Bob Dylan: 50 years of hard travellin’

Fifty years ago today, on 9 March 1962, Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album was released.  Dylan had arrived in New York only 14 months earlier and was still three months short of his 20th birthday. The songs on Bob Dylan  consisted of familiar folk, blues and gospel material combined with two original compositions. The album made little impact, selling only 5,000 copies in its first year, just enough to break even.  Dylan had been signed to Columbia Records by the legendary producer John Hammond, and some at the company began referring to Dylan as ‘Hammond’s Folly’ suggesting that Dylan’s contract should be ended.

I swung onto my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
Greenwich Village

I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block
Got on the stage to sing and play
Man there said, “Come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly
We want folk singers here”

Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play
Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day
I blowed inside out and upside down
The man there said he loved m’ sound
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound
Dollar a day’s worth

And after weeks and weeks of hangin’ around
I finally got a job in New York town
In a bigger place, bigger money too
Even joined the union and paid m’ dues
– ‘
Talkin’ New York’

Yesterday in an article in The Observer marking the anniversary, Ed Vulliamy wrote:

The immediately astonishing impact of the album, by any measure, is the contrast between the image of the unsmiling but fresh-faced lad in his cap and the depth of feeling and range in the singing between love, rage, sorrow and a fixation with death. The core of the album is ‘Fixin’ To Die’, sung as though he were pleading for the life he is about to lose, such is Dylan’s understanding of the intentions of its author, the great Delta blues master Booker T Washington – aka “Bukka” – White.

This is Dylan performing the song on a radio show and being interviewed by Cynthia Gooding on 11 March 1962:

Assessing the significance of the debut album, Vulliamy notes that

The estimable British writer on Dylan, Michael Gray, argues interestingly that the real value of the album is not only that it showed “more than a hint of a highly distinctive vision”, but also “served as a fine corrective for Greenwich Village: it was the opposite of effete,” he says, “in the context of what was happening at the time – American folk culture all but obliterated, and a stagnating ‘folk’ cult established as if in its place.”

Bruce Eder, reviewing the album for Allmusic, pinpoints what made Dylan’s debut album differ from the rest of the folk revivalists of the time:

A significant portion of the record is possessed by the style and spirit of Woody Guthrie, whose influence as a singer and guitarist hovers over “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Pretty Peggy-O,” as well as the two originals here, the savagely witty “Talkin’ New York” and the poignant “Song to Woody” … But on other songs, one can also hear the influences of Bukka White, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Furry Lewis, in the playing and singing, and this is where Dylan departed significantly from most of his contemporaries.  Other white folksingers of the era, including his older contemporaries Eric Von Schmidt and Dave Van Ronk, had incorporated blues in their work, but Dylan’s presentation was more in your face … There’s a punk-like aggressiveness to the singing and playing here. His raspy-voiced delivery and guitar style were modeled largely on Guthrie’s classic ’40s and early-’50s recordings, but the assertiveness of the bluesmen he admires also comes out, making this one of the most powerful records to come out of the folk revival of which it was a part. Within a year of its release, Dylan, initially in tandem with young folk/protest singers like Peter, Paul & Mary and Phil Ochs, would alter the boundaries of that revival beyond recognition, but this album marked the pinnacle of that earlier phase, before it was overshadowed by this artist’s more ambitious subsequent work.

Harold Lepidus at Examiner.com says the album shines even more today:

It has often been dismissed as a minor album, with only one “major” original composition – “Song To Woody.” For many fans, it was a late addition, something the “complete” their collection.  Now, with a half-century of hindsight, the album comes across as a marvel. Dylan, who was twenty at the time, slams through the material with a reckless intensity, like a sort of folk punk, or an acoustic Billy Bragg. What many people don’t realize is that this was virtually unheard of at the time, especially on a major label.

Bob Dylan on a rooftop in New York, 1962

Roland Ellis at Pig River Records adds:

At this time the world had Pete Seeger to gauge the spirit of folk. The family loving, working class, song of the people, serious folk man. Dylan was a new breed – he took what he needed from the traditionals and left their slowly cooked polish at the door, he didn’t take Seeger and co’s folk ideals seriously, and most importantly he possessed a cheek, a personality, and a spark that hadn’t been present on the politically/culturally driven folk records of the past. Folk was serious and selfless music and from the beginning Dylan was something more. He wasn’t interested in passing on old wisdom from gen to gen, he was instead concerned with using this genre and the stories of America in order to deliver something far more introspective and entirely of his own.

