First Album: Bob Dylan
Recorded November 1961
Released March 1962
In order to acquire a folk singing style, you have to experience the feelings that lie behind [the songs], and learn to express them as the folk singers do.
A song is a role. The singer acts a part...all good artists study a song and live with it before performing it....There is something authentic about any person's way of giving a song which has been known, lived with and loved, for many years, by the singer.
Carl Sandburg (1927)
Both quotes can be found in Robert Cantwell, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, on pp. 326-27.
1. "You're No Good" (Jesse Fuller) – 1:40
2. "Talkin' New York" (Bob Dylan) – 3:20
3. "In My Time of Dyin'" (trad. arr. Dylan) – 2:40
4. "Man of Constant Sorrow" (trad. arr. Dylan) – 3:10
5. "Fixin' to Die" (Bukka White) – 2:22
6. "Pretty Peggy-O" (trad. arr. Dylan) – 3:23
7. "Highway 51 Blues" (Curtis Jones) – 2:52
8. "Gospel Plow" (trad. arr. Dylan) – 1:47
9. "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" (trad. arr. Reverend Gary Davis, Eric von Schmidt, Dave Van Ronk) – 2:37
10. "House of the Risin' Sun" (trad. arr. Van Ronk) – 5:20
11. "Freight Train Blues" (trad. arr. Dylan) – 2:18
12. "Song to Woody" (Dylan) – 2:42 See Christopher Ricks PDF on Song to Woody
13. "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" (Blind Lemon Jefferson) – 2:43
For the LYRICS to the first album click here, please.
Two highways figure in Bob Dylan's songs, Highway 51 here on the first album, based on the Curtis Jones song.
U.S. Route 51 is a north-south United States highway that runs for 1,286 miles (2,070 km) from northern Wisconsin to the western suburbs of New Orleans, Louisiana. Much of the highway in Wisconsin and Illinois runs parallel to or overlaps Interstate 39. The highway's northern terminus is Hurley, Wisconsin, at U.S. Highway 2. Its southern terminus is Laplace, Louisiana, at U.S. Highway 61.
And, of course, Highway 61 was used in the title of his sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited.
U.S. Route 61 is the official designation for a United States highway that runs 1,400 miles (2,300 km) from New Orleans, Louisiana, to the city of Wyoming, Minnesota. As of 2004, the highway's northern terminus in Wyoming, Minnesota, is at an intersection with Interstate 35. Prior to 1991, the highway extended north through Duluth, Minnesota to the United States-Canada border near Grand Portage, Minnesota. Its southern terminus in New Orleans is at an intersection with U.S. Highway 90 (Tulane Avenue at South Broad Street), in front of the Orleans Parish Criminal Court.
The route was an important north-south connection in the days before the interstate highway system. Many southerners traveled north along Highway 61 to go to St. Louis. The highway was also used in the title of Minnesota-native Bob Dylan's song (and album) "Highway 61 Revisited."
The road is also known as the "Blues Highway" because it runs through the Mississippi Delta country, which was an important source of blues music. US 61 has been referenced in music by various artists with roots in the region.
The junction of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale is designated as the famous crossroads where, according to legend, Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for mastery of the blues. However, there is no proof it is the site. Several miles north is another junction where the two highways diverge again; between the junctions the two highways share the route. It has never been confirmed as the place Johnson meant. If the crossroads in the song was ever anything other than a metaphor, it could have been any intersection in that part of Mississippi, or the world.
Produced by John Hammond
Columbia records is proud to introduce a major new figure in American folk music -- Bob Dylan.
Excitement has been running high since the young man with a guitar ambled into a Columbia recording studio for two sessions in November, 1961. For at only 20, Dylan is the most unusual new talent in American folk music.
His talent takes many forms. He is one of the most compelling white blues singers ever recorded. He is a songwriter of exceptional facility and cleverness. He is an uncommonly skillful guitar player and harmonica player.
In less than one year in New York, Bob Dylan has thrown the folk crowd into an uproar. Ardent fans have been shouting his praises. Devotees have found in him the image of a singing rebel, a musical Chaplin tramp, a young Woody Guthrie, or a composite of some of the best country blues singers.
A good deal of Dylan's steel-string guitar work runs strongly in the blues vein, although he will vary it with country configurations, Merle Travis picking and other methods. Sometimes he frets his instrument with the back of a kitchen knife or even a metal lipstick holder, giving it the clangy virility of the primitive country blues men. His pungent, driving, witty harmonica is sometimes used in the manner of Walter Jacobs, who plays with the Muddy Waters' band in Chicago, or the evocative manner of Sonny Terry.
Another strong influence on Bob Dylan was not a musician primarily, although he has written music, but a comedian -- Charlie Chaplin. After seeing many Chaplin films, Dylan found himself beginning to pick up some of the gestures of the classic tramp of silent films. Now as he appears on the stage in a humorous number, you can see Dylan nervously tapping his hat, adjusting it, using it as a prop, almost leaning on it, as the Chaplin tramp did before him.
Yet despite his comic flair, Bob Dylan has, for one so young, a curious preoccupation with songs about death. Although he is rarely inarticulate, Dylan can't explain the attraction of these songs, beyond the power and emotional wallop they give him, and which he passes on to his listeners. It may be that three years ago, when a serious illness struck him, that he got an indelible insight into what those death-haunted blues men were singing about.
-- His Life and Times --
Bob Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941. After living briefly in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Gallup, New Mexico, he graduated from high school in Hibbing, Minnesota "way up by the Canadian border."
For six troubled months, Bob attended the University of Minnesota on a scholarship. But like so many of the restless, questioning students of his generation, the formal confines of college couldn't hold him.
"I didn't agree with school," he says. "I flunked out. I read a lot, but not the required readings."
He remembers staying up all night plowing through the philosophy of Kant instead of reading "Living With the Birds" for a science course.
"Mostly ," he summarizes his college days, "I couldn't stay in one place long enough."
Bob Dylan first came East in February, 1961. His destination: the Greystone Hospital in New Jersey. His purpose: to visit the long-ailing Woody Guthrie, singer, ballad-maker and poet. It was the beginning of a deep friendship between the two. Although they were separated by thirty years and two generations, they were united by a love of music, a kindred sense of humor and a common view toward the world.
The young man from the provinces began to make friends very quickly in New York, all the while continuing, as he has since he was ten, to assimilate musical ideas from everyone he met, every record he heard. He fell in with Dave Van Ronk and Jack Elliott, two of the most dedicated musicians then playing in Greenwich Village, and swapped songs, ideas and stylistic conceptions with them. He played at the Gaslight Coffeehouse, and in April, 1961, appeared opposite John Lee Hooker, the blues singer, at Gerde's Folk City. Word of Dylan's talent began to grow, but in the surcharged atmosphere of rivalry that has crept into the folk-music world, so did envy. His "Talkin' New York" is a musical comment on his reception in New York.
Recalling his first professional music job, Bob says:
"I never thought I would shoot lightning through the sky in the entertainment world."
In 1959, in Central City, Colorado, he had that first job, in rough and tumble striptease joint.
"I was onstage for just a few minutes with my folk songs. Then the strippers would come on. The crowd would yell for more stripping, but they went off, and I'd come bouncing back with my folky songs. As the night got longer, the air got heavier, the audience got drunker and nastier, and I got sicker and finally I got fired."
Bob Dylan started to sing and play guitar when he was ten. Five to six years later he wrote his first song, dedicated to Brigitte Bardot. All the time, he listened to everything with both ears -- Hank Williams, the late Jimmie Rodgers, Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie, Carl Perkins, early Elvis Presley. A meeting with Mance Lipscomb, Texas songster, left its mark on his work, as did the blues recordings of Rabbit Brown and Big Joe Williams. He speaks worshipfully of the sense of pace and timing the great blues men had, and it has become a trademark of his work already. His speed at assimilating new styles and digesting them is not the least startling thing about Bob Dylan.
