Bob Dylan – Bob Dylan
April 28, 2023
OVERALL (OUT OF 10): 10
Anybody ever see the Coen brothers’ 2013 movie Inside Llewyn Davis? Oscar Isaac plays a folk singer in the early 60’s New York scene Bob Dylan emerged from. Llewyn has his issues – having recently lost his performing partner to suicide, he’s a bit at loose ends, and has a little trouble controlling his arrogance and disdain for others, which is unfortunate considering he’s someone who has to avoid sleeping on the street by crashing on the couches of the few admiring fans he has. At one point he is offered an opportunity to join a faux-Peter, Paul, and Mary by a faux-Albert Grossman, but Llewyn refuses to make the artistic compromise he believes that would represent, instead maintaining his artistic integrity as he continues on a trajectory of going from bad to worse to somehow even worse than that. Mr. Issacs acquits himself well as a folk singer – he’s got something to fall back on if that acting gig doesn’t pan out, and it is loads of fun to see a pre-Poe Dameron Issacs, pre-Kylo Ren Adam Driver, and Justin Timberlake of all people (whose wife Llewyn has been sleeping with) as a trio recording a novelty song together.
I mention this not only because I like the movie and think of it whenever I listen to folk music, but also as a point of reference for understanding Bob Dylan’s debut album, Bob Dylan. The folk music scene portrayed in the movie has been described as fairly authentic (I wasn’t around at the time, so I’ll take their word for it), and it is interesting to think of a young Bob Dylan schlepping around the coffee shops of Greenwich Village, plying his take on folk music. The movie is worth seeing just to get a taste of what that world was like.
But here’s the thing – I don’t think Bob Dylan was as averse to artistic compromise as Llewyn Davis was. I think Dylan compromised all the time when he was chasing his dream. I have no doubt he was nominally committed to folk music at the time he released his first album, but he was perfectly willing to jump on the rock-n-roll train when it pulled into the station. He certainly lost his enthusiasm for protest after a couple of albums, he kind of left that behind long before any of the issues he was allegedly so passionate about even came close to being resolved. “The Times Kept a Changin’”, so to speak, but from Another Side of Bob Dylan forward he seems like he couldn’t have cared less. And sure, an artist can and should grow and evolve and morph over the years, and to some extent our Bobby has. I wouldn’t have wanted him to just make Freewheelin’ Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 and Vol.4 ad infinitum on into the next five decades. In some sense, he did what a true artist should do – explore different directions instead of standing in the same place their whole career. That said, it is hard for me to shake the feeling there has a been a touch of opportunism in some of Dylan’s changes over the years, as exemplified by his willingness to toss protest music aside once he’d ridden that train to stardom. Maybe opportunism isn’t a fair word to use – but I’m not at all sure pure art has necessarily been his only guiding star over the years.
I certainly don’t think he’s been as shrewd and strategic in planning his career moves as some people make him out to be. I’ve heard him described as wily, clever, always a step ahead of his audience. And sometimes I think he was – when we went electric, nobody saw that coming. But sometimes I also think he’s just thrown stuff at the wall to see what sticks. I don’t for a minute believe Self Portrait was an attempt to confound his admirers, shake off his mantle as voice of a generation, and leave his many disciples behind, as so many have tried to suggest. I think he thought he was making an album people would like. And why wouldn’t he think they’d like it? They’d liked John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, was Self-Portrait really such a radical departure in terms of sound and musical approach (now quality of the material, that’s another story altogether)? Besides, if he’d really been intentionally trying to lose his audience, I don’t think he would have rushed back into the studio to give us New Morning once it was apparent that Self Portrait had belly flopped.
Strategic or random, all of the twists and turns in Mr. Zimmerman’s career have made for an interesting journey, and for me it makes it all the more interesting to go back to the starting point, which gave nary a hint of the long and winding road to follow. And if you have never heard it, I highly, highly recommend Bob Dylan, which I would actually place among his top 5 albums.
