"There was a violent, angry emotion running through me then. I just played the guitar and harmonica and sang those songs and that was it. Mr. Hammond asked me if I wanted to sing any of them over again and I said no. I can't see myself singing the same song twice in a row. That's terrible."
Bob Dylan 1962.
The first record album to be released by Robert Allen Zimmerman (he did not legally change his name until August 1962) was simply titled "Bob Dylan" and gives little, if any, indication of the talent that was soon to be unleashed into the world of contemporary music. Recorded over two three hour sessions under the tutelage of legendary CBS producer John Hammond, and costing the princely sum of $402, the album sold a paltry five thousand copies in its first year and earned Dylan the derisory title of Hammond's Folly by many who saw Hammond's belief in him misplaced. Of the thirteen tracks on the album, two were originals and the rest were folk and blues standards, most of which Dylan was performing in the various venues in and around New York where he could get work. The main thing that one notices about the album is the enthusiasm and the intensity with which Dylan performs the songs, a disproportionate number of which, it has to be said are concerned with sorrow and death. Hammond was less than impressed with Dylan's approach to recording, "...he refused to learn from his mistakes. It occurred to me at the time that I had never worked with someone so undisciplined before." he said of his young charge. Dylan's lack of discipline was made up for by his eagerness to get the songs down, most were done in one or two takes, a habit that he would carry (not always successfully) throughout his career. He described the songs he had chosen to record as "...some stuff I've written, some stuff I've discovered and some stuff I stole" in a casual and offhand manner to Hammond in an obvious attempt to impress him, and on the evidence we have here, Hammond (a visionary if ever there was one) saw something that few others did.
The opening track "You're No Good" (wrongly listed as "She's No Good" on British pressings) is a Jesse Fuller song that Dylan tears through at a frenetic pace. This was the first to be recorded after a brief warm-up, and Dylan's nervousness is quite apparent, but that said, it is amazing how he manages to perform this song at such a breakneck speed without the words tripping over each other, something else that he would carry through his career. Also interesting is that the opening track on his debut album should be about a woman who "...makes a man insane," there would be many of those in the future.
"Talkin' New York" is a very funny song that showcases Dylan's ability, even at this young age to handle the talking blues style. Paul Williams calls it hypocritical, but Dylan can be forgiven for using a little poetic license and being economical with the truth in order to get his point across. He is more relaxed here, possibly because this is his own material and there will be no comparisons, "Walked around with nowhere to go/Somebody could freeze right to the bone/I froze right to the bone" is his humorous if inaccurate description of his arrival. Later he describes his first, unsuccessful, attempts at securing work "Man there said, Come back some other day/You sound like a hillbilly/We want folk singers here" and his exploitation on finding it "I blowed inside out and upside down/The man there said he loved my sound/He was ravin' about how he loved my sound/Dollar a day's worth." He uses an oblique reference to Woody Guthrie to underline his dissatisfaction with New York and the music business "Now a very great man once said/That some people rob you with a fountain pen" and told Robert Shelton that the song was written in May of that year. It seems more likely however, that "Talkin' New York" had its genesis closer to the time that it was recorded and seems to be reflecting his disillusionment with the city then rather than the past year or so that he had spent there.
It is difficult to believe that Dylan had not performed "In My Time Of Dying" prior to these sessions, as it is one of the most compelling tracks on the album. He learned it he said from an old Josh White album and delivers a great vocal (although he sounds about a hundred years old) and some surprisingly accomplished guitar work. The point has to be made that it was very strange for a twenty year old to be so preoccupied with spirituality and mortality, twin themes that would however, occur often in later work. The next track, "Man Of Constant Sorrow" contains what is probably the finest vocal work on the album. It has its origins in the late 1920's and was written by Emry Arthur, a Kentucky factory worker, and has been recorded by many over the years, Joan Baez included. Dylan changes the traditional "Your friends say I'm a stranger" to "Your mother says that I'm a stranger," possibly because of Suze's mother's continued resistance to their relationship, and again he sounds far older than his twenty years.
"Fixin' To Die" was learned from old bluesman Booker T. Washington (Bukka) White, and was a song that Dylan had performed at his first major concert in the Carnegie Chapter Hall some three weeks before the recording sessions (it was something of a flop, with a reportedly fifty three people in the audience and many of those on complimentaries). Not an altogether successful part of his repertoire, it was soon dropped as his confidence in his own writing grew. "Pretty Peggy-O" falls into the same category, another Baez standard, though her version was called "Fennario" and you can hear the nervousness in Dylan's youthful voice as he introduces the song "I bin around this whole country, but I never yet found Fennario." Another pretty unremarkable song is "Highway 51" which Robert Shelton suggests may be the first folk-rock recording. Written by Texas bluesman Curtis Jones, several people had recorded this song, including the Everley Brothers who gave it a rockabilly sound reminiscent of their "Wake Up Little Susie" but there is nothing to suggest that Dylan's version was any better or worse than any of them.
