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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Bob Dylan: The Freewheelin'

BOB DYLAN: THE FREEWHEELIN' (1963)

1) Blowin' In The Wind; 2) Girl From The North Country; 3) Masters Of War; 4) Down The Highway; 5) Bob Dy­lan's Blues; 6) A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall; 7) Don't Think Twice, It's All Right; 8) Bob Dylan's Dream; 9) Oxford Town; 10) Talking World War III Blues; 11) Corrina, Corrina; 12) Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance; 13) I Shall Be Free.

Common knowledge has it that The Freewheelin', released in May 1963, singlehandedly trans­formed pop music into a serious occupation. The album was loyally recorded in a folk paradigm (with one exception, all the songs strictly respect the Holy Trinity of Bob's voice, Bob's acoustic guitar, and Bob's harmonica), but inspired legions of rockers all the same, including the Beatles, who immediately turned Dylan into an object of worship and began writing songs like ʽI'm A Loserʼ, expanding their active stock of English words and idiomatics.

Common knowledge does not lie — not in this particular case, at least, since the enormous influ­ence of The Freewheelin' on so many things that came after it is well-documented in numerous sources. However, common knowledge may also do the album a disservice. Once it came out, it was mainly the words that caught everybody's attention. The melodies were well played, but they were familiar — just about all of these songs were based on traditional patterns, which Dylan simply expropriated for his own needs: typical behavior for old-school blues and folk troubadours, perhaps, but not something that was expected of the emerging modern-day singer-songwriter. The vocals were... well, you know: «atypical», to say the least. The words — this was stuff that mat­tered. And it did not even matter so much what exactly these words were, but the very fact that, somehow, they seemed sharp, deep, and acutely relevant for 1963 made The Freewheelin' into this cult classic, and then, into one of the most respectable LPs ever released.

But you probably know all that. The real question is — how does the album hold up after all these years? Hundreds, thousands perhaps, of colorful rock poets have emerged since then, some of them shamefully derivative, some, on the other hand, proudly standing up to Bob's verbal talents. The historical importance, once so evident and overwhelming, has receded inside text­books and critical best-of-ever lists. The melodies have been bested, the phrasing has found its rivals, and, for what it's worth, one can always find these songs performed by more skillful voca­lists in improved arrangements — starting with Peter, Paul and Mary's ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ and ending with Elvis' ʽDon't Think Twice, It's All Rightʼ...

...and this is where we have to make a serious comment. In general, the world of those who know something about Dylan in the first place is divided in two sections: the «Dylan For Dylan» sec­tion prefers Bob's own original versions, whereas the «Dylan For Others» section prefers liste­ning to Bob's oeuvres done by those artists who embellish them with intricate arrangements and, most importantly, «clean vocals». Dylan or Joan Baez? Dylan or The Byrds? Dylan or Manfred Mann? Dylan or The Hollies? Dylan or The Band? Dylan or Hendrix? Dylan or Rod Stewart? Dylan or Joe Cocker?... and the list goes on. And considering that Dylan's «composing genius» is questionable, to say the least (more on that later), and also con­sidering that we do not really listen to pop music for the words, no matter how fascinating their combinations might be, this adoption of his songs by other artists basically means that the «Dylan For Others» party can get along very well by drop-kicking Dylan altogether.

The stark-raving «Dylan For Dylan» section has some problems, too: much too often, its mem­bers regard Dylan covers as watered-down, dumbed-down for mass consumption, «prettied up» and losing their essence as a result. This is true in that, once a Dylan song becomes a Dylan cover, it usually ceases to be a Dylan song — I have never heard a single Dylan cover (at least, not by a major artist) that would honestly try to preserve the exact spirit of the original. But instead of complaining, it is much more healthy and pleasing to admire how much additional potential there is in all these songs — and how smoothly they yield to musical reinterpretation, be it the epic hard rock thunderstorm of Hendrix's ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ or the smooth reggae wobble of Clapton's ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ.

In other words, I not only refuse to join either party, but I would strongly admonish everyone else to merge the ranks as well, regardless of whether this means learning to enjoy and respect the simple, acces­sible pleasures of Dylan covers, or — something that is usually more difficult for people — learning to understand and soak in the uniqueness of Dylan originals. In which tasks we should all take our lessons from the musicians themselves. The Byrds loved ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ so much that they covered it, and Dylan loved their version in return (although his famous comment of "wow, you can dance to it!" may, of course, be interpreted ironically — but then, back in 1965 everything that came out of Dylan's mouth had to have an ironic twist).

But let us get back to business. ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ and ʽA Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fallʼ, the two major anthems of Freewheelin', are somewhat similar in structure — based on the old folk «listing» principle, the former keeps asking one meaningless question after the other, while the latter keeps piling up one loose impression and reminiscence after the other. There is a striking contrast here — the amount of briefly skimmed themes and topics is staggering, yet the manner in which they are skimmed (feeble acoustic picking and mumbled vocals) is almost humiliatingly unassuming: Dylan's lack of a strong singing voice is turned to his utter advantage, as he sings about these issues the same way an old hobo could be begging for a drop of whiskey.