“Whoa there”, I can hear some of you saying, “you can’t be serious?” You bet I am – fixin’ to die serious. Yeah, I know, Dylan didn’t write but two of the songs on the album. Yeah, I know, it’s just him and a harmonica and a guitar, and that’s it on the whole album. Yeah, I know, it didn’t light the world on fire at the time. But I’m going to let you all in on a little secret, one that will no doubt make some of your shake your heads in disgust – I like Bob’s debut album about a million times better than I like Blonde on Blonde. In fact, I find the latter album highly overrated. There, I said it. Can I really be the only person on the planet that despises “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and “Pledging My Time”? Gotta say, though, admittedly “Visions of Johanna” is pure brilliance. Hate me all you want, but there are some things I love about Bob Dylan that I don’t love about Blonde on Blonde or some of his other more ballyhooed albums, which include
Perhaps the most committed vocals of this entire discography. There would be times in the future when he would affect a cool detachment in his singing. There would be times fifty years later when his vocals would be little more than a gruff croak. But his singing inhabits these songs in a way they wouldn’t in any of the many albums to come. He sings these songs in a way that makes them sound lived-in. Never again would he sound so vocally committed. I’m pretty sure Bob’s never been a female prostitute working in “The House of the Rising Sun”, but the regret, the shame, the despair in his voice is real – as is the desperation when the narrator warns her little sister to shun the House of the Rising Sun. His vocal on “In My Time of Dying” is true to the spirit of the song – after all, Clarksdale, Mississippi isn’t the only place people ever die, and singing it through a a Hibbing, Minnesota filter doesn’t have to diminish its power. Sure, I will always prefer the power and intensity of the Led Zeppelin version on Physical Graffiti, but somehow a 20-year old Robert Allen Zimmerman managed to sound far older and more world-weary than should have been possible on the song for someone so young. Same with “Fixin’ to Die” – what a remarkably passionate vocal – “Fixin’ fixin’ to die”. When would he ever again sound so feral and ferocious? True commitment to the principles of Christianity – temporarily anyway – was a good fifteen years away for Dylan, but he sure sounds like he means it on “Gospel Plow”. Even the songs that aren’t downers have far more emotive vocals than you can find on any other Dylan album – when would he ever sing with as much desire as “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”, or with as much joy as “Pretty Peggy-O”? There’s a fatalism in his voice on “Highway 51” unmatched on any subsequent album.
This is Bob Dylan singing at his most engaged, most resonant, most sympathetic to the spirit of the song. “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”, two albums later, is absolutely riveting as a song – but his vocals don’t make me feel it the way the vocals on this album do. I’m a huge fan of the whimsy of “Mr. Tambourine Man” four albums later – but the vocals don’t pull me in like “Highway 51” or “Fixin’ to Die”. His next album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is the better album, no doubt, but even gems like “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Masters of War” don’t have the same level of commitment in the vocals as the songs on Bob Dylan.
Just listen to that guitar work. Yes, he was always a marvelous guitar player, but I think Bob Dylan highlights this better than any of his subsequent albums. Just listen to his doom-laden playing on “In My Time of Dying”, or the frantic strumming of “Highway 51” that he’d later adapt for “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, or the intensity of the guitar on “Fixing to Die”. Dylan is much underrated as a guitar player, and his finger-picking prowess was never on better display than on Bob Dylan.
And keep in mind he was singing or playing harmonica at the same time. Most of us can hardly chew gum and walk at the same time – stop and think for a minute about the mental processing skills required to play some of those complex fingerpicked guitar parts while playing a separate melody on a harmonica at the same time. Or singing while you are playing those guitar parts. Dylan never gets his due for being able to do two complex things at the same time – if you don’t believe me, you try it. It is particularly impressive on “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” – that’s some pretty demanding finger picking at the same time he is wailing away on his harmonica. And no overdubbing here, this was a live take with Dylan doing both things at the same time. It’s a pretty remarkable feat really. Not everybody can do that. The song is insanely catchy on top of that – any time I hear it, it’s stuck in my head the rest of the day. But it is jaw dropping when you consider Dylan’s ability to perform two very different musical parts simultaneously – and this album has the first, and best, recorded examples of that by Mr. Dylan.
