The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

I said a while ago I might try to write about every Dylan album in order. And then nothing for eight months. At this rate, I'll be talking about Time Out of Mind in 2049, so here's me trying to  get on with it.

And BOOM, there it is. Not much more than a year after his okay-but-nothing-that-special debut, Dylan arrives. If he weren't popular music's most shape-shifting performer, you'd almost say that on The Freewheeling' Bob Dylan, he is now complete, but Dylan is never complete. All we can say is that now he becomes visible in his energy, his mercurial gifts, his genius. It's a breathtaking collection. After a fortunate last-minute shuffling of the contents by Columbia Records, he's abandoned most of his cover versions and it's his own songwriting that seizes our attention. And what songwriting: 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall', 'Masters of War', 'Don't Think Twice It's All Right', 'Blowin' in the Wind', 'Bob Dylan's Dream', 'Girl From the North Country' all on one album? Ridiculous. His first album is mainly filled with Dylan's covers of folk and blues songs; here he's still engaging with that tradition but in a new way. In each song here, he's channelling, borrowing, stealing, adapting from the folk tradition and turning it into something genuinely original and strange and haunting. Take 'A Hard Rain', which takes a pinch of the Scottish ballad 'Lord Randall' (which you can listen to here, sung by the Dylanphobic Ewan MacColl) but turns it into something visionary, apocalyptic, vast and frightening. 'Masters of War' takes the outlines of a tune from the late-medieval ballad 'Nottanum Town' and makes it a blast against contemporary warmongers, whose power is enhanced by its harnessing of a thousand years of folk tradition (and two thousand of messianic teaching).

What emerges so strongly in this collection is exactly that yoking together of opposites: contemporaneity and ancient wisdom, urban sophistication and backwoods simplicity, modern leftism and Old Testament fire. The most immediately striking development on this record is the 'finger-pointing' songs, as he called them: suddenly, probably under the influence of his radical girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, he's found politics.

An atmosphere of folky leftishness courses through these songs, but I hear a balance, maybe a tension, between the political voice of a generation and something more egoistic, more personal. The hipster in-crowd jokiness of 'Talkin' World War III Blues' or the contemporaneous out-take 'Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues' have a certain throwaway quality; the latter exists in a horribly muddy version on the Witmark Demos (Bootleg Series Vol 9) but sounds kind of great in a live Carnegie Hall recording from October 1963 on The Bootleg Series Vol 1 - it gives you a strong sense of the community that were there to support the work, hear and approve the sentiments; they lap up the jokes and the references. There he introduces the song with the words 'an' there ain't nothin' wrong with this song' a sly little self-congratulatory reference to the fact that the song was banned by The Ed Sullivan Show which only added to Dylan's folk celebrity. Weirdly, though, the lines that got him banned - 'Now we all agree with Hitler’s views / Although he killed six million Jews / It don’t matter too much that he was a Fascist / At least you can’t say he was a Communist!' - he doesn't actually sing at the Carnegie Hall (nor at the Philharmonic Hall a year later on Bootleg Series 6). I wonder if he senses that the venom they suggest overwhelms the politics; they are add odds with the wry irony of the rest of the song, which he sings in the kind of hick voice he likes for his talking blues songs (see 'Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues' for another good example), which makes for bluntly mild humour but those lines cut with a serrated edge. They seem to me to emerge less from a wry observer, as the rest of the song does, as from a personal venom. 

In a song like 'Masters of War' the venom is all. It's a remarkable sign of Dylan's cocky confidence that, aged only 21 when he recorded it, he can marshall words to denounce the military-industrial complex and not sound like a flea on the back of an elephant. The song builds in verbal confidence, actually. The first two verses are pretty standard stuff, but a new turn is announced at the beginning of the third: 'Like Judas of old / You lie and deceive / A world war can be won / You want me to believe' is a nice working together of hellfire preacher and postwar pacifist. Two verses later we get the most caustic dismissal yet: 'You ain't worth the blood / That runs in your veins.' Immediately this personalisation of the masters of war is pressed home: 'Let me ask you one question / Is your money that good / Will it buy you forgiveness / Do you think that it could?' The final verse is where the savage contempt and condemnation reaches its peak. Oddly, one might think, for a song so contemptuous of war, Dylan (or the character-singer of the song) is wishing for the death of his enemy. It's interesting that it feels finely balanced between an invocation of hellfire and damnation but also personal contempt and the politics somehow emerges in the space between them:

