I LEARNED ABOUT BOB DYLAN from my mother. She’d started college at the age of 36 (I was 12), and heard young students playing “With God On Our Side” on guitar. Mom became an instant Dylan fan. Then the revolutionary “Like a Rolling Stone” arrived on Top 40 radio, and I was a fan, too. I begged my mother for the new Dylan album, and she bought me Bringing It All Back Home. I loved it, but Mom was disappointed. Her hero had “gone electric” and stopped writing political songs attacking Evil.
Before my bar mitsve, I begged my friends for Dylan albums, and received three, including The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I listened to this record hundreds of times as a kid — I even memorized at which point the second side skips — but I’m not sure I’ve played it since starting college in 1971. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still a fanatical Dylan fan, but I rarely listen to his records. Mostly I search out songs I’ve never heard before on YouTube (lately rare outtakes from The Basement Tapes). Last month I decided to give the record a spin — the same copy I had as a pimply 14-year-old!
How does Freewheelin’ sound in 2015? Quite minimal — just a guitar, harmonica and voice (except for one track). Life was slower in 1963, and music less ornate. Beatniks would willingly listen to a guitar being strummed for two hours. Now we expect nine instruments to be playing at once — and we’re still bored!
Also, Dylan is entirely committed to each song. (Nowadays in concert, he usually seems sick of the whole idea of song.) And his harmonica playing is exuberant. The instrument growls, honks, whispers, cajoles, laughs, stutters, weeps. It’s clear that Bob was destined to be one of the greatest living harmonicists. (Just listen to the Albert Hall album, recorded three years later.) At the tender age of 21 he’d already performed extensively — it was his only way he could make a living. John Hammond’s genius was to catch that coffeehouse feeling on a record.
JOHN HAMMOND WAS THE LEGENDARY PRODUCER who “discovered” Dylan in 1961, recorded his first album, Bob Dylan, consisting almost entirely of traditional songs played on acoustic guitar. That album sold 5,000 copies, and earned Dylan the music-insider nickname of “Hammond’s Folly.” But Hammond didn’t quit. The same man who launched the careers of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Leonard Cohen nurtured his new protégé.
Hammond’s instinct was to allow Dylan to be spontaneous. Several of the songs include wild improvisation. Dylan sounds inebriated — did John supply the wine? Probably everything was recorded in one or two takes; that’s still the way Dylan prefers to work, at the age of 74. Hammond trusted Dylan, and Dylan produced fantastical, funny songs, forgotten amid the intensity of “Masters of War,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” The album ends with the absurd lyrics (from “I Shall Be Free”):
Well, ask me why I’m drunk alla time:
It levels my head and eases my mind.
I just walk along and stroll and sing;
I see better days and I do better things.
(I catch dinosaurs,
Make love to Elizabeth Taylor…
Catch hell from Richard Burton!)
It’s no coincidence that Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s first New York girlfriend, appears on the cover. Suze was his muse, to speak in rhyme. It happens that I met Rotolo a couple times, through a mutual friend. She was sweet, witty, but deeply political — a red diaper baby, like me (i.e., her parents were communists). A lot of Dylan’s “social conscience” came from Suze. Once they broke up, the Man from Duluth stopped writing “finger-pointing songs” — to use his memorable phrase.
I wasn’t struck by the political commitment of Freewheelin’ so much as by its poetic weirdness. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which sold over a million copies for Peter, Paul and Mary, might be called the archetypal protest song:
How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?
Yes, and how many seas must the white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand?
Yet each verse concludes with the title phrase, which is still unsettling:
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind;
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Then Dylan’s querulous, almost bitter harmonica. I never noticed how much mouth harp “Blowing in the Wind” contains: almost a literal “blowing of the wind.”
“Masters of War” is perhaps the most explicitly political song on the album —
Come you masters of war,
you that build all the guns;
you that build the death planes;
you that build all the bombs…
— yet it ends with the bizarre image of Dylan standing vigil over the grave of a war profiteer lest he burst out of his coffin like a zombie:
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
down to your deathbed,
and I’ll stand over your grave
till I’m sure that you’re dead!
“Hard Rain” is more like a peyote dream than a protest song:
I met a young child beside a dead pony;
I met a white man who walked a black dog;
I met a young woman whose body was burning;
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow.
It never mentions the Cuban missile crisis, or any political event. The song is so unspecific that it’s perfectly adaptable to the issue of global warming. In the past several years, we’ve seen hard rains destroying crops all over America.
CLEARLY, DYLAN WAS READING the Old Testament prophets, who cloaked their ethical message in dreamlike imagery:
But draw near hither, ye sons of the sorceress, the seed of the adulterer and the whore.
Against whom do ye sport yourselves? against whom make ye a wide mouth, and draw out the tongue? are ye not children of transgression, a seed of falsehood.
Enflaming yourselves with idols under every green tree, slaying the children in the valleys under the clifts of the rocks?
(That’s Isaiah 57: 3-5.)
There are a couple of cover songs on the record, which no one remembers: “Corrina, Corrina” and “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance.” The first is a slow blues, the second a crazed hootenanny holler. And “Corrina, Corrina” has a full band, unexpectedly, on this archetypal “folk” album: Howie Collins and Bruce Langhorne on guitars, Dick Wellstood on piano, Herb Lovelle on drums, Leonard Gaskin on bass. The players are subdued, and when I listened to this record as a youth, I never noticed the accompaniment.
“Oxford Town,” which I loved then, I still love. It’s Dylan’s most ironic Civil Rights song, and most musically upbeat. In it Dylan visits Oxford, Mississippi during the height of the anti-segregation struggle:
Me and my gal,
my gal’s son,
we got met with
a teargas bomb.
Don’t even know
why we come;
gonna go back
where we come from.
(Because he’s being funny, Dylan can make this heretical statement: “What the hell am I doing in Mississippi? I’m leaving!”)
Many future Bob Dylans are present on this album, in fetal form. “Don’t Think Twice” has the beginnings of the nasal “Bob Dylan style” of singing that would blossom on Blonde on Blonde: “You just kinda wasted my precious tiiiime…”
“Corrina, Corrina” has electric guitar. “Hard Rain” is Dylan’s first experiment with Surrealism. “Bob Dylan’s Dream” evinces a cynicism about political correctness that would come to a head in Another Side of Bob Dylan:
As easy it was to tell black from white,
it was all that easy to tell wrong from right…
(In “My Back Pages” Dylan sang:
Good and bad, I defined these terms
quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then;
I’m younger than that now.)
And the spontaneous-sounding songs like “Bob Dylan’s Blues” resemble Dylan’s music of the last twenty years:
Oh you five and ten cent women
With nothin’ in your heads,
I got a real gal I’m lovin’,
Lord, I’ll love her till I’m dead;
Go away from my door and my window too,
Unfortunately, since listening to Freewheelin’ as a youth, I’ve gone to graduate school, and read Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare. I can no longer see Dylan as a “great poet.” But I’m still astonished by the surgery he performed on the traditional folk song, expanding it, personalizing it, infusing it with intimate chaos.
Sparrow plays ocarina in the non-Euclidean pop band Foamola. Follow him on Twitter (@Sparrow14). This Poem is forthcoming from Pen & Anvil Press.