All of the greats get their start somewhere. For Bob Dylan, who recorded his self-titled debut in 1962 at the ambitious age of 20, it was a promising start indeed.
Preluding the stellar lineup of masterpieces that soon followed Bob Dylan–starting with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and carrying on until his rewriting of rock and roll with Blonde on Blonde–Dylan’s premiere album is easy to overlook. Mainly comprised of straightforward covers of contemporary and traditional folk tunes, a handful of originals, and one ode to his idol (Song to Woody), Bob Dylan was less an exercise in genius or unrivaled creative masterstroke (the brilliance would come soon after) but more the perfect groundings to what would ultimately be an expansive and unprecedented career. After all, despite the many musical transformations over the years–acoustic to electric, political to spiritual, soothing vocals to sandpaper crooning, etc. etc.–at the core of Dylan’s music is an adoration of traditional folk and blues.
In terms of vocal prowess Dylan comes across as young, fairly untrained but confident nevertheless and his interplay between the verses and his choo-choo train harmonica shows an early mastery of the harp. Songs like “Pretty Peggy-O” and “Gospel Plow” come off as simple, casual and almost playful as Dylan interrupts the choruses with quick hoots, yelps and giggles. Whereas Dylan’s take on the traditional “In My Time Of Dyin’” and “House of the Rising Sun” are more refined, with a tilt towards the blues. On other songs, particularly the album’s sparse opener “You’re No Good,” it’s clear Dylan’s singing out of his range, in many ways paying homage once again to Woody Gutherie.
Musically the songs rely on the purity of a man and an acoustic guitar. The picking is proficient but hardly grandiose (again, Dylan would unleash his true guitar chops later). The recording sessions of all 17 tracks (only 13 would make it to the final album) took roughly three afternoons to record and cost a meager $400. Dylan has often said that it only takes him two or three listens of any song to master it and by the time Bob Dylan was recorded the artist had already been playing the coffeehouse circuit and sitting in with a number of his contemporaries, becoming fluent in the folk repertoire with every song he learned.
The album only has two original tracks, with the timeless “Song to Woody” being the most famous. As a result the album only reveals a taste of the real Bob Dylan, enough of course to land him a five-record contract with Columbia and enough to prompt the album’s more personal follow-up The Freewheelin Bob Dylan.
A handful of the songs on Bob Dylan would be added to his live rotation during the early 1960s, and post his1966 electric transition only five of the thirteen were played in concert, including a driving, blues rendition of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” with his fiery backing band, The Band (then still The Hawks).
Bob Dylan would not be the go-to album for someone unfamiliar with Dylan to embark on his massive canon. Like David Bowie’s self-titled debut (which was also a melting pot of covers and influences), the album is in many ways merely a glimpse into the music of his childhood, the songs that inspired him to pick up the guitar and step up to the mic. The true Bob Dylan wouldn’t be unleashed till the follow-up but for understanding his career spanning progression the album is a necessary reminder of his roots.
Key Tracks: “In My Time of Dyin,’” “Talkin’ in New York,” “Gospel Plow,” “Song to Woody.”