It’s ‘Song To Woody’ though that really signifies the arrival of Bob Dylan the songwriter, and really lives on as the lasting landmark from his debut record. Lyrically insightful and adoring of his hero, ‘Song To Woody’ seems to lament the diminished state that Guthrie was in at the time, whilst at the same time reassuring him that it’s okay, someone has arrived to carry the dustbowl into a new world. That new world was indeed stumbling into existence in early 1962, and along with it was a man that would come to embody everything that the children of the revolution wanted from the 1960′s. Cometh the hour and cometh the boy from Minnesota on a freight train constructed in his own mind.

There are almost no Dylan originals on YouTube (his office must be exceedingly diligent in squashing any uploads), but if you search for ‘Song To Woody’, you do find this treasure: in May 1970, shortly after The Beatles broke up, Bob Dylan and George Harrison recorded this version in New York with Charlie Daniels on bass:

Apart from marking the release of his first album, 1962 was significant for young Bob Zimmerman in two other respects.  In August 1962 he legally changed his name to Bob Dylan, while a few weeks earlier he wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,  the song that would see him break through to a much wider audience.   In Down the Highway, Howard Sounes wrote:

Bob composed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in a matter of minutes sitting in a cafe across the street from the Gaslight Club. Although he thought ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ special, he did not understand the full significance of what he had done. ‘It was just another song I wrote.’ The melody was uncannily similar to the African-American spiritual ‘No More Auction Block.’ However, borrowing melodies, and even lyrics, was part of the folk tradition and thus perfectly acceptable. A more pertinent criticism of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ concerned the rhetorical lyrics. Many of the most distinguished folk artists in New York were underwhelmed when they first heard the song. There seemed no link between the relentless questions; and, at the end of three verses, none of the questions had been resolved, except to say the answer was blowing in the wind, an image so vague that, arguably, it meant nothing.

Pete Seeger did not regard it highly. ‘ “Blowin’ in the Wind” is not my favorite,’ he says. ‘It’s a little easy.’ Tom Paxton found it almost impossible to learn. ‘I hate the song myself. It’s what I call a grocery-list song where one line has absolutely no relevance to the next line.’ Dave Van Ronk thought it dumb. Still, within a couple of months of Bob performing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ at Gerde’s Folk City, Van Ronk noticed to his surprise that musicians hanging around Washington Square Park had invented irreverent parodies such as, ‘The answer, my friend, is blowin’ out your end.’ As Van Ronk says, ‘If the song is strong enough, without even having been recorded, to start garnering parodies, the song is stronger than I realized.'[His manager], meanwhile, knew Bob had created something extra­ordinary. ‘ “Blowin’ in the Wind” was the key to it all,’ he says. ‘That song made it all happen.’ …

On July 30, 1962, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ the song that was the foundation stone of Bob’s career and a catalyst of the singer-songwriter revolution, was copyrighted to M. Witmark & Sons. The same day, [Dylan’s new manager Albert] Grossman signed what Bob later called ‘a secret deal’ with M. Witmark & Sons giving Grossman fifty percent of Witmark’s share of the publishing income generated by any songwriter he brought to the company. Now Grossman stood to earn a substantial slice of Bob’s publishing fees, over and above the [20 percent] cut he took for managing him. This backhanded deal was one of Bob’s primary com­plaints when he and Grossman were in legal dispute in the 1980s, although in fairness Grossman was getting an enhanced part of Witmark’s share, and not necessarily money Bob himself would have received. Bob claimed indignantly that he had known nothing of Grossman’s fifty percent deal with M. Witmark & Sons (Grossman insisted he had told him). Bob also claimed to have had no idea Grossman was given as much as $100,000 to advance to him for signing with M. Witmark & Sons, of which he received one percent. Bob’s attorneys asserted that Grossman had ‘willfully and maliciously’ concealed vital information. The secretiveness was what angered Bob who was, of course, a very secretive person himself.

