"I don't have to be anybody like those guys up on Broadway that're always writin' about "I'm hot for you and you're hot for me-ooka dooka dicka dee." There's other things in the world besides love and sex that're important too. People shouldn't turn they're backs on 'em just because they ain't pretty to look at. How is the world ever gonna get any better if we're afraid to look at these things?" Bob Dylan 1962
Whichever way you look at it, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," Dylan's second album for Columbia, was a remarkable achievement for somebody a mere twenty one years old (the album was released on May 27th 1963, three days after Dylan's twenty second birthday). Nat Henthoff in his liner notes was nothing short of effusive in his praise of both Dylan and his talent "...a compound of spontaneity, candour, slicing wit and an uncommonly perceptive eye and ear for the way many of us constrict our capacity for living while few of us don't" was his description. This may appear to be overstating the case, but it probably wasn't, wherever he went in New York in this period, Dylan was impressing almost everyone with his talent and youthful charm. I say almost because some people saw him as an overrated dilettante who was undeserving of the break he had received. Indeed, after the poor sales of his debut album some sections of the musical community had nicknamed him Hammond's Folly in response to John Hammond's unwavering faith in him. This album would go a long way in proving them wrong.
Some confusion exists over the release of "Freewheelin'" which is worth mentioning here. Recording of the album was completed on 6th December 1962 and Dylan flew to London a few days later to appear in a BBC play (strange but true) where he wrote prodigiously before returning to New York in mid January. Approximately three hundred promotional copies of the completed album were released in April and these are now collector's items. On May 12th 1963 he was due to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show and one of the songs he was to perform was "Talkin' John Birch Society Blues" which was on the album. Worried about the perceived political content of the song, the show's producers told Dylan he could not perform it at which point he refused to perform at all. CBS then also appeared to get cold feet and recalled the album in order to resequence it. The John Birch song was removed, along with "Rocks And Gravel," "Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie" and "Let Me Die In My Footsteps" and replaced with "Girl From The North Country" "Masters Of War" "Bob Dylan's Dream" and "Talkin' World War Three Blues" all of which had been recorded on April 24th. It therefore seems likely that the CBS decision was made before the Ed Sullivan debacle and not because of it as the two weeks between the cancelled TV appearance and the release of the completed album would hardly have been enough time to re-press and re-print it. For his part, Dylan was almost certainly glad of the opportunity to include new material in place of that which he almost certainly felt that he had outgrown "There's too many old-fashioned songs in there..." he said at the time. The second (and official) version of the album has probably stood the test of time better than the original, and gives some indication of how quickly Dylan was maturing as a writer.
"Blowin' In The Wind" is of course one of Dylan's early classics. At this point in his career he was being thought of more as a songwriter than an exciting new singer, and by the time the album was released, Peter, Paul and Mary's version of this song was already a huge success, selling in excess of one million copies. Dylan said of the song, "I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and they know its wrong," but authorship of it was not without its problems. Many in the folk movement saw the song as weak because it asked many questions without answering any, and Dylan also had to fight a plagiarism battle that would not be fully resolved until 1974. Irrespective of all this "Blowin' In The Wind" was adopted as the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement and has remained in Dylan's live repertoire right up until the present day.
The version of "Girl From The North Country" that appears on the album is without doubt one of Dylan's most tender and impassioned love songs. Strongly autobiographical and owing much to the English folk song "Scarborough Fair" this sees Dylan returning to his birthplace "Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline" and remembering a girl who was once "...a true love of mine." Typically, Dylan led two women (Echo Helstrom and Bonnie Beecher) to believe it was about them, but more tactfully in late 1963 while performing the song on a radio show hosted by Oscar Brand, he said "This song is dedicated to all north country girls." The song contains the seeds of imagery that he would perfect in later love songs and the scene setting is beautiful in its simplicity "Well, if you go when snowflakes storm/When rivers freeze and summer ends" and he ponders if his memory of her is reciprocated "I'm a-wonderin' if she remembers me at all/Many times I've often prayed/In the darkness of my night/In the brightness of my day." Dylan re-recorded this song as a duet with Johnny Cash for 1969's "Nashville Skyline" album, but this will always remain the definitive version.
Few songs better illustrate Dylan's early development as a writer than "Masters Of War." Even though the language and sentiments expressed are fairly simplistic, one cannot help but be struck by the stark and blunt opinions uttered in the song. Dylan said that he regretted writing a song that wished for somebody's death but felt that he couldn't help it with this one. His point was emphasised when Judy Collins recorded a version of the song and omitted the final verse - he said it blunted his intent. There is no hiding the venom of lines like "You that never done nothin'/But build to destroy..." and "You fasten the triggers/For the others to fire..." but there is an almost childlike innocence in "Even Jesus would never/Forgive what you do." That aside, the song contains an amazing amount of bitterness for one so young, particularly when one considers that Dylan himself had (apparently) been untouched by war, and this was pre Vietnam. In the final, controversial verse Dylan uses the couplet "I'll follow your casket/On a pale afternoon" and shows again his almost uncanny gift for description - "pale" is, in this context the perfect adjective. This was another song that became an important part of Dylan's repertoire and it was the one that he performed when he received his lifetime achievement Grammy in 1991.
