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Dylan's schooling in Americana; essential to Dylan students
on October 10, 2007
BOB DYLAN, like the debut LPs by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, are stunning collections of music for their perspective genre, but has long been outclassed by the band's subsequent work. However, the album is an (imperfect) snapshot of Dylan's early days, and in its own way an important indicator of Dylan's musical roots. Unlike The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, BOB DYLAN was recorded for a much smaller audience in mind, and sold in rather slim numbers.
The album is comprised of eleven traditional songs and two covers. The reason was because in the early 1960s folk revival, the artists of that movement focused primarily on traditional material, they were much more concerned with interpretative songs than singing original compositions, a thing which Dylan himself would soon be changing.
In a mid 1960s review, Bob Dylan he was disgusted that all these people suddenly deciding they'd just start writing songs without any real knowledge of the traditional body of songs that have been before them. When asked about his own songwriting, Dylan said he didn't start writing his own songs until he had immersed himself in the tradition of his chosen field: songs from the American tradition. This proved to be a very rich tradition, as Dylan has gotten a lot of great music from that musical background. Over forty years later Dylan's newest music is a testament to this fact.
On his debut he was practicing and doing his own research in the Americana tradition to give his work much more depth than those people who just began writing songs without any sense of history behind it. That is what makes LOVE AND THEFT and MODERN TIMES so rewarding: you feel Dylan giving us a history of modern musical traditions other than rock and presenting it in a rock context. In an interview from 2001, Dylan said that the radio made "hideous noises," and there was none of the great musical tradition which made radio in his day so rewarding. So with LOVE AND THEFT and MODERN TIMES, Dylan gives us a study in the musical structures of the past, and instead of it being a pale imitation. LOVE AND THEFT and MODERN TIMES raises to the level of a grand artistic statement that ranks among his best work.
So why am I going on and on about an albums released decades after this release? It's because his newest music would not have been possible without Dylan steeping himself in the American musical tradition, of which this is his first studio foray.
It should be noted that when Dylan recorded this album, he was careful in what he recorded. He said in the Scorsese biopic that he didn't want to be pinned down, and didn't want to reveal all his secrets and protect his better material from other people on his first album. Dylan haphazardly recorded a number of songs that had been in his repertoire, but also standards in many of the of the other Greenwich Village regulars as well.
BOB DYLAN is Dylan trying to pass for a rough, gravelly voiced old singer who's been thru hell and back and lived to tell all about his adventures. Now he really is an old gravelling singer whose has a tremendous amount of experience and has actually become what he was trying to be over four decades ago.
His voice has always been one of controversy, and this is just as rough hewn as any of his releases. If you're this far into Dylan's body of work, you've come to the same conclusion that most of us have: Dylan's actually a very good singer, just not in the traditional sense. His voice adds much to these songs, giving them that edgy feel which they need to accomplish what Dylan wants them to accomplish. Amazingly, Dylan sings these songs with a world weariness and a wise-beyond-his-years approach that should simply not b e possible for a 21 year old, which is how old he was when he recorded this.
Dylan goes through 11 standard folk songs with a faster tempo than you'd expect (the tempo gives the album that edgy, paranoia feel) and each carry the weight of tradition behind it. Dylan, in a truly skillful way, captured the sense of history that accompanies each of these songs. Each song sounds personal and very relevant to the singer himself, which is amazing because of all the death obsession prevalent on the album. Dylan was only twenty at the time this record was cut, and yet he truly made you feel he was "fixin' to die," (which, coincidently, is more famous as the eleven minute monster on Led Zeppelin's PHYSICAL GRAFFITI) and that when he did you would need to ensure his grave was "kept clean." In "Freight Train Blues," Dylan holds a note for probably the longest in his career, and after he finishes you expect him to be sucking air and yet he keeps right on singing. For you Animal fans here, we have the five-minute "House of the Rising Sun," which Dylan appropriately sings in high anguish.
And what of the two original songs? Dylan, the poet laureate of rock and roll and one if its most important songwriters, only has two original songs on his debut. For reasons already discussed, it is obvious why. "Talkin' New York Town" deals with Dylan's arrival in New York and his struggles there, and "Song to Woody" is his own tribute to Woody Guthrie, the most influential person in Dylan's young life. Each is startling.
Although this record does not point to THE FREEWHEELIN' BOB DYLAN (judging from this, you could not deduce that Dylan's next lp would be one of the top albums of the 1960s), this album stands as an important introduction to Dylan and his muse. For those who want folk Dylan, I personally recommend his next three albums before turning to this. Although this is a fine LP, Dylan's body of work is large enough to make this more for the student of Dylan and music in general (which is impossible to study without a strong focus or emphasis on Dylan and his counterpart The Beatles) as opposed to the fan of Bob Dylan.
BOB DYLAN becomes much more important in retrospect than it ever did upon its original release, and without Dylan soaking himself in all these traditional songs we would never have gotten a lot of the top rate material on THE BASEMENT TAPES (official and otherwise) or LOVE AND THEFT or TIME OUT OF MIND or MODERN TIMES or much of his other material. Of his nine studio releases in the 1960s, this one should be the last on your list to buy, but for anyone who really wants to know Dylan (which is a very hard thing to do: people have built entire careers on the foundation of trying to figure him out) this is essential. Listen to this and then listen to his newest music and his live performances on the Never Ending Tour, and you can see the process which Dylan has been going through. He still covers a good number of traditional songs in his concerts.
Overall, the album is an interesting listen, but only a very limited snapshot of Dylan's early influences. Bootlegs from this period, such as the Minnesota Tapes, the Gaslight Tapes, the Witmark Demos, and other known recordings, in conjunction with this album, give you key insight into Dylan's musical evolution and how important traditional music was, and is, to Bob Dylan's art.
As it stands, this album is a key piece to study to gain understanding of Dylan's pre-fame days, largely because it's been officially released. There are other, much more representative albums in Dylan's early era that gives you insight into how his art evolved, but unfortunately they are mostly bootlegs. Still, this album gets the job done in what it's trying to do, which is a folkie playing music from his repertoire to a, admittedly limited, audience for the first time.
For all you songwriters (and writers in general, for that matter) out there, take a lesson from Dylan. Study and immerse yourself in what's gone before and it will greatly broaden and enrich your own work.