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead

'Pale afternoon' is particularly brilliant, isn't it? And the great thing, musically, is the way Dylan's worked the song around a single chord that hammers away through the song, with the vocal line taking these leaps up the range that almost provide the key changes and seem to pile hatred on hatred, fire on fire. It's a dropped D tuning, which he does a bit elsewhere on this record, but then tightens up the strings by using a capo on the 3rd fret. Basically, it gives the accompaniment this sound of a nervous clattering drone, that is a key part of the song's remorseless battery.

But if you think that's good, 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall' is a whole new world. The legend is that Dylan turned up to a folk event organised by Pete Seeger at the Carnegie Hall in September 1962 where all the acts were limited to ten minutes and three songs each. 'What am I gonna do?' asked Dylan. 'One of my songs is ten minutes long.' The song seems to have been written, unusually for him at that time, as a poem on the page with no idea whether or how to turn it into song. But by the time of the Carnegie Hall, it's a folk masterpiece. The song has a simple structure: one figure asks a young man (maybe his son) what he's been doing, and the young man responds with a series of unsettling, deranged, dislocated images, all of which are precise, ambiguous and troubling. None of them are directly literal; they are all allusive, elusive, surreal, immensely suggestive: 'a highway of diamonds with nobody on it', 'one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin'', 'a young woman whose body was burning'. Honestly I could quote the whole song; in fact, when I wrote Static, at one moment we wanted a vow from the dead husband Chris that would be translated into and only performed in BSL. I wrote a piece that vowed eternal devotion, that kind of eternity that only the speaking dead can promise, and I drew on this song for the structure and even for one line. This is a treasure chest of verbal riches and establishes a songform that Dylan returns to right through his career: the list-song where a basic motif is obsessively elaborated in various ways. In this, there's a direct link between 'Hard Rain' and, say, 'It's All Good' on Together Through Life 46 years later.

Musically, he's using that dropped D tuning again, which this time lets the low D act as a drone through almost the entire song, with the churning rhythm pounding through, insisting in the accumulation of images. In the final verse, Dylan himself makes an appearance, vowing to go out and sing the song and make a change. The title, to which every verse returns, is beautifully ambiguous: a warning, a prediction, or a threat. The song seems to have preceded the Cuban Missile Crisis but it finds a moment there, the hard rain resonating with fears of nuclear fallout. But it could just as easily be a warning about the judgment of God. There's a pretty direct connection to the Beats and a poem like Allan Ginsburg's 'Howl' with its long lines and epic accumulation of details.

'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright' is venom again, this time to a girlfriend who he's leaving. Dylan is very good at writing devastating goodbye songs (think of the brilliantly waspish put-down at the end of Positively 4th Street 'I wish that for just one time / You could stand inside my shoes / You’d know what a drag it is / To see you') and of course the sheer contempt of 'Idiot Wind' ('Idiot Wind / Blowing every time you move your mouth / You're an idiot, babe / It's a wonder you still know how to breathe'). Here we have each verse delivering a withering judgment on his ex's failings building to the casual dismissal ('I ain't saying you treated me unkind / You could have done better but I don't mind / You just kinda wasted my precious time / But don't think twice, it's alright') which is about as passive-aggressive as you can get. Interestingly, though, the song changes in tone in its various incarnations. In the 1964 version (Bootleg Series 6) he seems to be playing it for laughs. I shall ignore the awful cod-reggae version he gives us on Live at Budokan but the rendering on Before the Flood is a startling reinvention; it's still just him a guitar and harmonica, but here the yelps and yells make it sound like a man who is protesting too much. It becomes a song about self-deception and loss.