"Down The Highway" is a brave attempt at using a blues song as a form of cathartic release, unfortunately Dylan was too young to pull it off. This is not meant as a criticism, he was learning his craft and this is a form of expression that he would master in later years. Suze Rotolo (the girl pictured with Dylan on the cover of the album, and love of his life) had left for Italy, and this was the first of many songs that would chronicle that break-up. "Lord I really miss my baby/She's in some far away land" he sings with more humour and flippancy than one would expect given the circumstances. "...the ocean took my baby/My baby stole my heart from me/She packed it all up in a suitcase/Lord she took it away to Italy" he stumbles over the last word and has to repeat it. No classic then, but interesting in terms of Dylan's development. The following song "Bob Dylan's Blues" is an engaging piece of nonsense that was improvised on the spot "...really off-the-cuff" Dylan called it, but it brings little to the album. Robert Shelton, always the Dylan apologist described these two songs thus "The two blues songs juxtapose the tragic and the ludicrous. They say to me: Despair is all around, so lets laugh our way through it."
There can be no better example of Dylan's genius (that word is not lightly used) in the use of imagery in song than "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." He famously said of this song, written during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, that "Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one." Both melody and refrain are based on the classic English ballad "Lord Randall" but there all similarity ends as the "...blue-eyed son" the "...darling young one" of the chorus relates his nightmarish visions. Dylan allows his fertile imagination full rein as the horrific images pile up from "...the newborn baby with wild wolves all around it" and "...the black branch with blood that kept drippin'" to the "...guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children." The apparent paradoxes of "...ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken" and "...the sound of a clown who cried in the alley" are vividly realized, as are the apocalyptic spectres of "...the mouth of a graveyard" and "...the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world." The one cheerful image among all this grimness is "I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow" that stands out like a beacon of hope. The fifth and final verse is the most sinister of all, with its graphic images of an overpopulated, starving world, a world of poisoned water, foul prisons, faceless executioners and forgotten souls - a hard rain indeed. It is perhaps worth remembering how scary those nuclear war threatened days were, if a man as young as Dylan was then could have so many bleak and frightening images pouring out of him in just one song, they must have been scary indeed. On a lighter and more positive note, it was listening to this song that apparently inspired Canadian poet Leonard Cohen to start writing songs, and in doing so become a contemporary of Dylan.
"Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" is another song written about or inspired by Suze, and another one destined to become a Dylan classic and performed in many different styles over the years. Peter, Paul and Mary also recorded this as their successful follow up to "Blowin' In The Wind," people were queueing up to record Dylan songs. Dylan himself described it as a "...hard song to sing" either because of the personal nature of the lyrics, or the ambiguous wording of the title. There is certainly bitterness here but not of the acid-tongued type that Dylan would be associated with shortly, "When your rooster crows at the break of dawn/Look out your window and I'll be gone/You're the reason I'm a-travellin' on/But don't think twice, it's all right" also has a certain poignancy to it. He blames her for the break up of the affair, something he was wont to do in those days, "I once loved a woman, a child I am told/I give her my heart but she wanted my soul/But don't think twice, it's all right," sharing the burden for fractured relationships was something he would not do until much later. The hostility he feels towards her is evident in the final verse "I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind/You coulda done better but I don't mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time/But don't think twice, it's all right," an emotion that was softened by others who recorded this song.
"Bob Dylan's Dream" is a gem of a song that is all too often overlooked. Dylan cleverly takes on the guise of an older man dozing on a train journey and reminiscing on his youth and how those all too fleeting days when we think we will never succumb to age, illness or frailty are soon gone. "With half-damp eyes I stared to the room/Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon" he muses, and remembers how "...we longed for nothin'and were quite satisfied/Talkin' and a-jokin' about the world outside," the innocence and niavetè of youth is displayed with the lines "As easy it was to tell black from white/It was all that easy to tell wrong from right" (sentiments that Dylan would explore further in "My Back Pages"), but he recognises that the chances of maintaining this innocence are indeed "...a million to one." As our lives become increasingly more complex, the apparent simplicity of these early relationships becomes more attractive, a fact that Dylan recognises in the last two lines of the song "Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat/I would give it all gladly if our lives could be like that."