However, this was not the end of Grossman’s machinations. The last part of his plan was, in fact, the cleverest. If Peter, Paul and Mary [a group Grossman had created] had a hit with a Bob Dylan-Witmark song, Grossman would earn fourfold. He had his management fee from the two acts, plus his twenty-five per­cent of Peter, Paul and Mary’s recording income from Warner Bros., plus fifty percent of the income Witmark earned from publishing a Dylan song. When Peter, Paul and Mary had a massive hit with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ and top-forty success with two further songs written by Dylan, Grossman became as rich as Croesus.  Suddenly, money had become very important.

Bob Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas Party in London, 22 December 22 1962.

In the first week of October 1962, the Beatles’ first single ‘Love Me Do’ was released, reaching number 17 in the UK charts.  I can clearly remember that, and in my memory the whole Beatles phenomenon precedes my discovery of Dylan.  I’m pretty certain that it was June 1963 before I registered the name of Bob Dylan, when Peter Paul and Mary released their hit version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  Then, a couple of months later listening to radio coverage of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, I heard Dylan sing probably for the first time.

Dylan had actually visited London in December 1962,  to appear in a BBC TV drama, The Madhouse on Castle Street. At the end of the play, Dylan performed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, but I never saw that – we didn’t have a TV at the time. While in London, Dylan performed at several London folk clubs, and learned new songs from British folk singers such as Martin Carthy.  One of the songs he picked up from Carthy was the ballad Lord Randall’, on which Dylan based the tune of  ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, the standout track on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in May 1963.

Graeme Thomson, in a superb piece on the artsdesk website, ‘Bob Dylan: Fifty Years of Crooked Road‘, writes:

Fifty years ago today Bob Dylan released his first album, Bob Dylan, on Columbia. Within 12 months he was a rising star; twelve months more and he was the voice of the times; a little over a year later he had gone from saviour to Judas. And on it went. For half a century now successive generations have wrestled with Dylan’s mutations; mostly we pick and choose and settle for – at best – a partial understanding. At the age of 70, Dylan’s appeal is still wrapped up in mystery, mischief and contradiction.

Hailed initially as the king of folk-protest thanks to anthems such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, the enduring image of Dylan as the great liberal voice of the Sixties is a clear anomaly within the context of his 50-year career. His social conscience was largely a creative convenience (like most young men he wrote primarily to impress girls, in his case his politically engaged girlfriend Suze Rotolo) which swiftly turned into a millstone. He realised early on that deification by the liberal literati was a short road to fossilisation and swiftly resigned his post; the coruscating “Positively Fourth Street”, released in 1965, still stands as the greatest ever abdication note set to music. Instead, Dylan has preferred to stir the mind, heart and senses with opaque poetry rather than ideology.  […]

Since his critical and creative regeneration in the early Nineties – which began with two wonderful acoustic folk albums, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, and was sealed by the superb Time Out of Mind – Dylan has removed all traces of modernity from his work. His last four records have been composed entirely from the music of the earlier parts of the last century, touching on jazz, swing, country, Fifties rock’n’roll, folk and most often blues. His lyrics nowadays are an incongruous mix of sulphurous End Times impressionism, sly romance and sexual humour, all of which suggests that Dylan is having plenty of fun while simultaneously believing that the world has gone to hell in a handcart.

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4 thoughts on “Bob Dylan: 50 years of hard travellin’

  1. I saw him at the Odeon (yes!) on London Road on 1 May 1965 (Liverpool beat Leeds in the Cup the same day). And it was all-acoustic whatever people say! But perhaps I’d had too much Red Barrel or whatever it was in those days. Never again (Dylan not the Red Barrel).

    1. i parked my car last night in the car park on the grounds of what was the odeon and tried to imagine where the stage would’ve been that bob stood on!!! an emotional moment!!

  2. Nice piece. You nailed it on Grossman, who might well have killed Dylan with the constant touring in 1966-68 that he had booked. Did Dylan even have a motorcycle accident? “Dear Landlord, please don’t put a price on my soul…” …indeed.

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