It’s hard to believe, but Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album turned 54 years old last month. Time flies: Dylan is approaching his 75th birthday at the end of May. Dylan was just twenty years old when he recorded and released his first album. That’s exceedingly young for an artist in the pre-Internet era, when even talent scouting and other basic label functions looked a lot different than they do today. However, the album doesn’t show its age as much as some of its contemporaries do. Numerous remasters have resulted in a fairly clean recording, with the harmonica popping vividly and the guitar cleaned up nicely.
I’ve always liked this album cover. Dylan looks perfectly at ease, yet also stares you down with a slightly incredulous “just you wait and see” look that oozes confidence. Also, that jacket is sweet.
Three consecutive afternoon sessions were all it took to finish this album, as Dylan refused to do second takes of many songs. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that “scrappy” and “chameleonic” are the words that come to mind when I listen to this record. The young, unpracticed vocalist on display here has obviously not spent much time in a recording booth, as he dips and weaves around the microphone and plays wildly with enunciation, no doubt causing a headache for producer John Hammond. Dylan would be a few years from developing his trademark nasal delivery, but already he’s having fun with singing, no doubt in reverence for his idol, Woody Guthrie. I think Dylan has always known that a great vocal take is less about technical precision than it is about communicating emotion.
Still, even at this early stage, Dylan’s trademark shifting persona is on full display. He sounds boyish and rambunctious at one moment, then old beyond his years the next. It’s impossible to hear this album as its original audience would have, such is the impact that Dylan has had on popular culture. But I suspect that even the first listeners of this album, in the middle of a decade that saw huge innovations in popular music, could hear something special. The album didn’t do well commercially, and didn’t chart in the US at all (it did in the UK).
Bob Dylan is a short album by today’s standards, clocking in at around 36 minutes, though it’s not his shortest (that distinction goes to Nashville Skyline). It consists of two original compositions, plus reworkings of eleven folk standards. This was not an unusual balance for a debut for an artist of that time. Playing classics or folk standards helped artists gain some exposure by standing, so to speak, on the shoulders of their predecessors.
The first original song is “Talkin’ New York.” Its rapid-fire delivery and energetic strumming make it a highlight of the album’s first half. “Song to Woody” is the second song of Dylan’s we get. In some ways, it’s a shame the album didn’t conclude with it, as it’s my favourite song on the record. Dylan’s debt of gratitude to Guthrie is evident in the emotion behind the vocal, and lyrically, Dylan could be writing about today: “A funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along / Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn / It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born.”
The version of “In My Time of Dying,” a traditional gospel song, that I’m most accustomed to is Led Zeppelin’s, which they released on 1975’s Physical Graffiti (which remains my favourite Led Zep album). It’s weird for me to hear the song done so quickly, as Zeppelin’s version stretches out over something like ten minutes.
Dylan’s cover of “Man of Constant Sorrow” drags a little at the beginning, but then picks up and features some really great harmonica. Evidently, Dylan had a knack for the harmonica right from the beginning. He actually worked as a harmonica session player before this album was released. Dylan is no slouch on guitar either: “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” has a great intro. The version of “House of the Rising Sun” that Dylan sings is based on an arrangement by Dave Van Ronk, the inspiration for the excellent Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s said that Dylan greatly admired Van Ronk.
All in all, a strong debut that certainly deserves periodic revisiting. Dylan’s two original contributions stand out above the rest, though the rest is good too. As an entry in Dylan’s canon, the album’s only challenge is its position. With several monumental releases to follow in the next few years, it can get overlooked in hingsight. But it holds its own and gives us a glimpse into his early creative process. The album is also a testament to the artistic value of having a community, like the one in Greenwich Village, to buoy artists and encourage music cross-pollination. As Dylan sings in “Song to Woody,” “Here’s to Cisco an’ Sonny an’ Leadbelly too / An’ to all the good people that travelled with you / Here’s to the hearts and the hands of the men / That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.”