On the other hand, he does sing, and the serious singing tone, devoid of hiccups, gulps, and other ways of overstating his purpose, that he had previously only shown on ʽSong To Woodyʼ, is well represented on both of the anthems. And in all honesty, the more I listen to them, the more I am becoming convinced that it is a marvelous singing tone for these kinds of songs. At this stage in his career, Bob prefers to leave his «eccentric» vocal tricks for his lightweight material — the heavyweight stuff, on the other hand, is given over to his world-weary, prophetic persona, which is at the same time skeptical and idealistic: "the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind" sounds hopeful and reassuring for one moment, then bitter and disillusioned for the next one. That is one damn fine nuance that Peter, Paul and Mary were not able to transfer to their inter­pretation — nor, for that matter, was anybody else.

ʽDon't Think Twice, It's All Rightʼ is an early example of Dylan's misogynistic persona — and, since he still had rather small means of overcoming his shyness, probably the least irritating and the most motivated for those who can be bothered by such things. The message is offensive ("you just kinda wasted my precious time" is, come to think of it, a far meaner thing to say than to just call her a fuckin' bitch), but it is delivered in such soothing packaging — the hyper-tender style of acoustic plucking, the soft murmuring that culminates in a most nonchalant, blurry recital of the last chorus line, the overall almost lullaby-style atmosphere of it all — Dylan's evil magic at work: you end up emotionally sympathizing with the protagonist despite understanding precisely well that he's really a doggone bastard.

His theatrical nature does show up a little bit — especially in the way that he so carefully articulates the final "-d" in the incorrect verbal form ("...the light I never know-eD"). Sure, he just wants to emphasize the formal rhyme with "road", but the trick has the effect of aligning the guy with the low-class language fuddlers: «uneducated, but experi­enced through trouble and toil, and endowed with natural wisdom». How do you condemn a guy like that? You don't — you have no choice left but to empathize.

The other two well-known highlights of the «grim» part of the album have not become household staples, for understandable reasons — ʽGirl From The North Countryʼ would soon be over­shadowed by Simon & Garfunkel's ʽParsley, Sage...ʼ, since it is really a courteous, troubadourish song that lended itself better to Paul and Art's formally beautiful, elegiac arrangement; and ʽMas­ters Of Warʼ was just too brutal and straightforward in its onslaught (Dylan himself occasionally expressed surprise at his being able to explicitly wish for somebody's death in a song — not that he would ever change the lyrics in concert, I think).

Which should not detract from their virtues: ʽGirl From The North Countryʼ has all the tenderness of ʽDon't Think Twiceʼ without the sarcasm and woman-bashing — not that Bob's intonations convey the slightest superficial trace of sadness or longing for the girl, it is the song of somebody who has long since accepted and made peace with his lonesome fate. And ʽMasters Of Warʼ, although it openly steals Jean Ritchie's arrangement of the traditional ʽNottamun Townʼ (even­tually costing Bob $5,000 in cash), does that for a good reason — its dirge-like repetitive struc­ture is perfect for a solemn curse, no matter how crudely leftist that curse may be (not that the actual lyrics necessarily have to have a leftist interpretation — a war is always a war, and the song does good by not naming specific names, preserving its relevancy).

A curious fact, rarely commented upon by reviewers, is that The Freewheelin' gradually lightens up as its unusually bulky fifty minutes roll by: starting off with the solemn and the serious, after ʽBob Dylan's Dreamʼ it takes a sharp turn into the lightweight and comical — the last five num­bers are a downright playful sequence, and the idea to put them all together was right there from the start, even before censorship forced Bob to drop some of the politically loaded songs (like ʽTalkin' John Birch Bluesʼ) and replace them with something less «actual». Of course, ʽOxford Townʼ is really about racism, and ʽTalking World War III Bluesʼ is quite apocalyptic in its basic dream message, but the former is still shaped as a humorous folk song, and the latter is a talking blues, where humor is an essential component. And the whole sequence ends with ʽI Shall Be Freeʼ, which already contains no social undercurrent whatsoever (well, almost: that verse about President Kennedy and what we need to make the country grow has always seemed to me as one of the smartest observations on 1960s society in general).

This gradual transition from the solemn to the sacrilegious is really the main thing that makes The Freewheelin' matter as an album — otherwise, it would simply be an early acoustic hit col­lec­tion. Not being too diverse in its melodies and certainly not being diverse in its arrangements (it is almost too easy to overlook the fact that ʽCorrine, Corrinaʼ was recorded with a full backing band, what with its overall quiet sound agreeing so smoothly with the rest of the album), The Freewheelin' has more emotional diversity in its overall 50-minute palette than Woody Guthrie (no offense meant) had in his entire career. Dylan the prophet, Dylan the accuser, Dylan the hardened loner, Dylan the visionary, Dylan the bluesman — and, at the same time, Dylan the social satirist, Dylan the snappy joker, Dylan the musical-slapstick clown. Too bad Dylan the surf-rocker and Dylan the smooth teen idol missed the boat, but there is a physical limit, I guess, on different types of personalities one can handle at the same time.

