Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Bob DYLAN: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan




(#40: 17 April 1965, 1 week; 22 May 1965, 1 week)

Track listing: Blowin’ In The Wind/Girl From The North Country/Masters Of War/Down The Highway/Bob Dylan’s Blues/A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall/Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right/Bob Dylan’s Dream/Oxford Town/Talkin’ World War III Blues/Corrina, Corrina/Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance/I Shall Be Free

How apt that the most singular album in this tale to date should begin with a song whose origins stretch back to Canada. “Blowin’ In The Wind” was inspired by the spiritual “No More Auction Block,” a song popular among the former black slaves who had fled to Canada following Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1833. Dylan’s delivery is straight, earnest, dedicated and direct, his steadfast-verging-on-stubborn low tenor slightly reminiscent of Johnny Cash. Already, however, there are signs that what we are hearing does not quite match up with what we get; it was to become a typical characteristic of Dylan’s evasive genius that a song which would go on to have an incalculable impact on both popular culture and the wider world should be so determinedly non-committal and ambiguous; foreshadowing Lennon’s patiently subversive list of demands in “Imagine,” Dylan asks a series of rhetorical questions (in Homeric/Ciceronian triplicate) and leaves us to come up with the answers, or indeed the single answer which may answer all of his questions. The song offers no bouquets of reassurance; it is protesting at us, rather than for us.

A similar process of patience works its way through Dylan’s second album and it is indicative of the presence of true genius that its impact was to be so gradual and osmotic. The thirteen songs collected here were recorded (along with many unreleased others such as “Talkin’ John Birch ‘Paranoid’ Blues”) over a 12-month period between April 1962 and April 1963, a period which incorporated the Cuban missile crisis (and Dylan is keen not to let us forget its existence) and trips by Dylan himself to London and Rome. The record was issued in May 1963, did not enter the British charts until May 1964 and took nearly a year to climb to number one. During that time his influence had already seeped its way into the work of the Beatles and others, and it is instructive to go back to the source in light of its subsequent adaptations (see entries #37-8) and Dylan’s own reaction to the latter (see entry #41).

It is also a pleasure to read Nat Hentoff’s detailed and informed, if characteristically slightly sentimental, sleevenote as a respite from the tower of PR babble with which this tale has become all too familiar. Looking at the monochrome shots of Dylan, at work in the studio, there radiates a single-minded (yet community-earthed) intensity highly reminiscent of Coltrane (as a glance at the sleeve photos on the latter’s Ascension will demonstrate). This was serious stuff; yet the joy of Freewheelin’ lies in how Dylan systematically subverts the seriousness through its passage.

“Girl From The North Country” was derived from the arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” which Martin Carthy variously showed to both Dylan and Paul Simon when they visited Britain but Dylan’s adaptation is far subtler and slyer. His delivery is not quite as straight as it was on “Blowin’ In The Wind”; he is already offering startling intervallic octave leaps – a kind of halfway house between post-Yoruba field chants and Hank Williams yodel – and introducing his idiosyncratic sliding scale of phrasing (not to mention the “A” pronounced as in the letter of “A true love of mine”). Note also the contrast of “In the darkness of my night/In the brightness of my day” in light of McCartney’s subsequent “And I Love Her.”

“Masters Of War” brings out the shadows of “Blowin’” into a public light. Any ambiguity is abandoned here and the directness and harshness of both words and performance – over a modal waltz figure which Lennon would later adapt as the basis of “Norwegian Wood” – are as shocking today as they must have been forty-five years ago. Dylan’s voice has now little to do with coffee house politesse – hear the “Hide behind WALLS!” that he howls at an early point – and via the ingenious double metaphor of water running down the drain and blood running through the masters’ veins we attain a despair which belies the singer’s insistence on his youth; so young yet so exhausted, wishing the would-be destroyers an early and swift death. Some theatricalism is evident but its unabated and unassuaged fury has no real precedent in this tale, although its musical roots lie in the English Civil War lay “ Nottamun Town,” and recordings of the latter by Bert Jansch and Fairport Convention later in the sixties have Dylan’s setting coursing with moderate but clear wildness through their veins.

On a musical level “Down The Highway” is perhaps more radical still. It follows the classic twelve-bar blues structure but Dylan’s comments in the notes about the fundamental mistake of interpreters of the blues being that they try to get inside the blues rather than get outside their troubles remain pertinent. At several points he mentions Big Joe Williams’ drolly sombre style as a major influence, but everything about “Down The Highway” points to unexpected futures. The opening, wriggling out of tempo guitar figures, as well as the strikingly distended aspect Dylan’s voice lends to the couplet “Well, meet me in the middle of the ocean/And we’ll leave this ol’ highway behind,” directly anticipate Hendrix. The giggling and yodelling accompanying the line “Ain’t got much more to lose” are more in keeping with Stan Freberg than Hank Williams. The tag line descents (“Lord, she took it away to Italy – Italy!” he repeats, astounded at his own echo as well as co-cover star Suze Rotolo’s decision to move there for a prolonged period) have a pleasing gruff dismissiveness which would subsequently be developed and mutated by Beefheart. There may even be a hint of 50 Cent through Dylan’s occasional monotonal moroseness, but in general his vocal performance, moving through hiccups and octave vaults, might rightly be said to presage Tim Buckley. And he leaves us in no doubt that he means to capture and represent the entire spirit of his country: “Yes, I'm a-walkin' down your highway/Just as far as my eyes can see/From the Golden Gate Bridge/All the way to the Statue of Liberty.”