"I just want to keep on singing and writing songs like I am doing now. I just want to get along. I don't think about making a million dollars. If I had a lot of money what would I do?" he asked himself, closed his eyes, shifted the hat on his head and smiled:
"I would buy a couple of motorcycles, a few air-conditioners and four or five couches."
-- His Songs --
The number that opens this album, "You're No Good," was learned from Jesse Fuller, the West coast singer. Its vaudeville flair and exaggeration are used to heighten the mock anger of the lyrics.
"Talkin' New York" is a diary note set to music. In May, 1961, Dylan started to hitchhike West, not overwhelmingly pleased at what he had seen and experienced in New York. At a truck stop along the highway he started to scribble down a few impressions of the city he left behind. They were comic, but tinged with a certain sarcastic bite, very much in the Guthrie vein.
Dylan had never sung "In My Time of Dyin'" prior to this recording session. He does not recall where he first heard it. The guitar is fretted with the lipstick holder he borrowed from his girl, Susie Rotolo, who sat devotedly and wide-eyed through the recording session.
"Man of Constant Sorrow" is a traditional Southern mountain folk song of considerable popularity and age, but probably never sung quite in this fashion before.
"Fixin' to Die," which echoes the spirit and some of the words of "In My Time of Dyin'," was learned from an old recording by Bukka White.
A traditional Scottish song is the bare bones on which Dylan hangs "Pretty Peggy-O." But the song has lost its burr and acquired instead a Texas accent, and a few new verses and fillips by the singer.
A diesel-tempoed "Highway 51" is of a type sung by the Everly Brothers, partially rewritten by Dylan. His guitar is tuned to an open tuning and features a particularly compelling vamping figure. Similarly up tempo is his version of "Gospel Plow," which turns the old spiritual into a virtually new song.
Eric Von Schmidt, a young artist and blues singer from Boston, was the source of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down." "House of the Risin' Sun" is a traditional lament of a New Orleans woman driven into prostitution by poverty. Dylan learned the song from the singing of Dave Van Ronk: "I'd always known 'Risin' Sun' but never really knew I knew it until I heard Dave sing it." The singer's version of "Freight Train Blues" was adapted from an old disk by Roy Acuff.
"Song to Woody," is another original by Bob Dylan, dedicated to one of his greatest inspirations, and written much in the musical language of his idol.
Ending this album is the surging power and tragedy of Blind Lemon Jefferson's blues -- "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." The poignance and passion of this simple song reveals both the country blues tradition -- and its newest voice, Bob Dylan -- at their very finest.
-- Stacey Williams
"Bob Dylan: A Distinctive Folk-Song Stylist"
From the "New York Times," Friday, September 29, 1961
by Robert Shelton
A bright new face in folk music is appearing at Gerde's Folk City. Although only 20 years old, Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play in a Manhattan cabaret in months.
Resembling a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik, Mr. Dylan has a cherubic look and a mop of tousled hair he partly covers with a Huck Finn black corduroy cap. His clothes may need a bit of tailoring, but when he works his guitar, harmonica or piano and composes new songs faster than he can remember them, there is no doubt that he is bursting at the seams with talent.
Mr. Dylan's voice is anything but pretty. He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his porch. All the "husk and bark" are left on his notes and searing intensities pervades his songs.
Mr. Dylan is both comedian and tragedian. Like a vaudeville actor on the rural circuit, he offers a variety of droll musical monologues: "Talking Bear Mountain" lampoons the overcrowding of an excursion boat, "Talkin' New York" satirizes his troubles in gaining recognition and "Talking Havah Nageilah" burlesques the folk-music craze and the singer himself.
In his serious vein, Mr. Dylan seems to be performing in a slow-motion film. Elasticized phrases are drawn out until you think they may snap. He rocks his head and body, closes his eyes in reverie and seems to be groping for a word or a mood, then resolves the tension benevolently by finding the word and the mood.
Mr. Dylan's highly personalized approach toward folk song is still evolving. He has been sopping up influences like a sponge. At times, the drama he aims at is off-target melodrama and his stylization threatens to topple over as a mannered excess.
But if not for every taste, his music-making has the mask of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth. Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.