Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963): Review

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Produced by John Hammond and Tom Wilson
Label – Columbia

Dylan’s accomplishments from the era and beyond would be spring boarded by this, his sophomore record; a rag tag collection of sparse protest songs mixed with personal musings of the love and life of a fresh faced 22 year old. Carefully shaped and protected by manager Albert Grossman, the young folk singer would go beyond popular culture to gain worldwide recognition and adulation as the brightest spark from a well established movement that questioned, vilified, and denounced the decisions and actions of his country’s leaders. His inspiration lay in the works of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, and his route to stardom was considerably aided by Pete Seeger, who urged legendary producer John Hammond to helm the recording of his early albums. Hammond would later state, “he’s not a great harmonica player, and he’s not a great guitar player, and he’s not a great singer. He just happens to be an original”. This, along with Dylan’s acute understanding of detailed and direct sloganeering would eventually cement his reputation as one of the most important songwriters of his generation. “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” is certainly more confident than its predecessor. Whilst his uncertain debut contained just two original songs, all but two on this collection are purely self penned.

In essence, the overriding perception is that there’s a gaping expanse between quality and throwaway frivolity in his writing. Whilst bemoaning the rise and success of the made to order Tin Pan Alley songwriters and benefitting performers on “Bob Dylan’s Blues”, his retort is a 5th grade story of The Lone Ranger and Tonto fixing everyone’s problems. One understands this is meant to be humorous, but the punch lines are flat and in view of the heavily weighted material that surrounds the song it’s ill fitting in its placement. In addition, the closer “I Shall Be Free” feels something like a comic story that only induces hilarity for those that were there at the time as a kind of “in joke”.

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The recent devilish swipe by Joni Mitchell concerning Dylan’s continued plagiarism may seem outlandish to most but there are seeds of it on this record. “Blowin’ In The Wind” has roots that trace directly back to the spiritual song “No More Auction Block”, which was already part of his live repertoire. “Girl From The North Country” borrows heavily from “Scarborough Fair” in both music and lyrics. A Dylan biographer, Howard Sounes, has stated in print that Dylan’s lawyer’s paid an out of court settlement of $5000 for using a Jean Ritchie arrangement that was originally recorded on the song “Nottamun Town” for his own “Masters Of War”. “Bob Dylan’s Dream” was based on the melody of the traditional “Lady Franklin’s Lament”, and “I Shall Be Free” is a rewrite of Lead Belly’s “We Shall Be Free”. His laments for the downtrodden masses are vociferously called, but on many occasions diluted by their lyrical ambiguity. There’s no solutions offered to the protestations other than vague insinuations that the answer is, for example, “Blowin’ In The Wind”.

The two most enduring moments from the record link side one and two. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is one of Dylan’s most complex compositions, consisting of lines the writer planned to use as song titles for the future, it reads and sounds like an epic manifesto for a new generation, yearning for change. Pete Seeger would express that this song would last longer than any other written by Dylan. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is not only the musical highlight of the record, with gentle acoustic picking and an unusually tuneful vocal, but the narration of the frustrations and futility of relationship breakdowns seems both raw and inspired in equal measure.

To be sure, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” has the air of conviction, but lacks consistency, momentum, and provides no answers for those questioning his messianic following and no clear answers to his self righteous rants.

6/10

Track Ratings
1 – Blowin’ In The Wind (7)
2 – Girl From The North Country (7)
3 – Masters Of War (7)
4 – Down The Highway (5)
5 – Bob Dylan’s Blues (5)
6 – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (8)
7 – Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (8)
8 – Bob Dylan’s Dream (7)
9 – Oxford Town (6)
10 – Talkin’ World War III Blues (6)
11 – Corrina, Corrina (6)
12 – Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance (5)
13 – I Shall Be Free (5)

See also…

Iconic Album Art: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks (1975): Review

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