Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #87: You’re No Good

“You’re No Good” has the distinction of being the first track on the first album of the greatest musician of the last century. But it’s kind of a worthless distinction. Despite its placement, “You’re No Good” was probably not the first Bob Dylan song that most Dylan fans heard. His first album sold only modestly, as was typically the case with folk acts, and Dylan would not become a musical sensation until his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Even most loyal folk music fans from New York had probably seen Dylan, who had been performing in Greenwich Village for a few months before the release of the first album, in concert already, and few of the songs on his first album were mainstays of his live performance.

Nevertheless, it’s pretty cool, in retrospect, to go back and listen to the song that was the first instance of Dylan singing on a record. On one level, it’s interesting in the historical or biographical sense. “You’re No Good” was written by one-man band blues musician Jesse Fuller, giving us more indication about Bob Dylan’s musical roots. Even the way he sings it shows his debt to and fondness for the blues style.

Unlike other covers from Dylan’s first album, which I referred to as “the vocal equivalent of performing in blackface,” Dylan’s voice here is strong and distinctive. It’s not particularly pretty, but it has a striking confidence that makes the song his own and turns it into a surprisingly enjoyable opener. As NPR’s Tim Riley said about the first album:

“Like Elvis Presley, what Dylan can sing, he quickly masters; what he can’t, he twists to his own devices. And as with the Presley Sun sessions, the voice that leaps from Dylan’s first album is its most striking feature, a determined, iconoclastic baying that chews up influences, and spits out the odd mixed signal without half trying.”

This is readily apparent on “You’re No Good,” in which Dylan seems to embrace all of the idiosyncrasies of his voice, idiosyncrasies that ultimately convey a wide breadth of emotion. It shows a striking amount of force for a 20-year-old kid recording his first album.

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