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May 7, 2010 14:49 - Album 1 - Bob Dylan

Album 1 -Bob Dylan (1962)
Bob Dylan's first album aptly and simply entitled Bob Dylan features some of what is probably his best ever harmonica playing. It was Dylan's harmonica playing which first brought him to the attention of the big record labels. Nineteen year old Bob played harmonica on a Carolyn Hester album, her third overall, but first for Columbia records. Producer John Hammond was so impressed he signed Dylan to a record deal and Bob became a Columbia artist in October, 1961. Recording on his first album began in November of that year and was completed in two sessions.

Amazingly enough the album was not well received on its release, selling a mere 5,000copies in its first year. Columbia introduced Dylan in promotional material at the time as a "major new figure in American folk music". The music on this first of Bob Dylan albums was much more than folk, but they were right about Bob being a major new figure.

The album is reflective of Dylan's many influences for sure. Bluesy in nature, folk in heart, gospel in spirit and shear rock 'n roll in places, it deserved more than the guarded reception it received. The opening song You're no Good sets the pace for things to come, and by the time you hear the hammered notes of the final track See That My Grave is Kept Clean, you have been on a musical journey that takes you from the chic neighborhoods of New York City to the Mississippi Delta.

Woodie Guthrie's influence is clearly heard on original Dylan tunes like Talking' New York, and would continue to find its way onto Bob Dylan albums for the duration of his career. Dylan was more than a fan of Guthrie, by his own admission he was his "greatest disciple" and honored him in talent and in spirit. The song also showcases Dylan's skillful blues playing, and it's no understatement when Columbia Records describes him as "an uncommonly skillful guitar player" and a "songwriter of exceptional facility and cleverness".

One of Bob Dylan's greatest influences came from the film sector rather than the musical arena. Charlie Chaplin and his trampy, melancholy humor and mannerisms would be adopted in small measures by Bob and reflected in his stage act.

Despite being only twenty years old at the recording of this album, Dylan reveals a bit of a fixation with death. This is expertly expressed in the traditional song In My Time of Dyin'. The solemn blues drone based musical background is cemented in timbre and appropriately dressed with Dylan's haunting vocal delivery. The open D tuning used by Dylan along with his use of slide is an excellent showcase of his guitar skills. Most of the songs on this album are covers and his guitar and harmonica playing were the focus. Dylan's song writing prowess and lyrical genius were yet to be revealed.

Even on Man of Constant Sorrow Dylan deals in death. He sings:

You're mother says I'm a stranger, my face you'll never see no more. But there's on promise darlin', I'll see you on God's golden shore.

Through this world I'm about to ramble through ice and snow, sleet and rain I'm about to ride that morning railroad perhaps I'll die on that train

The dire content of the song is alleviated however by Dylan's quite joyous harmonica playing, perhaps in celebration of rebuking the lover who had caused him regret.

Dylan covers another blues tune in Fixin' to Die, but covers it with such conviction and grit that one could be forgiven for thinking it was his own. He makes it that anyway.

Shades of country arrive in the form of Pretty Peggy-O, and again the influence of icons Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger can be heard. The song is actually of Scottish origins but Dylan makes it as American as apple pie with his drawl and a few original verses. It's a fun jam and definitely Dylan-esque.

Highway 51 starts off with a remarkably recognizable introduction - that of the Everly Brothers Wake up Little Suzie. No surprise there, it's of a type of rift the Everly Brothers used regularly. Dylan partially rewrote this song, and the end result is an interesting if ineffectual respite from his open D blues drones.

Dylan breaks into Gospel Plow, an old spiritual, at warp speed. Manic strumming and harmonica playing take the song to a new level and before you know it, actually 1:46 later, it's over, and you're left wondering, "What was that?"

My favorite song on this Bob Dylan album, the sensual, grooving Baby Let Me Follow You Down was learned from a friend of Dylan's - Rick Von Schmidt (real name Eric). Dylan opens the song by sharing that information with the listener saying, "I first heard this from Rick Von Schmidt, he lives in Cambridge. Rick's a blues guitar player; I met him one day in the green pastures of Harvard University." The song was an adaptation of a Blind Boy Fuller number, the author is a source of contention.

We all know The House of the Rising Sun the lament of a New Orleans woman driven by poverty to become a prostitute. Dylan sings the song in a style influenced by Dave Van Ronk who was such a stalwart of the Greenwich Village folk scene he was nicknamed the "Mayor of MacDougal Street."

An old Roy Acuff version of Freight Train Blues inspired Dylan's version on this album, yet Bob's roguish character cuts through with tenacity.

Woody Guthrie's influence can nowhere be clearer seen than in Song to Woody. The tune is reflective of both men's characters and their philosophies of life. When Dylan sings:

Hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know All the things that I'm a-sayin' an' a-many times more. I'm a-singin' you the song, but I can't sing enough, 'Cause there's not many men that done the things that you've done.

Here's to Cisco an' Sonny an' Leadbelly too, An' to all the good people that traveled with you. Here's to the hearts and the hands of the men That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.

Not only is his admiration of Guthrie revealed, but his kinship and artistic similarities are laid bare.

It's fitting that this Bob Dylan album ends with See That My Grave is Kept Clean, as we need to be reminded of his ability as a guitarist proficiency as a blues singer. Dylan can sing the blues because he has the soul of a bluesman. His voice isn't pretty, but then neither is the blues.

May 2, 2010 16:45 - Watchtower Bob Dylan Blog

Mr. Tambourine Man was the first song I learned to play on guitar. Not because it was a Bob Dylan tune; I thought at the time the Birds had written it, but because it was only three chords. Of course in learning the song, I was required to sing it over and over. It was only when the beauty and poetry of the words sunk in and took root in my soul that I became a fan of Mr. Dylan. I now play most of his stuff.

I have all his records, from 1962's Bob Dylan featuring Highway 51 and Freight Train Blues right up till the 2009 Christmas in the Heart. I truly believe Bob Dylan is an interesting and influential person. Not just for musicians, but for anyone who has ever had to work for a living, do a bit of soul searching, or raise a family. His appeal spans the generations and his music lifts the spirit. What amazes me about him most is how wise he was for his age. On his 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, he wrote in the song Bob Dylan's Dream:

With haunted hearts through the heat and cold We never thought we could ever get old We thought we could sit forever in fun But our chances really was a million to one

How many a year has passed and gone And many a gamble has been lost and won And many a road taken by many a friend And each one I've never seen again

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain That we could sit simply in that room again Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat I'd give it all gladly if our lives could be like that

These words appeal so much to me today at 50 years of age, Dylan wrote them when he was only twenty two. Of course "Blowin' in the Wind" was no trifling testimonial either.

I don't profess to know everything there is to know about the man, that's why I'm interested in researching and writing about him. I will enjoy the research and learning new things about him, and I'll delight in sharing them with the world through my blogging.

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