It's the strongest of the personal songs on this record (he sounds like he's having tremendous fun on 'Bob Dylan's Blues', certainly more fun than I'm having on that song), though 'Girl From the  North Country' runs it pretty close, Dylan singing with the sun on his face somewhat against the increasingly dark lyric. It begins asking that we pass on a message but ends in the belief that she's forgotten him entirely. It has some affinities with 'If You See Her, Say Hello', 12 years later. The melody and vocal are peerless; they've had their thunder stolen by Simon & Garfunkel, the pre-echoes of which unbalance the song to the modern listener, but this is one of his greatest love songs.

I like the bluesy 'Down the Highway' which sounds like Dylan trying to channel Robert Johnson and doing so with some success, ringing guitar and all. It's got a laconic wit to it rather than Johnson's horrified desolation. It's one of several songs for Suze Rutolo, the most direct reference to her being 'My baby took my heart from me / She packed it all up in a suitcase / Lord, she took it away to Italy, Italy'. Rutolo had indeed taken herself off to Italy, to Dylan's annoyance. I like the little, puzzled repetition of Italy; it partly sounds like he's not sure he said it clearly enough ('Iddly'), or that he can't quite believe where she's gone ('Italy'??). 

The iconic song that I haven't mentioned yet is the record's opener, 'Blowin' in the Wind'. I don't know what I think. The song doesn't really touch me, somehow. Maybe it's over-familiarity (in my inner-London primary school, we used to sing it in assembly...), but also the rhetoric seems a bit, well, windy. There are things I like about that: the title is ambiguous, isn't it? Is it that the answer to all these questions is obvious if you listen to the way the wind is blowing (because you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, right?); or does it mean that the answers to these questions seem to scatter in the winds? Is it a song of conviction or desperation? I guess it was seen as the former, but the latter seems as plausible. I like the 'Yes and...' structure of the verse, which has an insistence to it that gives it moral authority. The melody is great; on the first album, I noted a favourite guitar figure, the descent from C down to the A in the bass with a D on top of it. It peeks up all through the first album but now the whole song is built around it those descents giving it a melancholy air, even as it seems to warn those negligent of others' suffering. But still, I just don't quite connect with it. While elsewhere on this record, the images seem to me vivid, concrete, jagged and strange, these images seem to strain for wisdom. Give me 'A Hard Rain' any day.

For me the record fizzles out a bit at the end. 'Corrinna, Corinna' is an elegant arrangement of the standard that swings gently with the addition of a stand-up bass and some lightly jazzy guitar and Dylan in crooning mode (see also Nashville Skyline and Shadows in the Night), but it's thin as paper. Things don't improve with 'Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance' with its messy guitar and harp and hiccupping buckaroo vocal. The title of 'I Shall Be Free' suggests a protest anthem, but actually it's a jokey song about his successes and failures with women. Maybe you had to be there, but compared to 'It Ain't Me, Babe' or 'Bob Dylan's 115th Dream' which are genuinely laugh out loud songs, it feels a bit too uncertain in approach to get a laugh.

I should say, I've always thought this was one of his best guitar-playing records (the picking on 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright' is amazing, as it is on 'Girl From the North Country') but reading around, it seems Bruce Langhorne was responsible for 'Don't Think Twice'. The demos on Bootleg Series 7 and 9 are nowhere near as accurate and the timing is also much more variable when Dylan plays it. Listening to it again, I think it's one of the best-recorded records Dylan released; there's a real warmth and intimacy to the voice and the guitar sound; it sounds full and rich. It captures the smoky rasp of his voice, the details of his wonderful phrasing. You can hear the breath in the harmonica too. It's a confident, intimate record and it's impossible not to love. Dylan is discovering that he can do anything and he does everything.

And the rest...

