Our Bob Dylan journey continues as we work through The Complete Album Collection Vol. 1. Here we arrive at his first classic disc, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Released in May of 1963, a year after the self titled debut, it sees Dylan make a startling leap forward as he moves from mostly covers to mostly originals including several of his most important songs. I did own this album before buying the box set but had never given it more than a few scattered listens throughout the years.
The first three songs alone seal the greatness of this album. “Blowin’ in the Wind” takes the tune of “No More Auction Blocks” and creates one of the greatest folk songs ever written. One that seems like it has been around forever, not just since The Beatles were singing “Love Me Do”. “Girl From the North Country” is influenced by old folk tune “Scarborough Fair” and is a lovely track of looking back on an old love, perhaps a high school sweatheart from back in Minnesota. “Masters of War” is laser focused on the politicians in charge of pulling the war strings. The anger at those who send kids off to war comes through in several scathing lines – “come you masters of war… you that hide behind desks…I just want you to know, I can see through your masks”
Recognized by music scholars as one of his most complex, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is episodic in nature. Upon hearing it performed at the Gaslight Café, singer Peter Blankfield commented that “every line kept building and bursting”. It’s hard not to stop what you’re doing while this plays and just listen. Still powerful 50+ years later. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” speaks of the loves that pass through one’s life for a short but intense time then disappear. “I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul” ….but that’s alright, it was good, now it’s time to move on.
The first half of the album hits harder but the second half does have a few understated gems. “Oxford Town” is a short two minute track about James Meredith being the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. “Corinna, Corinna” is refreshing after the much longer “Talking World War III Blues”. A traditional song with a few Robert Johnson lyrics thrown in. All the other songs leading up to this just feature Dylan so it takes a few seconds to realize there are drums and a band playing behind his impressive harmonica work. Based on a Leadbelly song, “I Shall Be Free” adds a bit of levity at the end of an album that addresses many serious topics that were at the forefront of 60’s culture.
The cover photo of Dylan walking down a street in the West Village with then girlfriend Suze Rotolo is iconic and one of the best album covers of all time. Still ranking high in most lists of the greatest albums of all time, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan has not diminished at all. While not perfect, Dylan’s first classic album containing several towering songs is one that should be in all serious music collections.