"Oxford Town" has unfortunately, because of its theme, become dated. Dylan treats the story of James Meredith, the first black student at the University of Mississippi in Oxford with a jauntiness that belies seriousness of the subject matter. "He went down to Oxford Town/Guns and clubs followed him down/All because his face was brown..." and "He come to the door, and he couldn't get in/All because of the color of his skin/What do you think about that my friend" give the song a comedic slant that it does not really deserve and reduce it to little more than filler.
Humour of a different sort is to be found in "Talkin' World War Three Blues," a fine example of Dylan's improvisational skills. This song, along with "Talkin' New York" from the first album and the unreleased "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" shows just how adept Dylan was in these early days at building a song around a simple idea. We can see the beginnings of absurdist ideas that would come to fruition on the mid-sixties classic albums in lines like "Well, the whole thing started at three o'clock fast/It was all over by quarter past" and "...I leaned my head and I gave a yell/Give me a string bean, I'm a hungry man/A shotgun fired and away I ran," and of course there has to be a girl involved "...I said, Lets go play Adam and Eve/I took her by the hand and my heart was thumpin'/She said, Hey man, you crazy or somethin'/You see what happened last time they started?" and although the joke is old, Dylan still manages to inject some humour into it. However, the paranoia of the times is evident with "...he screamed a bit and away he flew/Thought I was a Communist" and later "Well, now time passed and now it seems/Everybody's having them dreams," but again the humour of the situation is realized when Dylan paraphrases Abraham Lincoln's famous quote about fooling everybody all the time, and then turns it on it's head with "...I think Abraham Lincoln said that/I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours/I said that." Much of this song was improvised in the studio and it became a concert favourite in performances during the latter half of that year and later as can be heard on the "Live 1964" album where it still sounds fresh and amusing. Dylan continued playing it live until well into 1965 when his focus changed dramatically and he outgrew it.
"Corrina, Corrina" is one of only two only non originals on the album, but Dylan did admit to some considerable rearrangement and seems at ease with a studio band. This song was released as a b-side to "Mixed Up Confusion," Dylan's first single, in December 1962, but that version differs from the one included on the album. This beautiful, lilting ballad had been recorded by many people, but Dylan said that his main influence was bluesman Lonnie Johnson, "I'm not one of those guys who goes round changing songs just for the sake of changing them" he said, and does a creditable job with the song. Unfortunately though, like the two that follow it, it has not become a Dylan classic.
The final two songs on the album are both pretty lightweight. The first, "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance" is the other non original, a song that Dylan claimed to have learned from a recording by a Texas blues singer called Henry Thomas (aka Ragtime Texas), a contemporary of Leadbelly. "Well I'm a-walkin' down the road/With my head in my hand/I'm lookin' for a woman/Needs a worried man" sings Dylan enthusiastically in this song that attempts to find humour in heartbreak, and again his age is against him with "Well, I've been lookin' all over /For a gal like you/I can't find nobody/So you'll have to do." A brave attempt that he is not quite able to pull off. The final track "I Shall Be Free" is another that was improvised in the studio, but with markedly less success. Here we again see the seeds of absurd situations that Dylan would explore further in later albums. Leaning heavily on sexual playfulness, the song mixes factual and fictional characters in ludicrous circumstances, and at one point has John F. Kennedy calling Dylan for advice on how to improve the country. The fact that the "advice" includes the acquisition of Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg gives some idea of the gravity of the song. A decidedly trivial piece to end an album that was to become an extremely important one in Dylan's catalogue.
"The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" met with mixed reviews on release, but eventually entered the Billboard album charts where it remained for thirty two weeks, establishing Dylan as a major new talent. The album was, in the main, well written and performed and Dylan is still performing many of the songs live more than forty years later. His importance as a songwriter was demonstrated by Peter, Paul and Mary who recorded two songs from this album and described him as "...the most important songwriter in the country today...He has his finger on the pulse of America's youth." Joan Baez, though perhaps not the most impartial observer, was no less flattering "I feel it but Dylan can say it. He's phenomenal...His songs are powerful as poetry and music...Bob is expressing what all these kids want to say...He speaks for me." Many of the songs were covered by various artists, some almost unrecognisable with pop production and syrupy voices that often lost the point completely, but there were those who preferred Dylan's unique and remarkable delivery of his own material. It was partly this that began the creation of the cult figure that Dylan became and helped burden him with the label "protest singer." This would be emphasised by the release less than a year later of the album that would cement that label on him for years to come, "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Dylan for his part was happy to be able to showcase his own talent "I felt really good about doing an album with my own material...I got a chance to do talking blues. I got a chance to do ballads like "Girl From The North Country" It's just that it had more variety. I felt good at that" he said in a 1969 interview.