Of the contemporary recordings that didn't make it to this record, there's a clutch that show his sudden interest in the blues. 'Standing on the Highway' is another Johnson soundalike, though it's wise and knowing rather than haunted and visceral; 'Poor Boy Blues' sounds to me like a rather aimless retread of some blues motifs. (Are we supposed to speculate why the po' boy is cryin’? There's not enough compulsion in there to make me really want to know.) 'Worried Blues' is a sweet, country folk rendering of a standard without much Dylan in it to my ear. 'Quit Your Low Down Ways' is the best of the bluesy out-takes, a vengeful gospel-tinged recording with a great, gruff vocal showing off his repertoire of blues attitudes.

'The Death of Emmett Till' is his first go at a topical song. Well, I say topical. Emmett Till was murdered eight years before this record came out so it's hardly hot off the press, but at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining such powerful momentum, it was a timely reminder of America's recent history. The song re-uses the chord sequence from 'House of the Rising Sun' off his first album, just capoed at the third fret. It's a good chord sequence for this song that seems to keep forcing the point forwards, telling a dreadful accumulating story without ever quite resolving anything. Dylan at first described the song as one of his best and later as 'bullshit' and I'd say it's somewhere in between. Rather better is 'Oxford Town', which actually makes it to the record and has the merit of being genuinely topical (written within a month of the segregationist battles at the University of Mississippi); it's a jaunty tune with a snarl in its lip.

There are much lighter tunes here too. I love 'Walkin' Down the Line', which I feel slightly uneasy about because it's a light skiffle-pop tune, but there's a carefree humour and world-worn knowingness about the song that elevates it. Apparently in the 1980s, when Dylan toured with the Grateful Dead, the Dead requested this song to an incredulous Dylan, but why the hell not? It's full of ideas and has a generosity of spirit. 'Ballad for a Friend' is a country blues with some nicely minimalist bottleneck guitar which begins bucolic and ends darkened by grief. 'Mixed Up Confusion' is a mixed up confusion of a sardonic folk lyric with an incongruous hillbilly honkytonk backing; recorded and released as a single apparently at the behest of his new manager, Albert Goldman, it is a pretty poor thing. Much better is 'Tomorrow Is a Long Time', another lament for his absent girlfriend, but this one strikes a less self-conscious note, with its open D (I think) tuning giving an insistent D on the 1st and 4th strings through all the chord changes, a sharp clear expression of heartbreak that cuts through any distractions. The Witmark demo is beautiful and elegantly laid down but the live Town Hall performance that he released on his Greatest Hits Vol 2 is even better, more heartfelt, the slightly out-of-tune guitar seeming to add to its fragility. It's a very sweet pastoral ballad, and it's hard to believe it's the same man who wrote 'Don't Think Twice'. Some think it's a bit sickly, including Dylan himself, though it's nothing compared to the schmaltz of 'Kingsport Town', a kind of cowboy ballad that he would only find a way to make his own on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline'Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie' is Dylan's first attempt to write a Guthrie-style outlaw song and again he'd only really make that work on the title track of John Wesley Harding. Some hate that but, well, I’ll explain what I like about it when I get there. There’s some affectionate fun with the clichés of the genre here  (‘He had a reputation as the gamblin'est man around’) but it's rather thin stuff. The Witmark demo is a little strained and has much less humour and swagger than the Freewheelin’ outtake. 

If anything shows the extraordinary talent taking shape in Dylan around this time, we only need to point to the fact that he could write a song as remarkable as 'Let Me Die In My Footsteps' and leave it off the album. It got its first official release 31 years after it was recorded on Bootleg Series 1. It's a beautiful, dignified, moving song that again balances the personal and political; Dylan is watching people digging fallout shelters to prepare for war and insists that he will not go underground but will stay above to enjoy the beauty of the world while he can. As such he is again condemning the warmongers, partly for whipping up fear but implicitly, too, for being prepared to destroy everything that is good about the world. The melody is simple and resonant, the rising note on 'before I go' ringing out being particularly stirring. Why he left it off is unclear, though on the Witmark demo, recorded at the end of 1962 he gives up three verses in claiming that 'it's a drag - I sung it so many times'. I guess he just got bored of it, or felt that 'Blowin' In the Wind' and 'Masters of War' kind of covered the area.