"Gospel Plow" is perhaps the least successful vocal on the whole album, with Dylan trying too hard to turn this spiritual into a modern pop song and failing miserably. This was another song that he dropped from his live repertoire soon after these sessions. Far more successful is Eric Von Schmidt's "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" a song that would have associations with Dylan for years to come. Here the vocal does work and Dylan backs it up with some wonderful country blues harmonica. This song became an integral part of his act during the controversial electric tour of 1966 and was performed at the Band's farewell concert, "The Last Waltz" in 1976, although those versions differ drastically from this.
The recording of "House Of The Rising Sun" caused a rift between Dylan and Dave Van Ronk who with his wife Terri had put Dylan up when he first arrived in New York. Dylan repaid the favour by "borrowing" Van Ronk's arrangement of the song for his debut album "I always knew this song" he said "but never really knew it until Dave Van Ronk sang it." It has to be said that Dylan's vocal does justice to the song that had been recorded by, among others, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Perhaps not surprisingly, Van Ronk was critical of Dylan's version, but it became definitive, especially after English R&B group the Animals recorded a version and gave Dylan his first entry into the British rock scene. It is also worth noting that unlike others who had recorded this Dylan did not change the gender, and sang it from a female perspective. The only other time that he would do this would be on his own composition of "North Country Blues" on 1964's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
One cannot help but be swept away by the sheer exuberance of Dylan's version of Roy Acuff's "Freight Train Blues" and that is about the most positive thing that can be said about it. He described Acuff as "...the king of country music" although he probably learned this from "Ramblin" Jack Elliot, and he tries (not very successfully) to hold the note simulating the train whistle while obviously having a lot of fun.
The second original song on this album is of course the beautifully emotional "Song To Woody" This song, with the melody based on Guthrie's "1913 Massacre" sees Dylan singing the praises of a man who had meant so much to him and was dying of the incurable wasting disease Huntington's Corea. Dylan wrote it in February 1961 after finally meeting Guthrie for the first time, and he sings, with obvious affection of Guthrie's "...paupers and peasants and princes and kings." He clearly holds Guthrie in high esteem, "...there's not many men that done the things that you've done" and mentions his peers and influences "Here's to Cisco an' Sonny an' Leadbelly too/An' all the good people that travelled with you" and tips his hat to Guthrie's "Pastures Of Plenty" when he says that they "...come with the dust and are gone with the wind." If nothing else, "Song To Woody" shows the strength of Dylan's fledgling songwriting abilities and his willingness, even eagerness to bare his emotions. It is a song that would surface periodically throughout Dylan's career, it had a couple of outings in the early part of the 1974 tour and was the one that he opened his set with at the Thirtieth Anniversary Concert (unfortunately, technical problems prevented it from being on the album). Woody Guthrie died in 1967.
The final track, "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" is a traditional spiritual that was immortalised by Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Dylan tries hard to put his own individual identity on it. Another song that was probably unsuited to Dylan's voice and age, he gives it his best shot and delivers a creditable version, but this like most of the other material on the album would soon be outgrown.
Listening to it today, one can't help feeling that Dylan's debut album is interesting only from the viewpoint of hearing what he sounded like when he was twenty years old. That fact, along with the two original songs makes it a curious if not essential addition to any collection. The album's sleeve notes were written by friend and later biographer, Robert Shelton, who used the pseudonymn Stacey Williams because it was considered unethical for a reporter to be associated in any way with the music of an artist he was reviewing. Dylan told Shelton that if anyone asked who Williams was, he would mumble something about "...some old jazz and blues guy who wrote things for Columbia Records" Reaction to the album was mixed, Woody's son Arlo was less than flattering "I thought, wow, this is terrible" he said "...Bob Dylan wasn't a singer. He was something else" although he did admit to it growing on him. J.R. Goddard writing in the Village Voice praised Dylan's unique style "It's a collector's item already" he said, calling it an "...explosive country-blues debut." Dylan for his part could not understand the three month gap between the recording and release of the album, as he felt it was no longer representative of him or his work. He was probably correct in this, but as someone who moves at such a pace and easily becomes bored with repetition, this would be a problem that he would encounter often in his career. Just how quickly he was moving was illustrated with the release of his second album for Columbia "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," a year later, a significantly different affair, with almost the entire album being self penned - Bob Dylan's career was up and running!