“O where ha you been, Lord Randall, my son?
And where ha you been, my handsome young man?”
“I ha been at the greenwood; mother make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie down.”
--Lord Randall (English/Scottish ballad, 16th century)
The Dylan Files— Folk Years 1961—1964
Believe it or not Bob Dylan began his career not as a songwriter, but as a performer. He audaciously sought the song’s essence, it’s soul.
Much has been written about the influence Woody Guthrie had on the young singer. Indeed Dylan visited Guthrie in the hospital during 1961, singing songs for the ill folk icon. Dylan inhabited the Woody Guthrie persona in order to access the truth of the songs and styles he was drinking in. In Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” Dylan himself says he “went through” Guthrie. Guthrie was the doorway, the stargate into the heart of song for Bob Dylan. He went through Guthrie. He didn’t look back…
This should not be taken as disrespect as it’s clear Dylan deeply respected the folk tradition. Dylan studied artists like John Lee Hooker, Dave Van Ronk, and the Clancey Brothers at Gerde’s Folk City. He invented wild, apocryphal stories about himself. Certainly a background hitching through the southwest, working for the circus, or busting broncos was more interesting and authentic sounding than his real story: that he was a 19-year-old Jewish kid from northern Minnesota. He arrived on the folk scene as an old performer, even as he was still learning how to perform.
The folk revival of the late 50s and early 60s was connected, at the heart, with the progressive left wing—Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and older mentors like Pete Seeger and the ill Woody Guthrie were performers who saw music as an agent for social change.
Dylan and Pete Seeger
Yet strange as it may seem, Dylan wasn’t (and isn't) a particularly political fellow. Of course he saw himself as part of the older folk tradition, and all that implies, so it would have seemed natural for Dylan to comment in his songs on the changing world he saw as a sensitive and thoughtful young man. And always the romantic, Dylan was also influenced by the women in his life.
Suze Rotolo was a smart and sophisticated girl who greatly broadened, the then provincial, Dylan’s horizons. And Joan Baez was already a star when she began seeing and mentoring the young and unknown Dylan. These women encouraged Dylan to get involved in social causes and write about the world around him.
I’d argue that his lack of political ideology, his relative political naivety, and natural poetic gifts allowed him to honestly tap into the collective consciousness during that era. Songs like Let Me Die in My Footsteps, Blowin’ in the Wind, and the extraordinary Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall seemed to articulate what millions of people were feeling and raging to express. Dylan, unlike so-called leaders, had no political agenda, no ideology. That’s why these songs were and are so powerful; they came from an uncorrupted and true place.
Dylan himself has commented on more than one occasion that he felt the songs were coming through him, as if he were channeling them, as if they were arriving from somewhere else.
And so Dylan, still a boy in many respects, suddenly found himself as an unwitting leader for the bourgeoning counter-culture. Suddenly Dylan found himself singing When The Ship Comes In on the same stage Martin Luther King Jr. would give his “I Have a Dream” speech. Suddenly people were giving him awards he felt he didn’t deserve. Suddenly people were asking him for the meaning of life, for 20 second bite-sized summations of his “philosophy” or some such nonsense. No wonder Dylan quit this scene.
Looking back from the vantage point of someone who wasn’t alive during this era, I can’t help but feel sympathy for the young Dylan. Many people back then mistook his poetic insight for prophecy; they mistook artistic inspiration for leadership.
Dylan was no leader. Never has been. That was some label people pinned on him. He was an artist, a songwriter, and a poet; his job was to entertain and inspire. It's foolish to look to our artists to lead (he will say more about this...)
As 1964 wound down, Dylan seemed to have gone through the folk scene like he had gone through Guthrie. The songs on Another Side of Bob Dylan were decidedly more introspective, the acoustic arrangements had a looser, jammy, more rock n roll feel to them. And Dylan was different too. He was not the old-timey folk singer anymore. Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie; last thoughts on pushing through. He wasn’t singing for “the cause” anymore. He wasn’t anybody’s leader, wasn't going to fall for that trap; he had no answers for society’s problems. He was younger than that now.
Studio Albums 1961—1964: capsule reviews
Bob Dylan (1962): Dylan’s first album consists of primarily raw, heartfelt covers of typical songs performed by many of the Village folk singers. The arrangement for the standard House of the Risin’ Sun was cribbed from Dave Van Ronk who gave devastating performances of this tune at Gerde’s during this time. Baby Let Me Follow You Down was learned from folk singer Eric Von Schmidt. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave is Kept Clean is one of the standout tracks here—the 20 year old Dylan somehow finding the blues here. The two original songs, Talkin’ New York Blues and Song To Woody are good, strong songs casting the narrator in the line of folk/blues performers of the past. Ultimately Dylan’s debut is raw and honest folk-blues.
Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963): There’s Dylan with girlfriend Suze Rotolo, huddling against each other as they walk confidently down a New York street. Impossibly young strong and beautiful. Out of the winter into the golden warmth of youth. And yet they appear world weary—tired—possessed of some secret knowledge that is shared in the music.
It’s hard to believe that the young man who wrote Song to Woody a few months before wrote the nightmare tornado of images for Hard Rain. It’s hard to believe that a rage like Masters of War was ever written at all—the most devastating and honest song I’ve ever heard. And the wistful Girl From the North Country has one of the loveliest melodies, a touching song about a past love.
