The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan : Bob Dylan (#36)

Bob Dylan | The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May 1963)
Folk / Blues – 50:04

“Just because you like my stuff doesn’t mean I owe you anything.”

There’s a lot of pressure when you’re just a 22-year-old kid and a generation is looking towards you as the spokesman of their generation. You’re still trying to work out your own place in the world while there are thousands – if not millions – of your contemporaries expecting you to have all the answers. Of course, that could have something to do with writing an album of songs which strikes a chord with your peers, in effect kick-starting a cultural revolution that would change the face of the modern world. Not bad going for a singer whose first album, just one year earlier, had struggled to sell 5,000 copies.

If writing something new about The Beatles was hard, then Bob Dylan is even harder. His work and life have been dissected so many times that it is impossible to come up with a different perspective – or, at least, with one that hasn’t been tainted by the voice of others. It doesn’t help that, as a university undergraduate 20-odd years ago, one of my English modules was the lyrics of Dylan. Two decades later, having spent more time in the company of Bob, I’m still not sure I’m qualified for the task of publicly examining his work. It doesn’t help that I will face doing this for six more of his albums across the life of this blog (in case you’re wondering, the other works by Dylan to feature in the 1,001 Albums… are Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks, Time Out of Mind and Live 1966).

Dylan’s role weighs heavy on modern music – more so than any other artist. He was constantly ahead of his time, forcing other musicians to run just to keep up with him. The result was a heady mix of exciting new sounds as others gained the confidence to try out different things. And it can all be traced back to Freewheelin’. Dylan’s debut had consisted primarily of cover versions (with just two original pieces); by the time he released his second album, he had penned 11 of the 13 numbers. While many were heavily influenced by previous folk songs, his lyrics and musical arrangements showed a man who had talent flowing from every pore on his body.

So was the tag ‘Spokesman for a Generation’ one that Dylan was worthy of holding? If we look at the man himself, then probably not; he was clearly more interested, as the 1960s rolled on, in pushing himself as an artist than spouting soundbites on behalf of young people around the world. But the songs themselves still resonate more than 50 years later, proving that his gift as a songwriter was timeless. Dylan once said: “I never wanted to be a prophet or a saviour”; as true as this may be, his lyrics have become more than just words but have felt their power in people everywhere.

For someone who didn’t want to represent others, the opening track of the album does little to refute the claim. Blowin’ in the Wind was quickly picked up as an anthem for disaffected youth beyond the folk community. The passing of time, together with the gentle sound of the song, has given it the air of respectability and even contentment. But listen to those lyrics; the answers are unknowable – simply blowing (like dust) in the wind. It is a hint at the darkness of the whole album. From the anger of Masters of War to the pain of Girl from the North Country, from the pessimism of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall to the bitterness of Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, this is an album that takes a rather downbeat look at modern life. Hearing Girl from the North Country – a song he would later sing as a duet with Johnny Cash on Nashville Skyline – Dylan’s voice sounds broken and battered; here is a man barely into his 20s who already has the weight of the world crushing down on him. Even when he hopes that she remembers him, you already know – as does Dylan – that it is never going to be the case. This is an album where a lost soul is bared, wounded and beaten.

But with it comes a mastery of words. With Masters of War and, more so, A Hard Rain, it becomes apparent that Bob is able to articulate his anger and fears far better than many of his contemporaries. Perhaps this is where his genius lays; like others who will appear on this list, he is a poet who happens to put his work to music, rather than a musician trying to put words to the emotion of his music. Perhaps the greatest – and most devastating – break-up song ever written, Don’t Think Twice, wonderfully sums up the feelings many of us have felt at the end of a relationship: “I could have done better, but I don’t mind; you just kinda wasted all my precious time.” Dylan had a knack, which he was able to repeat, in saying what we wanted to say but could never find the words.

It’s also interesting to him continuing to emulate those who had influenced him musically. Aside from the already mentioned Girl from the North Country (based on an arrangement of Scarborough Fair which he had learned from a folk singer while visiting England), tracks like Down the Highway could easily have been played by his idols, particularly Woody Guthrie. His spoken introduction to Bob Dylan’s Blues could come straight from Jack Elliott; it is often said that Dylan copied Elliott’s style of playing and singing closely, and the track does sound like a carbon copy of Elliot’s own work.

This is an incredibly dense piece of work that, unlike some of the albums on this list, becomes more complex the longer you listen to it. It bears repeated listening not because it sounds nice but because it speaks to us at a deeper level. I don’t want to read too much into it (and become one of those people who Dylan hates for dissecting his work too much), but there is something in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that manages to seep into the soul. Not just an important album, containing the seeds of popular music for the next 50 years and more, but a fantastic piece of work. It would be fair to say that this is the first work of genius by one of the masters of songwriting.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan here:

Next time: A Christmas Gift for You by Phil Spector