politely dressed up for mid-level intellectual consumption. What you get is uniquely «uglified» interpretations of all that material, perhaps repelling at first, but then subtly drawing you in through all the sheer ugliness — think Elephant Man, if you wish, and the analogy is even stronger when you realize that behind this ugliness, as is the case with Elephant Man, there is sensitivity and intellect (if not necessarily kindness — Bob Dylan has been ascribed quite a few virtues over the years, but «kindness» and «niceness» were rarely spot­ted on the list).

The fact that almost the entire album is devoted to covers is, in a way, inevitable. Dylan himself acknowledged that he was «hesitant» to show all of himself from the get-go (even though he had already accumulated quite a backlog of original compositions by 1962) — and besides, all of these «original» compositions, in one way or other, were still derivative of earlier folk and blues songs, so it is instructive to look at those roots in an explicit fashion. Bob's mix of tragedy and comedy is astute — with the ratio of songs about death and suffering vs. songs about fornicating and playing the fool approximately equalling 3:1, Bob Dylan ends up grim, but humorous, per­fectly matching Bob's facial expression on the front cover: simultaneously a little sad and a little smiling, looking at us with... with... actually, I have no idea what the hell that guy is thinking when he is looking at us that way. At 21 years, he was already inscrutable.

Two of the covers should be of specific note. ʽBaby Let Me Follow You Downʼ, played in an arrangement «borrowed» from fellow folkster Eric von Schmidt ("I met him in the green pastures of... Harvard University!" Dylan jokes in the intro, poking even more fun at folkie clichés), is so simple, straightforward, and almost stupidly catchy that Bob would later, every once in while, re­vive it for his electric show. It also provided The Animals with their debut single (retitled ʽBaby Let Me Take You Homeʼ). The other one is Bob's take on ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ, which he boldly sings without changing the "many a poor girl" to "many a poor boy" — something that The Animals actually did, completely turning around the song's message: their version ends up abstract and symbolic, Bob's is quite concise and literal, but the fact that this is Bob singing, and not, say, Joan Baez, adds a familiar pinch of Bob-irony. (It was claimed by Eric Burdon that the band never heard Dylan's version before recording theirs, which is strange, since it is a bit too much of a coincidence that the Animals recorded a whole two songs in 1964, both of which were included on the earlier Bob Dylan: methinks somebody's withholding the whole truth here).

As for the originals, there are only two, both of them important ones: ʽTalkin' New Yorkʼ is a fic­tionalized, humorized tale of Bob's first acquaintance with NYC, so it both introduces the artist as the artist and initiates Bob's lengthy string of «talking blues» numbers that would provide comic relief throughout his early acoustic period. ("Man there said, come back some other day, you sound like a hillbilly, we want folk singers here" — if that's autobiographical, no wonder Bob has been taking his revenge out on folk singers ever since). And ʽSong To Woodyʼ, which borrows the melody from one of Guthrie's own songs, gives the impression of being this album's one small drop of sincerity, as Bob both acknowledges his debt to the great folkster and states that he is not going to go the same route: "The very last thing that I'd want to do / Is to say I'd been hittin' some hard travelin' too". I'm not sure how many people back then scrutinized those particular lyrics, but those that did could have predicted that this guy was certainly not going to go the Dave van Ronk / Eric von Schmidt route.

Keeping all that in mind, Bob Dylan is not just a skippable foreword. On the contrary, it is es­sen­tial listening for anybody with even a passing interest in the man, although, true enough, more from an informational point of view: all of these performances are innovative, curious, and thought-provoking, but they will probably not provide you with any important epiphanies or any­thing like that. Still, Bob's career in the 1960s is one of the most important plays in XXth century theater, and when you go watch an important play, you don't want to miss the setup, don't you? You certainly don't. Hence, thumbs up all the way.

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Check "Bob Dylan" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. He may have moved on to bigger things in the future, but this has nonetheless always been among me very favourites from Bob. It's just so darn charming.

  2. Haha, for months now I was eagerly anticipating your Dylan reviews. The funny coincidence is that although a huge fan of Dylan myself, I only recently (last week) bought the eponymous debut album. It arrived yesterday and my first listening of it was some hours ago. I will refrain from reading your review until I have formed more than a tentative impression of the album. Your reviews are nearly always well-written, and may sway my opinion :).

  3. "Take a listen to ...
    OK, once and just once I will accept your advise. I agree with you on Jesse Fuller. I also hear what you mean with "insanely sped up". But it's still Bob Dylan and to me that is equal to utter bore. Mind you, I far from hate him; he just leaves me completely indifferent.
    Your colleague John McFerrin, who also writes excellent reviews, concluded with

    "If you don't believe this, well, that's your loss."
    No. It saves me a waste of time. Many, many have tried to convince me otherwise the last 35 years or so. To no avail but waste of time. One reason is that they almost always argue that his lyrics are excellent and say hardly anything about the actual notes. In my eyes that makes BD a poet, not a composer.
    As I do like to write nasty things but am not a troll this will be my only comment on BD, the ultimate musical bore. My comment applies to every single BD song I know and I have heard far more than I care to remember.

    1. Oh yes, the "Dylan marker" is one of the most efficient indicators of different musical planets on which people live, and a completely futile topic for discussion.

      That said, most people defend Dylan by means of the lyrics just because it's the simplest way of defense. It is not highly likely that any of them love Dylan just for the words - at least, I can try to make that inference based on my own feelings.

    2. I don't think anyone can like Bob Dylan despite of his lyrics though.

      Personally I have my favorite verses for many of his songs, verses which are otherwise identical if one doesn't know any English. And I don't think I would accept the monotony of his songs if he was humming.

    3. Ceres I disagree with that.

      What convince me to jump in the Dylan camp when previously I had similar views to MNb is the realisation that Dylan was really a folk ambience artist. You listen to him in the same mentality as an Eno or a Sigur Ros album. Especially about half of blonde on blonde and time out of mind. Now I generally dislike ambient music as well but Dylan differs with the rest as he writes good melodies, excellent vocalist and can penned some decent lyrics now and then on top of his ambient music. To me him writing soundtrack music like Pat Garrett is a logical extension of his career unlike the normal baffled Dylan fan (Dylan without lyrics gasp)

    4. Somewhat apropos the discussion on appreciating Dylan for the lyrics versus the music is the (long!) '99 New Yorker article by Alex Ross, whose online copy I can only find at:

      An entertaining read in its own right (at least to this Dylan fan), there is some interesting discussion on the musical tricks at play with songs like Hard Rain, Sad Eyed Lady, et cetera.

    5. Listening to Dire Straits helped me to understand why Bob Dylan is a good musician. BD created the style of singing, nonetheless it's easier to appreciate DS.

  4. Actually, I sort of believe the Animals' story. Their re-titled version of "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" is credited to Bert Russell (the guy behind "Twist and Shout", "Hang On Sloopy" and "Piece of My Heart", among many other songs), which he "wrote" for someone else earlier in '64. As for "House of the Rising Sun", they claim to have been inspired by some a British folky's rendition they heard in a club.

    However, the fact that one of the few original numbers by the original Animals ("Story of Bo Diddley") quoted "Talkin' New York" makes me wonder...

  5. Just a quick note: 'Bob Dylan' was recorded not in 1962, but in November 1961, when Dylan was just 20. (It was, of course, released later, in March 1962 -- but Dylan was still just 20 then.)

    It's almost unbelievable that Dylan arrived in New York in January 1961, aged 19, and ten months later was in Columbia Studios on John Hammond's recommendation recording an LP. I guess that Hammond guy knew what he was doing...