Why is a 20-year-old kid singing about keeping his grave clean? This, in a nutshell, is the problem with Dylan’s first album: His songs don’t feel honest; they sound as if he is trying to duplicate the emotions of other singers instead of translating his own feelings.
There has been some discussion recently, thanks to Joni Mitchell, of Bob Dylan’s honesty. Mitchell told the LA Times that, “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.” This is not an entirely new complaint about Dylan. People have often accused him of being phony or deceptive, both in his songs and with the media. Continue reading
Other than the great “Song To Woody,” which I praised last week, I haven’t ranked the songs on Bob Dylan’s first album very high. In fact, if you leave out “Song To Woody,” the average ranking of the songs from Dylan’s debut has been about 99th, and none of the other tracks has come in higher than 70th.
This may give the indication that I don’t like Bob Dylan as a whole; comparatively speaking, I don’t. But it’s not as if I don’t still end up listening to the album often—I find something to like in every (well, almost every) one of the tracks.
“Pretty Peggy-O” is a nice example of this. Continue reading
I want to like this song more than I actually do. Of all the songs Dylan recorded on this album, “Man of Constant Sorrow” is one of the most notable and most recognizable. Listeners of today are most likely to recognize the Soggy Bottom Boys rendition from the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but there are dozens of other famous versions recorded since it was (allegedly) written by Dick Burnett in about 1913. It’s easy to understand why this song has been performed so many times—there is a playful poetry and malleability to its lyrics. Even the phrase “man of constant sorrow” is particularly lyrical, falling naturally into trochaic feet. And the story told by the song—about a man of humble origins venturing out into the cruel, cold world—is the kind of archetypal material that folk musicians flock to. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
“Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” is the third-highest ranked song from Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut. Of all the 11 folk standards recorded on the album, this song may be the most indicative of Dylan’s later self-penned songs. For one, the song is much more relaxed than a lot of the other tracks on this album. He doesn’t rush through any parts with his guitar, or strain his voice to make it sound unnatural, or force anything into the melody. Instead, the song features a subdued confidence, something that would become a trademark of Dylan’s later folk recordings.
The song also features evidence of Dylan’s strengths as a songwriter. Of course, Dylan didn’t write “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”: As he announces at the opening of the song, Eric Von Schmidt, another popular staple of the East Coast folk music scene, had made it a key part of his act. The song actually goes even further back than Von Schmidt, though, dating at least as far as 1936 when it was recorded by Walter Coleman and called, “Mama Let Me Lay On You”—as usual with folk songs, tracing the origins of this one is like trying to map your family’s genealogy. On the album, Dylan would credit Von Schmidt with the writing of this particular incarnation of the song. So while the song wasn’t written by Dylan, it had a clear impact on his later writing, particularly the lyrics. Continue reading
Bob Dylan’s religious beliefs have always been a source of mystery and confusion. Most of the controversy stems from his conversion to Christianity in the late 1970s and the three evangelical albums he released before apparently relapsing back to Judaism. It’s hard to deny that his time as a born-again Christian was one of the more perplexing religious awakenings by a musician (right up their with Little Richard, Cat Stevens, Madonna, and plenty of others), but it’s easy to look back at Dylan’s earlier recordings and see evidence of his attraction to Christianity from his nascent beginnings. Continue reading
“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. Continue reading
We’re back, baby! After a near two-month vacation, the Bob Dylan Rankings have returned…with a vengeance! And we’re making some changes. It’s nothing drastic, but after much consultation with the Bob Dylan Brain Trust, I’ve decided that proceeding through Bob Dylan’s catalog with no real rhyme or reason, as I’ve been doing thus far, is not ideal. So we’re going to impose some order on this madness, and go forward in a vaguely chronological fashion. The Top Ten will still be withheld until the end, and I reserve the right to switch the order up for any reason I deem fit, but, for the most part, we will go through Dylan’s oeuvre album by album, starting with Bob Dylan and moving through Nashville Skyline (the songs from The Basement Tapes will be dated based on when they were recorded, that is, between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, since they weren’t released until after my arbitrary cut-off).
First, a confession: for a long time, I was under the impression that Bob Dylan actually wrote “House of the Rising Sun.” Forgive me for my ignorance, but I can defend myself. After all, the grim darkness of the chords, the loneliness and desperation of the lyrics, and the vivid portrait of the protagonist that emerges from the song are all things that Dylan would eventually master and come to be recognized for. And whether or not it was Dylan who put his own trademark on this song or the song that put its trademark on Dylan, “House of the Rising Sun” was a perfect choice for his first album. Continue reading