Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Debut: Bob Dylan

Imagine a coffeehouse. Greenwich Village. The Cafe Wha?  Wintertime.  1961.  Onstage steps a disheveled  kid out of Mark Twain playing a harmonica and strumming a beat up guitar. The rollicking playing style compensates for the ragged vocals.  Onstage he's an arcane figure, accessible and distant at the same time.

A longtime center of the Avant Garde and creativity in North America, Greenwich Village played a pivotal in the formation of the counterculture of which Dylan played a crucial, but ambiguous role. Like the Bohemians who preceded them, the folkies were in revolt against the present.  

Dylan arrived in the winter of 1961 and in less than a year had a recording contract with Columbia Records.  Legendary producer John Hammond signed Dylan on the spot after watching him perform.  His first year in New York's filled with mythology - much of it of his own cunning.  To early biographer Robert Shelton  he boasted of being a hustler on Times Square to survive his poverty.  For a long time many believed Paul Simon based "The Boxer" on Dylan's early days in New York.  However, in Dylan's memoir Chronicles Vol. 1, he's more a kindly bookworm spending his days at the New York public library reading history and poetry.

The first LP, Bob Dylan, recorded over three afternoons, attempts to capture the intensity of the live performances.  Of the thirteen tracks, only two were original compositions, 'Talkin' New York," and "Song to Woody."  The rest were blues and folk covers like "You're No Good" and "In My Time of Dyin."  The Guthrie influence is all over with Dylan's talking introductions and rambling attempts at social commentary.

The album has a homemade vibe: just Dylan, guitar, and harmonica. Enamored with folk and the blues, he went for the emotive narrative power of the former and the up front humanity of the latter.  Listen to "Pretty Peggy-O" with its folk-country-blues which foreshadows Dylan's persona he followed throughout his career all the way up to Blood on the Tracks and beyond.

On "Song to Woody," Dylan pays tribute to his mentor, but also encapsulates the idea of the entire folk movement, by writing about a world, "that looks like it's adyin' an' it's hardly been born." Another stirring performance is "House of the Rising Sun," with its understated sense of doom (although the 1965 version by The Animals remains untouchable).

Widely considered a flop on its initial release, Bob Dylan produced no hits nor made Dylan a household name.  But something compelling happens on every track.