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Looking back, the original album notes heralding Bob Dylan’s self-titled 1962 debut were both insightful and prescient. Clearly inspired, New York Times writer Robert Shelton (under the pen name Stacey Williams) called the then 20-year-old Dylan “the most unusual new talent in American folk music,” “one of the most compelling white blues singers ever recorded,” “a songwriter of exceptional facility and cleverness,” and “an uncommonly skillful guitar player and harmonica player.”
Despite this high and accurate praise, Dylan’s album debut was not a big seller, causing some in the industry to question the wisdom of Columbia Records producer John Hammond’s strong belief in the talent of the raw young troubadour. The esteemed Hammond — who discovered the likes of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and later, Stevie Ray Vaughan — was the person responsible for signing Bob Dylan to Columbia, and he produced the eponymous first record as well.
Clearly, Hammond’s instincts about Dylan turned out to be more than right, as were the critical insights of Robert Shelton. But Shelton’s lauding observations on Dylan’s songwriting abilities were actually more prophetic than practical, as there were only two original compositions on the entire album. Besides Dylan’s heartfelt, derivative homage/ode to his songwriting idol Woody Guthrie (“Song For Woody”) and his equally imitative talking blues, “Talking New York,” the other ten performances on this classic recording were either traditional songs (adapted) or simply written by an older, wiser generation of bluesmen.
There’s some consensus that Dylan got a number of his early ideas from listening to the arcane folk, country and blues songs found on Harry Smith’s amazingly penetrating Anthology Of American Folk Music, and some critics portrayed him as cravenly appropriating the music of others. But Dylan was actually proud of his many musical influences, and gave ample credit where credit was due — name-checking musical friend Eric Von Schmidt as unearthing “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and folkie-godfather Dave Van Ronk for coming up with the definitive arrangement of “House of The Risin’ Sun.” The album features Dylan only on acoustic guitar, with no accompanying musicians.
According to music critic Dave Marsh, Dylan’s debut also showcased the singer’s overriding preoccupation with death, as evidenced by song choices like Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die” as well as earnest renditions of traditional tunes like “Man Of Constant Sorrow” and “In My Time Of Dyin’.” Thusly, the album, Bob Dylan, is the representative sound of a supremely talented young man at the beginning of his life trying like hell to sound like he’s near the end.
Fifty years on, even the recording session outtakes from Dylan’s maiden voyage have been discussed and dissected for their significance — and Shelton’s rave analysis spawned a consciousness and curiosity towards Dylan’s work that has never waned, but rather, increased exponentially to the point of utter and complete ubiquity.
The only question is whether or not Bob Dylan had more original songs in his repertoire, but chose to play it safe a half-century ago by mostly interpreting the music of others. The only answer was: not for long.
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