“Bob Dylan’s Blues,” meanwhile, invents the indie slacker template which would only properly germinate three decades later with Daniel Johnston, Beck et al. "Unlike most of the songs nowadays've been written uptown in Tin Pan Alley - that's where most of the folk songs come from now days,” Dylan drawls at the beginning, “this is a song, this wasn't written up there - this was written somewhere down in the United States!” before launching into a hilarious fuck off litany ranging from the Lone Ranger and Tonto to six shooters and judges, with impeccable comic timing, the final, climactic “Yes!” being but the funniest example. Let the whole of society be blown in the wind.

Then, without warning, we proceed directly to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and realise that we are in the presence of a vivid visionary. Again, perhaps the most remarkable facet of Dylan’s performance here is his patience; he does not rush through his forest of mirrored metaphors but gives us time to consider each increasingly horrific sight as he proceeds. The immediate inspiration – the Cuban missile crisis and the medieval Anglo-Scots ballad “Lord Randall” notwithstanding - would seem to be Ginsberg’s Howl, the underlying model inescapably Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass if we are speaking of the containment of all multitudes. But if, as Lester Bangs noted, the optimal musical accompaniment to Howl (pace the Kronos Quartet) would be Coltrane’s “ Africa ,” “A Hard Rain” needs only Dylan’s unavoidable, intimately global presence to work, since the focus has firmly to be on the words. As a song of personalised (as in internal, encrypted) protest its only real sixties parallel is “I Am The Walrus.” And yet, despite the song’s introduction of the rain metaphor which would become dominant as history progressed – Fogerty’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain?” being only one subsequent example – it still carries hope, however battered; Dylan’s reporter will continue to wander and report and walk through the valleys of not yet pacified pain, possibly beyond the world’s end. The song’s ramifications are vast, its procession of alternately condensed and expanded metaphors deftly handled, its implications ranging far beyond the scope of the thirty-nine albums previously discussed in this study, perhaps even beyond music.

If side one is the album’s “dark” side, side two lets in the light, even with the darkest of subjects. “Don’t Think Twice” is taken very carefully for one of the most acidic and defeated of Dylan’s long line of end-of-the-affair dissection songs, though its fleet guitar topline work may suggest the assistance of studio guitarist Bruce Langhorne with the recording. Inspired by and borrowing liberally from Paul Clayton’s 1960 song “Who’s Goin’ To Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone?” (although Clayton did teach the song to Dylan), “Don’t Think Twice” goes some way beyond its inspiration; here Dylan is clearly clutching at useless consolations, talking far more to himself than to his departed Other, though note the Droopy whine of “I never KNOWED!” and the general misleading lightness of touch, both of which were to have an immediate effect on the lyrics of Lennon and the guitar work of Harrison.

“Bob Dylan’s Dream” was inspired by the Victorian song “Lady Franklin’s Lament,” another song taught to him by Carthy during his winter 1962 visit to London, but Dylan transfers the latter’s Arctic mourning into perhaps the record’s most touching moment, a reminiscence of hanging out with the artist shortly to be known as Wavy Gravy in New York in 1961, his eyes already half damp in remembrance of better and more innocent times, a life never to be recaptured – and yet Dylan was still only twenty-two; still, would a new and uninformed listener earmark Astral Weeks as the work of a 23-year-old? How long does it take for some lives to be lived? Ask the 13/14-year-old Springsteen of 1963 that question, and then listen to Nebraska.

