By Chris Moore:
RATING: 5 / 5 stars
As Clinton Heylin points out in Revolution in the Air, his excellent study of Bob Dylan’s songs written between 1957 and 1973, at the time he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “he was still considered by his contemporaries (and his record label) a performer first and a songwriter a distant second” (78).
With a single studio album, all of that changed.
Perhaps beginning with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the oldest song he chose to record for his second album, some inexplicable connection had been made between the vast array of traditional folk influences and Dylan’s innate creativity and way with words. From front to back, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan plays as a collection of songs with more range than a twenty-two year-old should, in theory, be able to successfully muster.
And yet, here they are.
Forty-seven years later, these songs and their simple live-take arrangements comprised of lead vocal, acoustic guitar, and harmonica — with one exception on “Corrina, Corrina” — are every bit as vital, vibrant, and relevant as they ever were. The civil rights movement proper may have passed, but institutionalized discrimination has not. The Vietnam “conflict” may fall strictly under the domain of history textbooks, but my generation has “conflicts” of its own. And the desire to return to the simpler days of one’s youth, love songs, and, of course, breakup songs all belong in the “timeless” category.
This is what is perhaps most impressive about The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: namely — particularly following his ho-hum self-titled debut so closely — Dylan’s ability to shift between all of these gears so seamlessly and with such mastery.
Although this is his second album, Dylan’s unique flair for levity clearly debuts on this release. Certainly, there was potential hinted at in the Bob Dylan original “Talkin’ New York,” but it appears weak in comparison to gems like “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and “I Shall Be Free.” What is remarkable about these tracks is that they are not merely superficial ditties designed for laughs. Rather, they are satirical in nature, and stand up in terms of substance to any of the more “serious” tracks like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
Probably the only way this album could have been better is if the controversial “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” had been green-lighted by the label. As it was, the song was pulled — and lost Dylan his slot on the Ed Sullivan Show when he refused to choose a different song to perform — for the lines “We all agree with Hitler’s views / Though he killed six million Jews” (Heylin 70).
Speculation only goes so far, though, as it would have been a shame to have any one track stand out from among the rest on such a well-balanced album, so perhaps it was all for the best.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is an undisputed classic of 1960’s folk and protest music. Once the Peter, Paul, and Mary cover version hit the radio waves, its fate was sealed: Dylan became the “voice of a generation” in large part due to this song. As Heylin put it, “Dylan soon began to be pestered by those who thought that anyone asking such questions had answers” (81).
He follows up this opener with “Girl From the North Country,” one of the most bittersweet songs Dylan ever penned. Although Johnny Cash fans — myself included — might find the Nashville Skyline duet enjoyable, there is no substitute for the original. And if heartache could be heard, then it would sound precisely like that final note Dylan hits on the harmonica.
As if to remind the listener of his backbone, track three reveals the scathing “Masters of War.” I hesitate to label it an anti-war song, as Dylan has cautioned reviewers against doing so, rather pointing out that the object of his scorn was the military industrial complex. Regardless, it is certainly among his harshest compositions, including the line, “And I hope that you die / and your death will come soon… / And I’ll stand over your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead.”
“Down the Highway” comes next, a fairly straightforward song of woes and the road, and is followed by the surreal “Bob Dylan’s Blues,” a wonderfully quirky song that manages to reference the Lone Ranger and Tonto, sports cars, and six-shooters in little more than two minutes.
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is one of the first true lyrical masterpieces penned by Dylan. Sans instrumentation and vocals, it could just as easily be a winning poem. Still, it is difficult to imagine this poignant deep track without Dylan’s characteristic vocal driving it.
You may have heard the Peter, Paul, and Mary version of this next track, but this is absolutely a case in which the Dylan recording is superior in both performance and tone. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” was meant to be read as a bitter parting note, and it works best that way.
“Bob Dylan’s Dream” strikes an emotional note, expressing the desire to return to the simpler days of one’s youth. Somehow, he manages to string together a series of lines and images that are quite relatable without being campy or contrived.
The next track is what can only be described as a topical track, and “Oxford Town” provides a preview of what much of his subsequent album would be like, at least in terms of content.
Following “Talkin’ World War III Blues” comes “Corrina, Corrina,” the only track here to incorporate drums. This is one of the more simple tracks, but a fun one. “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” is another light-hearted one, sonically if not lyrically, and picks up where “Corrina, Corrina” left off.
Dylan wraps up with “I Shall Be Free,” a perfect blend of commentary and humor that comes across with such great lines as, “I’s out there paintin’ on the old woodshed / When a can a black paint it fell on my head / I went down to scrub and rub / But I had to sit in back of the tub.”
All in all, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is the solo acoustic equivalent of a grand slam, hitting on a wide range of topics and moods, expressing for the first time the depth of potential that this young singer/songwriter possessed. As Heylin’s Revolution in the Air makes perfectly clear, Dylan was still experimenting with his influences here and it could certainly be argued that his work crosses into the realm of appropriation at times, but that has always been an established practice in folk music. Every line, every melody borrowed from others becomes something different, something contemporary in its new context.
On this, the true debut release of Bob Dylan as a force to be reckoned with, it’s a joy to see his songwriting at work.
And only getting better…