There’s a scene in I’m Not There in which the character known as Woody, played by Marcus Carl Franklin and designed to embody the youthful, mythical Bob Dylan, hops onto a train with nothing but a guitar case labeled “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Once there, though, Woody finds himself confronted by unsavory characters who are generally unsympathetic to Woody’s romantic notions of life on the run. Scared, Woody briefly abandons his life on the run for life as an imposter with a middle-class family.A romantic notion of life on the road, though, was an integral component of the culture that influenced young Dylan. On the Road, after all, was published only five years before Bob Dylan came out, and the real Woody Guthrie’s own autobiography, Bound for Glory, carries a similarly romantic notion—this one more directly tied to railroad hobos—of life on the road. So it’s no surprise to hear a song like “Freight Train Blues,” a song about the hardships and attraction of the freight train life: “Well, the only thing that makes me laugh again/Is a southbound whistle on a southbound train.”
The problem, though, is that Dylan doesn’t do anything interesting or novel with the song. “Freight Train Blues” actually bears some similarities to the two tracks I already called the worst on Dylan’s debut album: Like “In My Time of Dying” and “Fixin’ To Die” steal from traditional blues arrangements with only imitation and no innovation, “Freight Train Blues” steals from beat culture. As such, the song lacks identity.
Plus, it doesn’t sound very good. Like a lot of songs on this album, “Freight Train Blues” was allegedly recorded in one take (when asked to do second takes, Dylan supposedly said, “I can’t see myself singing the same song twice in a row. That’s terrible.”), and it sounds that way. It sounds rushed through and amateurish. Dylan could get away with minimalist production when his songs were so innovative and powerful, but at this point in his career, the sound is only lackluster.