Category Archives: Re-listening Dylan
Bob Dylan is playing a concert in my small, rural home town this summer. Because I cannot afford a ticket and that fact is breaking my heart, I have decided to create my own Dylan-centered activity – I will pay homage to the master by re-listening to all his albums. Chronologically.
It’s March 1962. I won’t be born for another twenty years. And one month. The young musician depicted above has his first album published. He’d got a break some six months before, thanks to Columbia’s talent scout John Hammond. He was signed to the label and recorded the songs for his first album in two days – after weeks of listening to mountains of folk songs. And now it hits the record stores.
This album is not one that gets a lot of spin time from me (ehm… rather less than that, even), so even though I know the songs, listening to them now, with the intention of writing about them, is almost like a fresh experience. The one thing that hits me straight away and stays with me throughout the thirteen tracks is that of youthful irreverence. This is a guy who doesn’t care about how the traditional songs he sings are ‘supposed’ to be sung.
Let’s have a look at those songs:
The first song hits straight out with that irreverence I was mentioning. ‘You give me the blues’, he sings, but really he doesn’t care one way or the other. He’s almost laughing about it all and singing and playing at a pace that has nothing to do with the blues.
‘Talking’ is perfectly right. No way is this singing. Instead, he tells the story in a sing-song voice, accompanied by fast guitar and short bursts of the harmonica. This is one of only two original songs on this album and it’s such a perfectly typical Dylan song – the delivery, the wry humour, the art of the throw-away remark and the story told with a straight face, so that you’re never sure whether to believe a single word or not.
This is a lament. And that’s how it’s sung as well. Compared to the other songs, it’s slow and quiet. I find it hard to remember that the guy singing this is a boy, barely twenty years old. The voice shows depth and experience as its wails in an intensity that is very honest and personal.
I connect this song first and foremost with ‘O Brother where art thou’, the movie by the Coen brothers and since I love that movie, their version is the one I have in my head. Dylan’s is very, very different. This is closer to sorrow than the movie version, but even then, it’s not real sorrow. It sounds more like weariness. Or even boredom? No, not really. Just a dusty, weary ‘whatever’.
Here I hear real emotion, not so much the mocking that is part of most of the other songs. Again, the voice, the message, the delivery are all deeply incongruous with the photo on the album cover of a smooth-faced, unscarred, slightly arrogant young boy.
Talking of mocking… Poor pretty Peggy-O gets a good dose of that right in the beginning when he opens the song with ‘Been around this whole country, but I never yet found Fennario!’ And he continues in the same spirit – just listen to how he pronounces ‘dove’ when he sings that she’s as pretty as one. If you ever needed a lesson in what irony sounds like, listen to this. Oh, and I can’t help comparing it to the lovely version of Simon & Garfunkel, which couldn’t be more different in any way. (And if you make me decide, I will choose that version over Dylan’s!)
His voice changes throughout the song, from a pressured belting, to a wailing cry, to a dipping, quiet, almost talking style. There’s real emotion here – if he can’t have this, he doesn’t care for the rest either and I believe what he’s saying.
8. Gospel Plow
As with most of the traditional songs on this album, Gospel Plow is fast and has very little to do with gospel. It’s strongly delivered, but with a distinct disrespectfulness – as if he’s secretly laughing about anyone who follows the advice that the song gives.
Quieter. He doesn’t belt or press out the lyrics, nor howl them. Instead, there’s more ‘conventional’ singing, although even here, there are a few unexpected skips or dips of the voice. It’s not mocking, and it’s not bored, but there is also no noticeable passion for ‘baby’. I still really like it.
This must be one of the most-sung, most-covered songs. I don’t know any statistics on this, but I think every singer or band who is even only remotely connected to folk music, has recorded this song at some point. Here, Dylan sings it in a (comparatively) slow, serious, grieving, drawn-out voice. The inevitability of the end is audible from the beginning.
Despite the title, there is no trace of any blues feeling in this song. It’s a fast, joyful celebration of wanderlust, sung with a whistle-blowing, train-break-screaming, rail-screeching voice.
12. Song to Woody
This is the second song on this album that is a Dylan original (… at least the lyrics… the melody comes from the same person that the song is dedicated to). As with Talkin’ New York, it is so very typical. The rhythm, the way he sings, the way he draws out the words, and the homage to the masters that went before him – it’s real, and honest and very touching, even if it might come off as arrogance on his side to string his name into the line of the great musicians he mentions – I choose to hear it as the confidence of youth and the promise to carry on the heritage.
Very strong delivery. It starts slow but picks up a little speed. Despite the fact that his voice is strong and distinctly not close to death, it doesn’t sound ridiculous when he sings about his heart stopping to beat and his hands turning cold.
… it’s a fun little record that already shows the great potential of the singer. Despite the rather random collection of songs, the fast, almost hasty, way in which it was recorded (later John Hammond said that Dylan was the most undisciplined artist he’d ever had to work with) and the fact that only two of the songs are his own, the album as a whole has personality and foreshadows the future.
My favourite song? Well, I love the arrogant, mocking, individual way he deals with the traditional songs, and I like the melody of Baby, let me follow you down, but the two Dylan songs are my favourites – Talkin’ New York because of the talking style and the dry humour, Song to Woody because I find it so very touching.