Bob Dylan Album #3, The Times They Are A-Changin’


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #3 The Times They Are A-Changin’
Columbia, 1964

Then came the protest album. If The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan gave listeners just a taste of the politically charged Dylan, Times was its stark, full-blown activist aftermath. 

Opening with the timeless title track, Times is one of the most somber and personal albums Dylan has ever recorded. Just look at what was happening in the world during its recording. The assassination of President Kennedy left the country in shock, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his memorable “I Have A Dream” speech helping to bring the civil right’s movement to the forefront, the military beginning its long road in Vietnam, and the space race was underway. It’s safe to say the country was in a state of flux. For Dylan, however, the order was “rapidly fadin.’” 

Unlike Freewheelin’, The Times They Are A-Changin’ was a true solo project, one of the more intimate recordings of his career. Dylan wrote all the music and lyrics, played all the instruments (which was nothing more than an acoustic guitar and the occasional harmonica). 

Lyrically Dylan meanders between dismal tales of an unlucky South Dakota farmer slaying his family with a shotgun (“Ballad of Hollis Brown”), the assassination of a civil right’s pioneer Medgar Evers (“Only A Pawn In Their Game”), and a straight from the newspaper, racially charged murder of a 51-year-old black woman (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”).

With “Hattie Carroll” Dylan even manages to build a level of suspense (more effective during the song’s heyday when few people knew about the slaying) as Dylan’s vocals and the rhythm of song ascends and descends. When the murderer, William Zanzinger’s light six-month sentence is finally unveiled in the song’s finale, Dylan’s slight hesitation and guitar pause alludes to the kind of courtroom gasp one would expect with such an immoral outcome. 

“With God On Our Side,” arguably the record’s most disturbing view of the world, is a harsh warning for the theological rationalization of war throughout the United State’s history. The haunting stanza, “One Push of the button / And a shot the world wide / And you never ask questions / When God’s on your side,” alludes to an escalation of the horrors of war rooted in religious fundamentalism that makes the song as poignant as ever, especially after the events during the Bush administration.  

While most of the tracks on Times are as bleak as they get, Dylan managed to let a couple of his more tender songs sneak on the record. “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “One Too Many Mornings,” two of Dylan’s most underrated gems to date, are both soothing ballads of a forlorn couple in love and give a fairly compassionate, albeit candid look at the pitfalls of long distance separation. Most likely written after his previous girlfriend Suze Rotolo (featured on Dylan’s arm on Freewheelin’s now infamous LP cover photograph) left for Spain, both songs offer a well-needed break from the dismal societal woes that are referenced during the rest of the record. Though the sting of separation is never more present than when Dylan sings, “I got a letter on a lonesome day / 
It was from her ship a-sailin’, / Saying I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again / 
It depends on how I’m a-feelin’.”

“When the Ship Comes In” feels like a traditional anthem for the common sailor, the kind best suited for a drinking hole congested with seafaring folk, glasses of beer and shots of whiskey. That the song is supposedly a metaphor for an embarrassing moment when Dylan was turned away from a hotel for his disheveled appearance only adds to the song’s allure and quirkiness.

The Times They Are A-Changin’ is Dylan’s first official masterpiece. Whereas Freewheelin’ struggled with a somewhat disproportionate second half, Times is a near flawless record, and arguably one of Dylan’s most personal. It is said that a number of the songs were written in all-night coffee shops during the country’s seismic sea change.  Tracks like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” paved the way for future political pleads like Desire’s “Hurricane,” while the album’s closer “Restless Farewell,” was the perfect bookend to an exercise in anger but also a call for change. The album would ultimately paint Dylan as a voice of his generation (a label he later tried desperately to shed) but as a piece of 60s era social criticism, it doesn’t get much better than this. 

9.5/10

Essential Songs: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “When the Ship Comes In,” “With God On Our Side.”

Bob Dylan Album #2, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #2 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Columbia Records, 1963

It’s easy to take for granted songs like “Blowing in the Wind,” “The Times Are a Changing,” and “Like A Rolling Stone” since they remain Dylan’s most widely known. With “Blowing,” Dylan couldn’t have written a better opening song to what would ultimately be his most fruitful, decade-long run of albums. It is also the proper introduction to Dylan the poet, prolific songwriter, political activist, and romantic.

The first side of Freewheelin’ definitely outweighs that of its latter half. The opening trio alone, consisting of “Blowing,” “Girl From the North Country,” and “Master of War” remain three of Dylan’s finest achievements. Add to this the one-two punch of the record’s two blues tracks, “Down in the Highway” and “Bob Dylan’s Blues.” Finally side A ends with the apocalyptic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song that has remained a steady part of Dylan’s live repertoire and has seen many different incarnations over the years, most notably circa his Rolling Thunder Revue days. When Dylan sings “Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten / Where black is the color, where none is the number,” it’s clear this young songwriter from Bleecker street is a voice to be heard.

Originally envisioned as a blues record entitled “Bob Dylan’s Blues,” Freewheelin’s second half features the majority of the album’s exercises in simple, folk style blues.

With the exception of “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” which, combined with “Girl From the North Country,” shows Dylan’s knack for writing emotionally triggered love songs, side B at times feels like a more polished/original extension of Bob Dylan

Whereas Bob Dylan consisted of only two original songs amidst a collection of covers and traditional folk songs, Freewheelin’ is Dylan breaking out of his shell. Only two traditional covers–“Corrina Corrina” and “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance”–are featured on the record and are ultimately the album’s two forgettable tracks. The remaining eleven songs introduce a confident and assertive Dylan whose songs range from tender to poignant, tragic to playful. 

The album’s closer, “I Shall Be Free,” returns to a bit of the humor found on Bob Dylan but maintains Freewheelin’s political timeliness. Opening with the line, “Well I took me a woman late last night / I was ¾ drunk, she looked alright” and eventually culminating with a fictionalized phone call with President Kennedy asking, “Bob, what do we need to make the country grow? I responded, Brigitte Bardot,” it’s obvious that Dylan’s tongue is in his cheek. 

Freewheelin features some of Dylan’s finest songs and would have been a monumental debut for this rising musician. Many of the tracks would receive various makeovers throughout his touring years. “Girl From the North Country” would later be re-released as a crooning duet with Johnny Cash on Nashville Skyline, not to mention a musical doppelganger on The Times They Are A-Changin’s “Boots of Spanish Leather.” “Hard Rain” transferred flawlessly to Dylan’s gypsy electric phase in the early 70s, and “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” remains a staple encore set piece for Dylan’s current Never Ending Tour.

As a whole entity, the album’s overall focus is never truly defined but rather the collection of songs seem to be introducing audience to a new side of Bob Dylan (a rebirth formula he would ultimately use again, and again). The two covers feel tossed on last minute, while a number of B-side tracks from the album (later released in the Bootleg Series 1-3) would have been right at home on this release. Overall we get Dylan the bluesman, Dylan the romantic crooner, and for the first time in his career, Dylan the activist, a role that would play a crucial role in his following release, The Times They Are A-Changin’. 

8.5/10 

Key Tracks: “Blowing in the Wind,” “Girl From the North Country,” “Masters of War,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” “I Shall Be Free.”

Bob Dylan Album #1, Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #1 Bob Dylan
Columbia Records, 1962

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.

7.5/10

Key Tracks: “In My Time of Dyin,’” “Talkin’ in New York,” “Gospel Plow,” “Song to Woody.”