CK Retro Review: Bob Dylan by Bob DylanPosted: May 13, 2013
Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut album received very little attention from the listening public upon its 1962 release. The collection of mostly traditional folk and blues songs with a pair of originals thrown in was recorded in two days when the singer was just 20 years old, but a close listen reveals some evidence on how the artist on Bob Dylan became, well, Bob Dylan. Here is a track-by-track review.
13. “Highway 51 Blues”- There’s some quick-fingered acoustic guitar to savor on this one, but Dylan’s blues belting gets a little too goofy here to deliver the intended effect. Other, more effective highway songs were in his future though, so consider this one a test run.
12. “Freight Train Blues”- This one gets some notoriety for a falsetto note that Dylan holds for an eternity, but otherwise it just seems designed to fill out a specific quota for a blues/folk album. Train song? Check.
11. “Gospel Plow”- Dylan shows some spunk by making this gospel traditional sound like the work of the devil. His staccato harmonica blasts and spirited vocals carry the day, but the perfunctory reading prevents this one from leaving much of an impact.
10. “Man Of Constant Sorrow”- O Brother, Where Art Thou turned this mountain moaner into an unlikely hit in a bouncy bluegrass version. Dylan’s take is more somber, and you can hear its influence on some of his early folk melodies.
9. “You’re No Good”- Of historical note as the first song found on the first ever Bob Dylan album, this cover version of a Jesse Fuller ripper gives a pretty good indication of the idiosyncratic power of Dylan’s vocals. It also begins a long, complicated history of Bob’s relationships with women in his songs.
8. “Talkin’ New York”- Dylan’s affinity of talking blues is made clear by the fact that he chose this song as his first ever original on an album. The re-telling of his arrival in the Big Apple and his attempts to make it big in the music business is winningly absurd. The hapless, fed-up protagonist eventually hightails it out of the city and ends up in the “Western skies” of East Orange.
7. “Fixin’ To Die”- Borrowing this song from Mississippi bluesman Bukka White, Dylan lets loose some unhinged vocals that makes the listener believe that this guy is only “Fixin’ To Die” because he’s too angry to deal with life anymore. Bob’s vocals are impressively craggy, sounding like a man at least four times as old as he actually was when the song was recorded.
6. “Pretty Peggy-O”- Before he could write some story songs of his own, Dylan had to show the ability to effectively sing them. Bob shows what he can do with this Scottish ballad nimbly transferred in his interpretation to the American Southwest. Most would play this tale of a doomed soldier somberly, but Dylan turns it into a rave-up and enlivens it in the process.
5. “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”- Proving that he understood at an early age the art of album song-sequencing, Dylan saved this show-stopping tale of a man staring down the Great Beyond with fierce grit to be the album’s final song. The song itself, by Blind Lemon Jefferson, is such a classic that Bob needed only stay out of its way to earn points.
4. “In My Time Of My Dyin'”- You might accuse Dylan of having a preoccupation with death based on the preponderance of songs about buying it on Bob Dylan, but it’s important to remember that the percentage of blues songs about death is pretty high to start. What matters is how well Bob performs the song, showing off some nifty slide techniques on the guitar and getting the vocals just right. His interpretive skills were already off the charts.
3. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”- It’s a song that has had a healthy shelf life, showing up now and again during epochal moments in Dylan’s career, like the mid-60’s electric shows and The Last Waltz, for two examples. On Bob Dylan, his jaunty take demonstrates the genesis of the winking charm he would bring to his original songs about seducing women. He may have learned it from Eric Von Schmidt, but “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” quickly became quintessential Dylan.
2. “House Of The Rising Sun”- There is much debate as to who borrowed what arrangement from whom among Dave Van Ronk, Dylan, and The Animals. The Animals made the song a monster hit single and their signature song, but Dylan’s take is haunting in its own right. Whereas Eric Burdon belted his way through his troubles, Bob’s desolate vocal lets everyone in on the depth of the loss that the protagonist has suffered.
1. “Song To Woody”- It’s common for artists to use their debut album as a means of establishing their identities. It’s telling that Bob Dylan chose to honor all those who came before him with the most significant song of his first ever LP. Woody Guthrie gets the title shout-out, but the song is essentially an admittance by Dylan that his own burgeoning career was made possible by the hard roads traveled by the blues and folk singers who preceded him.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Dylan, check out my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: Hos 100 Finest Songs in the link below.)