Maybe the two songs he wrote on the album aren’t his best, but overall the track list is rock solid. Sure, most of the album is covers, but they are so well-performed I really don’t care. “Talkin’ New York Blues” is a mildly amusing recounting of Dylan’s pre-fame struggles in the folk scene, but it’s no indication of the song-writing genius to come. “Song for Woody” is a nice thought I guess for a folk legend laid low, but its hardly a remarkable song. The two songs he wrote on the album don’t wow me. But Dylan – probably with some encouragement from John H. Hammond – picked some stellar folk standards for the album, and stakes his claim to them. As far as I’m concerned, he owns these songs, even if he didn’t write them. Wikipedia tells me he pissed off Dave Van Ronk by stealing the arrangement for “House of the Rising Sun”, but personally I am glad he did, I would never have heard it on a Dave Van Ronk album. Weirdly, Dylan opens the album with the weakest song on the whole thing, “You’re No Good”, with its goofy lyrics, fairly standard guitar work, and hammy vocal delivery. Skip it if you want, just be sure you don’t miss out on all of the marvels that follow.
He would record more sophisticated albums, for sure. He’d dazzle us in the future with much stronger songwriting. Bob Dylan is not the musical tour de force I consider Bringing It All Back Home to be. Generally Dylan’s debut album is considered fairly ancillary to his legend. Most people think the story begins with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Personally, I disagree. The story begins here. The songwriting genius is still over the horizon, but Bob Dylan as a force of nature is here in full bloom. Never again would he sound so authentic, so driven, so plugged into the unplugged music he was playing. I’m not sure we’d again see such a clear display of his skills as a musician. He would make better albums – but there is something vital forceful and pure about his debut. Due to its lack of sales, the album earned Dylan the nickname “Hammond’s Folly” at the time – but history shows it didn’t take Hammond long to get the last laugh. Bob Dylan is criminally underrated due to being obscured by the albums that follow, but I believe it to be essential listening.
If you like Bob Dylan, or folk music, or both, or even neither – don’t you dare die without hearing this album. 10 out of 10, no question.
8 responses to “Album Review: Bob Dylan – Bob Dylan”
Totally agree. One of the first Bob albums I heard, thanks to my uncle, and no doubt one of the best. My favorite Bob album is New Morning but this one isn’t far behind!
Yeah, I’m a big fan of New Morning as well, another underrated Dylan album.
You are about spot on here describing feelings I’ve had for years about Dylan’s debut. You’re No Good, though, is a hoot, I’ve found, when playing for others. Catches their attention. Perhaps why it is the first song on the first album. Song To Woody seems a little undervalued here. Listen to the singing and commitment again.
I tried a few guitar lessons once and brought in Let Me Follow You Down because I wanted to unlock the mystery it was to me. This is pre Google and tab being so easily obtainable. He gave it a listen and said he wouldn’t show me and to learn it myself. The playing apparently was offensive to him. Still don’t get it after all these years. This teacher was extremely knowledgeable of the guitar and technically proficient but didn’t understand playing from the gut. The teacher’s recordings were beautiful. Meaning, fantastic to get some beauty sleep.
Yeah, I’ve tried to learn to play Let Me Follow You Down on guitar, never could quite get it. You’re right about playing from the gut, Dylan’s playing on the album deserves more attention.
I think that’s a pretty well spoken review, and I agree with much of it, including the fact that people don’t understand the difficulty Level of playing guitar and harmonica, singing, and making it all sound listenable and I also agree that blonde on blonde is probably overrated and I never liked the pillbox hat song or stuck inside a mobile, both kind of irritating to listen to. personally, like many others I’ll stick with his material in the 70s of course blood on the tracks but I may even like desire better you just can’t beat hurricane or Black diamond day or Mozambique. Those are Bob at his best to me. He also rips it on the last waltz with baby let me follow you down.
Yeah, I love Blood on the Tracks but I love Desire even more, I can’t figure out why it doesn’t rate higher among Bob Dylan albums.
Haven’t listened to it in years…may give it another try but certainly wouldn’t have been phenomenon Dylan without Freewheeling
The album’s title says it all: c’est tout! Spot on!