“ Oxford Town ” swiftly deals with the James Meredith/Mississippi campus riots affair; Dylan’s delivery is half jokey but the undertow deadly serious; this is the album’s only directly “topical” number (“Somebody better investigate soon!”) and suggests that Dylan was wise to move towards a more encompassing approach. “Talkin’ World War III Blues” in contrast is “A Hard Rain” in reverse image and the album’s most remarkable track as well as its funniest; here Dylan realises that the only way to confront the destructive nonsense of the world is to counterbalance with creative anti-sense. Finally he emerges from his chrysalis to form the Dylan of Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde as he reports his post-apocalypse dream, a crumbling slapstick backdrop of reluctant partners, other sole survivors who think he’s a Communist, unpaid radio bills, Cadillacs (“Good car to drive…after a war”) and speaking clocks. Again his timing is immaculate and hilarious (regularly punctuated by some especially droll harmonica blasts). Those who imagine that Dizzee Rascal’s “Bonkers” has no precedent would do well to re-examine this song, with its extended, deliberate confusion between waking and dreaming, and even unto its song-within-a-song irruption; whereas on “Bonkers” the cheery post-2 Step song which drifts onto the radio (“Go with the flow” etc.) is abruptly interrupted by Dizzee’s impetuous “Back in, back IN!,” the equivalent moment on “Talkin’” comes when Dylan turns on his record player to listen to “Rock-A-Day, Johnny singin’, tell your ma, tell your pa, our loves are gonna grow ooh-wah ooh-wah,” the last five syllables blending into a descending murmur of informed disinterest. Unlike “Bonkers,” however, there are other people present; the psychiatrist to whom Dylan is narrating the dream exclaims that he has had the same dream but that only he was in it, and Dylan extends the anti-Spartacus metaphor to mourn all the people walking around in the 1962 world recognising only their own dreams. He cites Lincoln before offering “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours” and then, almost offhand, adding “I said that.”

“Corrina, Corrina” is the only track on the album to use a band – so varied and startling have Dylan’s approaches been that we frequently forget that this is largely a solo recording – and perhaps suffers from over-familiarity (as it seems that every American musician in the early sixties was obliged to record the song) and a sense of padding (the band includes such unlikely rockers as pianist/jazz historian Dick Wellstood and the recently departed Condon bassist Leonard Gaskin); although Dylan is appositely grieving – his accent on “I just can’t keeeeeep from cryin’” for instance – there is a slight sense of detachment about his performance. This is not something that can be said of “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”; unlike previous misreaders of the minstrel show tradition, here is an example of something entirely new being created from existing material. Composed and recorded by Henry Thomas in 1927 – the original can currently be found on the Document compilation Ragtime Texas: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order 1927-1929 – Dylan does not precisely cover Thomas’ original; rather, he largely discards Thomas’ verses, doubles the song’s tempo and uses the chorus as a jump-off for his own fanciful flights. This is Dylan’s most remarkable vocal performance on the album, full of snaps, cackles and whirled whoops – some highly reminiscent of the Coasters on tracks like “Young Blood” - almost turning the blues into an abstract untruth and worlds away from the conscientious student singing “Blowin’ In The Wind” some forty-five minutes previously.

The closing “I Shall Be Free” sees the future Dylan fully formed, and happy with it; here is the hipster, relaxing and slacking out shaggy dog stories like overwarm Bazooka Joe bubblegum, secure in the knowledge that faced with the prospect of imminent apocalypse, shouting nonsense in the face of authority, or at least drawling it, is the best protection and attack; JFK rings him up (how did that sound in the Britain of 1965?) asking for advice and Dylan recommends bringing in Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg and Sophia Loren and then putting them in the same room as Ernest Borgnine (“Country will grow!” he gruffly reassures the President). Here the rhetorical poetical quattrain makes itself known (honeymooner, June crooner, spoon feeder, natural leader; bagels, pizza, chit’lins, a muttered “bullshit”). A man comes on the television two years ahead of “Satisfaction” and Dylan considers Yul Brynner, Willie Mays, Charles de Gaulle and Robert Louis Stevenson as reasonable alternatives to hair oil. Attending to his delivery here, while one recognises the Guthrie/Elliott precedents (though Ida Cox may be a more fitting, if more surprising, comparison point vocally), I do wonder whether the influence of Lonnie Donegan may perhaps have travelled in reverse (try Dylan’s “Well, I gotta woman, sleeps on the cot” next to Donegan’s “Well, I gotta gal, six feet tall” on “Cumberland Gap,” even though both have the same uncommon antecedent). His final words to a world waiting for protest and revelation? “I catch dinosaurs! I make love to Elizabeth Taylor! Catch hell from Richard Burton!” As with everything else about this, the most significant and unique album to be discussed in this tale thus far, it gives the impression of elemental earth converting gladly into electricity, and the future, permanent blocking of all undue auctions.

2 comments:

david said...

Great piece, Marcello. I saw Dylan play the opening track a few weeks ago, in a mildly reggaefied version that closed the show. Ernest Borgnine, amazingly, is still going. He had a cameo in the ER blood transfusion episode last month, acting alongside Susan Sarandon and George Clooney.

Ekberg, Bardot and Loren are all still alive too, forty odd years on - that Bob Dylan, he knew how to write a song that stays relevant! And he made a cameo TV appearance once, too, on 'Dharma and Greg'. Only the classiest of shows for him...

lonepilgrim said...

Belated thanks for your consistently insightful comments for this project Marcello - and for tracing the change from songs from the shows and minstrel abominations to albums as raw as this one. I hadn't fully appreciated that this (and BIABH next) had charted so high. No wonder the folk fans booed in 1966.