Released on March 19th, 1962 by Columbia Records, the self-titled debut LP by Bob Dylan has had a significantly bigger impact on musical culture than its, frankly rather poor, initial sales suggested would be the case. The only Dylan studio album not to chart in the US, he would take to the studio just one month after its release to begin work on follow up ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ which would become a veritable classic. So what of his oft overlooked debut?
Recorded in two short afternoons towards the end of 1961, the album cost next to no money to produce, the duties of which fell to the legendary John H. Hammond, who had previously helped found the careers of Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Aretha Franklin. The pair had only met a month or so earlier and the recording sessions were arranged with minimal expense; final costs going down in Dylan legend as amounting to just $402. Most of the tracks laid down were cut in one or two takes with half making it to the final album. The result is an intimate mono recording of voice, guitar and harmonica that leaves Dylan’s arrangements and performance exposed.
Opening with loose acoustic guitar strumming on ‘You’re No Good’, originally by Jesse Fuller, the album kicks off much as it goes on with strong willed performances of songs written by a range of Folk and Blues musicians Dylan either idolised or, just as likely, knew personally. Mainly, however, they are traditional tracks with no known author and each showcases Dylan’s evolving skill as an arranger.
Two tracks here are originals, ‘Talkin’ New York’ and ‘Song To Woody’, the latter of which is written for Woody Guthrie, an idol of Dylan’s who he got to know personally during his first year in New York before recording this album. It begins to show Dylan’s nascent interest in socially conscious lyricism, taking a look at a world that “looks like it's a-dyin' and it's hardly been born”. However, the more telling insight into his developing world view are in the tracks he chooses to cover and reinterpret.
Beginning most overtly with a rendition of ‘In My Time of Dyin’’, the prevailing theme is of death and its looming spectre. That track, like most here, exudes a sense of life, like a final powerful release as vocals and guitar swell and sink together, looping until all is said. The it's on to ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘Fixin’ To Die’ and a host of other tracks that accentuate the young Dylan’s ability to spit out a syllable as if each is with a spiteful, cursing, dying breath.
Yet, through each of these tracks is another theme; one of taking control of death and determining one’s own fate. Driven with the vigour of a young singer on the cusp of a dream recording deal and marked by the inquiring, questioning anxiety of a mind grappling with a great discomfort with the way of the world, each track comes across as conflicted and immediate. Nowhere is this more the case than on the most famous cut from the album, the arrangement of the traditional ‘House of the Risin’ Sun’. While the arrangement was by Dave Van Ronk, Dylan’s performance imbues it with a weariness that belies his years.
An album that teeters on the edge of death and yet comes across as a celebration of life, ‘Bob Dylan’ showcases the foundational elements of one of the 20th century’s most important songwriters and performers. Soon after he would record the seminal ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ igniting his cultural legacy as he marked himself as an astute social observer. Yet, on only the second track of his debut, the talking Blues ‘Talkin’ New York’ he recounted his life scratching a living in New York while poking fun at the hollowness of his experience with media, the music business, his first tastes of success, and life as a working musician. Already reaching for a more personally relevant representation of the world he saw, Bob Dylan’s move from Folk and Blues standards to innovative original material was simply a matter of time and thankfully one we have been able to enjoy for near on sixty years.