The album cover deserves a special mention, too — the photographer did a marvelous job of capturing Bob in a downright awkward pose, where he looks like an authentically autistic dude, used to spend most of his life in dark corners, whom his girlfriend just finally happened to drag out in the street to take a brief walk, clinging on to him so tightly not so much out of general pas­sion, but more out of fear that he'd run away at the first occasion (which he eventually did a year later, breaking up with the unfortunate Suze Rotolo out of general immaturity of character). On subsequent covers, he would usually stare at you with either contempt, condescension, or, at best, curiosity (at the general stupidity and backwardness of the human race, no doubt) — on The Freewheelin', he is much too shy to look you in the eye at all.

This shyness permeates the entire LP, as Bob never engages his listeners in bloody fights (even the vicious punch of ʽMasters Of Warʼ is directed somewhere in the open air, unless you are in a position to take it personally). There is, consequently, a thick demarcation line that separates The Freewheelin' from everything that came after it — the «certified genius» and «generation spokes­man» tags that were slapped on to Bob in the wake of the enormous success of the album had an irreversible effect on his persona, and so Freewheelin' remains the only fully original Dylan album to not bear the traces of this pressure. In a way, this is the only «pure» Dylan album out there, written and recorded by a shy, but talented little kid from Hibbing, Minnesota. Later on, the shy little kid was crowned king — and has behaved like a king ever since then. Young king, old king, active king, lazy king, acting king, king in (temporary) exile, whatever: he would al­ways be up there and you would always be down here, in some way. On The Freewheelin', he is not a king yet — he's out in the street with a girl on his arm. When would there be another time he'd allow himself to be photoed with a girl on his arm? Thumbs up for Suze Rotolo and her charming, if doomed, little smile.

Check "The Freewheelin'" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Freewheelin'" (MP3) on Amazon

14 comments:

  1. I'd like to think I've taken the middle road as far as the "Dylan/Others" delineation. It's really about the song itself. "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" is one that I've never heard a cover that exceeds the original. Only Bob can pull off that rapid-fire beat poetry. Maybe some rapper could do it, but it wouldn't be the same. Then again, The Byrds' "All I Really Want To Do" brings out the bright potential of the song.

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    1. A rapper? Perish the thought. The rapid fire "talking blues" songs of Bob's were done in a style learned from Woody Guthrie who was probably influenced by Chris Bouchillon who did the first recorded examples of it in 1926 although in the end it's Dylan's own idiosyncratic interpretation of it.

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  2. George, out of curiosity, have you seen the film "I'm not there" and if so what did you think of it?

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  3. Manfred Mann's Mighty Quinn is a cover that exceeds the original.

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  4. The most accurate review about this album I have read. You didn't miss a single point about what makes it so special. You even mention the cover, which I believe, it's the most beautiful cover ever. Great work!

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  5. George, outstanding review. (These re-written reviews on the blog have it all over the old ones.) I think you made all the important points that need to be made and you encapsulated the record well. One minor gripe, though -- I don't think you're fair in calling the singer's persona "misogynistic", just because of one or two songs where the singer is upset or angry with a former partner. "Misogynistic" implies, to me, either a firm philosophical position or concrete actions taken which denigrate the female sex. It hardly follows that a (nearly still adolescent) singer's song of bitter resignation makes him misogynistic -- otherwise, we'd have to call the singer a "feminist" because he wrote one or two love songs (which Dylan did).

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    1. I agree with that. I'm not even convince that the Rolling Stones are misogynistic either. A song where you criticised an individual person or attacking their character who just so happen to be female isn't misogyny as it doesn't extrapolate that should apply to the entire gender as a whole. So Dylan thinks this individual wasted his time, so how does this mean that this denigrate the entire gender when it clearly just applies to the individual.

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    2. I'll add that if you believe that it is misogyny to describe any individual woman in an unflattering matter. Well isn't that just saying that only men have character flaws as women is perfect. That certainly is sexist

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  6. In terms if cover vs original I generally prefer Dylan vocal but I prefer the covers arrangement. I would love to hear Dylan singing over Hendrix version of watchtower

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  7. Is his fly actually open on the cover? I can't make it out.

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    1. Kinda:
      http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/freewheelin.jpg

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  8. For the most part, I tend to prefer the originals to the covers. Bob's voice is...well, let's just say a unique instrument, and he writes the songs with his voice in mind. Unless the songs make a point of radically reinterpreting the song, too much of the essential character is lost. Many of the lauded covers of Dylan's songs - I'm thinking mainly of The Byrds and Peter, Paul, and Mary - end up sounding like generic 60s folk rock that dates in a way that Dylan's music has not.

    The only Dylan cover I've heard that I'd say is unquestionably better than the original (a few others are equal, or more often, nearly so) is Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower." And it's certainly not because Jimi sings any prettier than Bob does.

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    1. Basically, Dylan covers are best when they recontextualize the song in a surprising way, thus revealing an as-yet unseen potential within it. (But then, that's how I feel about covers in general).

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  9. A long and somewhat important review but credit to Bobs guitar playing here, when he was interested in such things, and the overall passion put into the whole LP. To this day, you could still argue this album is his best.

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