Blowin’ In the Wind, with it’s vague and brittle lyrics, the melody borrowed from the old slave song No More Auction Block, became the unlikely anthem for a generation (and I’m not sure why, it’s really a weak song when you think about it—sorry it's true--none of the strength and guts of Masters of War, none of charm of Don’t Think Twice or Girl From the North Country, and none of the apocalyptic imagist poetry of Hard Rain).
It was Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall that is the triumph here, his lyrics had become imagist poems in the tradition of Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams. The fact that the song still means as much today as it did in 1963 tells you something about the universality of Dylan’s poetry—and the terror of the world. Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan changed everything.
Performances Girl From the North Country and Hard Rain are from a Canadian show called "Quest"--1963.
The Times They Are A-Changin’(1964): Solid follow up to Freewheelin’ that cemented his place as the best songwriter/poet of the era. Songs like With God on Our Side and When the Ship Comes In articulated the feelings of many, and became powerful anthems for the civil rights movement (I won’t mention the corny and dated title track—the less said about that song the better). And Boots of Spanish Leather is as lovely as Girl From the North Country.
I do want to spend some time with Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, a remarkable “ripped from the headlines” song that tells the true story of the murder of Hattie Carroll at the hands of William Zantzinger in 1963. It is a brilliant short story with the force of biblical justice. I cannot tell you how moved I was the first time I heard this song.
Consider the section describing Hattie Carroll and her murder (underlines are mine):
“And she never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level
Laid low by a blow
Laid slain by a cane
That sailed through the air
And came down in a room…”
The allusion to the biblical Cain and Able is clear; the fact that these two people were not level is made apparent. And the way Dylan pauses the action, cuts the rhymes, at the moment of violence paints a deeply powerful image that a photographer or filmmaker would have difficulty capturing.
This song still feels relevant, still feels vital: the inequality of society, the viciousness of the class system. Any thinking American today can and should see themselves as both Hattie Carroll and William Zantzinger.
And you who philosophize disgrace, and criticize all fear, take the rag away from your face for now ain’t the time for your tears.
No time for tears, until the end—justice thwarted—when tears are the only logical response. I could write more about this song—but you should just listen to it. These were real people who Dylan has lifted to the realm of folk story, legend, parable, and modern day myth. Go ahead and cry if you want to—now is certainly the time for your tears.
(Note: William Zantzinger, who served only 6 months for manslaughter, lived into old age a miserable and cursed man. He has referred to Dylan as a “son of a bitch” and a “scum bag.” This is what they refer to as “projection” right?)
Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, 1963, Steve Allen show
Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964): Recorded during a fun 7 hour session, this loose off the cuff album is the transitional album that stands between the seriousness of The Times They Are A-Changin’ and the rock n roll beat poetry of Bringing it all Back Home. The structures of the songs here almost seem as if they had been constructed with an imaginary rock band in Dylan’s head. Some of the songs seem underperformed and even ill-advised (Ballad in Plain D is too autobiographical, too cruel—not much for folks to identify with really).
Thematically there’s a strong sense of goodbye here—My Back Pages and It Ain’t Me Babe seem to comment on Dylan’s disenchantment with love, the ugly political world and the social upheaval of the 60s. They are at once a wistful, bitter, and nonchalant goodbye to the loves and lives of his recent past—
Yet there’s a sense of hello on the album as well. Chimes of Freedom joyfully celebrates being young, being strong, and being free in a world where a hard rain was falling. Consider that the “chimes” in the song are thunder and lightning. The song revisits the hard weather of a hard rain. But rather than viewing the hard rain as a terrible apocalypse as he once did, Dylan sees it here as liberating, cleansing— a washing away of the old, a chance for a new start—the thunder and the lightning (electricity!) igniting, chiming, and tolling a new sound, a new attitude, for a new people. The shape and sound of things to come…
Chimes of Freedom, Newport, 1964. Dylan was already writing material for Bringing It All Back Home. Things would be different when he returned to the Newport stage the following year...
Interesting Bootlegs from the era
Dylan is almost certainly the most bootlegged artist of all time. There is no way I can give a complete list of bootlegs from this era. (Go to bobsboots.com for a comprehensive list of bootlegs!) The following are a couple of my favorite bootlegs from this era that I highly recommend:
Folksinger’s Choice (with Cynthia Gooding) February 1962:
Radio show recorded a few weeks before Dylan’s first album dropped. Powerful and raw. A great early performance of Emmitt Till. The conversations between the songs are awesome. Hear Dylan lie about his past! Hear host Cynthia Gooding (with a weird affected accent) fawn over and flirt with Dylan! Raw, early Dylan!
Studs Terkel’s Wax Museum (with the great Studs Terkel) May 1963:
Radio interview and performance with the legendary Studs Terkel. This should be officially released due to its historic importance. Monumental performances, and a great, great interview. One of my favorite boots.
Great songs not released from this era
Here’s a theme that will come up throughout this series. Dylan has a habit of holding back great material from albums. Why, for example, did he never finish writing Percy’s Song? And why didn’t Lay Down Your Weary Tune make it onto Freewheelin’? I honestly think he does this on purpose. It’s actually a smart move when you think about it. When Lay Down Your Weary Tune eventually showed up on Biograph (the first box set btw) in the 80s it was like a brand new Dylan release. The first time I heard this song, tears welled in my eyes. It is simply one of the most beautiful songs man. One of my favorite songs to sing.
Sing along! Lyrics here: http://www.bobdylan.com/#/songs/lay-down-your-weary-tune
It will make you feel right...