Monday, July 13, 2009

Bob Dylan's Debut

I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block.
Got on the stage to sing and play,
Man there said, "Come back some other day,
You sound like a hillbilly;
We want folk singer here."

--Bob Dylan, "Talkin' New York"

There's something very punk about Bob Dylan's first album, punk in several senses of the word, whether you take that to mean brash upstart or fierce independent, a hillbilly trying to be a folk singer, a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota trying to sound black and poor, or -- what it really comes down to -- a 20-year-old hoping to win over an audience armed with nothing but a guitar, a harmonica and a very strange voice.

I suspect in 1962 it sounded like nothing else, and it still does. It's stark and alive and brazen; Dylan at a microphone, relying on nothing but his own raw vocals and his fierce guitar playing, as if he wanted on this first effort to say this is me, all me, nothing else, and to be judged strictly on that and nothing else.

The songs were well-chosen and varied, allowing his voice to shift between the easy humor of "Talkin' New York" to the raw scrapping defiance of "In My Time of Dyin'" , the low-down mournfulness of "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "House of the Risin' Sun" and the bluesy yowl of "Freight Train Blues." Also, just as this first album was make or break for Dylan, there's something very much life or death about the songs, mostly death. "In My Time of Dyin'", "Fixin' to Die", "Highway 51", "House of the Risin' Sun", "See That My Grave is Kept Clean".

This marked the first time most people had heard Dylan, and what they heard was someone with something to prove, which is that he's part of a great tradition, that he's here to pick up where Woody Guthrie -- soon to be dead from Parkinson's Disease -- left off. From the perspective of 47 years later, it's hard not to believe him.

No comments: