Back in late March, Bob Dylan released the nearly 17 minute single “Murder Most Foul”. The track acts as an elegy for John F Kennedy as it focuses on his assassination. “Right there in front of everyone’s eyes/Greatest magic trick ever under the sun/Perfectly executed, skillfully done” The song then touches on pop culture that was occurring at that moment including The Beatles, the British Invasion, Thelonius Monk, etc. Similar in tone to Van Morrison with just piano and strings, the song has a dreamy quality of a man looking back upon his life.
In several places on Rough and Rowdy, Dylan’s 39th studio album, he mentions his contemporaries and other historical figures including Anne Frank and The Rolling Stones on “I Contain Multitudes”. The lead track is about living a life of contradictions with multiple layers. A phlegmy growl powers the bluesy “False Prophet” where the man sings, “I’m first among equals/Second to none/The last of the best/You can bury the rest”. Most of the 70 minute album has a slow to mid tempo speed. “My Own Version of You” adds a bit of jazz noir to the proceedings in a track about putting body parts together to create something new.
Dylan’s voice is clear on “Crossing the Rubicon” and follows the a style that appears on a few other songs of having many verses with the name of the song featured in the last line of the verse. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” mentions the blues legend on a rollicking track about religion. Lyrically the album is a dense lyrical wonderland but tracks like “Mother Of Muses” give the listener the chance to listen to the legend strum and sing a lovely little tune. Similar in tone, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” mentions “Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac” and that the “radio signal, clear as can be/I’m so deep in love that I can hardly see”.
On a personal level, I’m familiar with most of Bob Dylan’s 60s albums plus a few others. This is the first Dylan album that I’ve purchased when it actually came out. Upon purchasing the The Complete Albums Collection Volume 1, I’ve gone back and started to review his albums in order, with a long way yet to go. As Dylan turns 80, he makes it all seem effortless on a collection that is a wonderful addition to his discography. Rough and Rowdy Ways is one that will endure beyond just being a late period footnote.
Like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, this is another Bob Dylan album that sat on my shelf for years that I had not fully listened to until this year. Moving on from the colour of the Freewheelin’ album cover, The Times They Are A-Changin’ released in 1964 features just Dylan in a workman’s shirt bathed in green sepia. It’s back to business…
There are a number of gritty stories told, the first being “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” that paints a grim picture of a father killing his staving family. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is a sad recounting of an African American barmaid who was killed at the hands of William Zatzinger in a drunken rage. Billy went to jail but then lived until he was 69 years old. Carroll’s 9 children grew up without a mom. “With God On Our Side” goes through several conflicts with each warring nation thinking that they are in the right and that God is with them.
In the vein of the more things change, the more they stay the same. “North Country Blues” tells of struggling families in the American iron ore business losing their jobs as the work moves to cheaper South America. “Only a Pawn In Their Game” is a powerful track about the murder of Edgar Evers and how poor Caucasians are used as a pawn for white politicians to whip up anger at minorities. Such was Dylan’s reach at that time that he sang this at the March on Washington before Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The title track is the one of the classic folk songs from the 60s and another Dylan track that seems like it was written a long time before that. “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land/And don’t criticize what you can’t understand”. A simple acoustic strummed song with important words and big ideas.
More so there than on the first two albums, it is a bit easier to see why the kids would later chasten Dylan for going electric. The power of Dylan with just his acoustic guitar singing dark stories happening in their own country while others their age danced around the clock. It is often a bleak outlook and by the end it’s a bit grim but it is as essential listening today as it was back then.
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.
Even though I already had most of the classic 60s and 70s Bob Dylan discs, I couldn’t shake the “need” to own The Complete Album Collection Volume 1 from 2013. I could not continue to ignore all the fawning reviews so about a year ago I plunked down the money for the entire Dylan box of 47 discs. And this week marks my review journey into Dylan that will now take several years to complete.
First up is the s/t album from 1962. Debuts for many classic artists in the 60s were mostly covers and this is no exception. The two songs most likely recognized by rock fans that appear here would be “House of the Risin’ Sun” later made famous by The Animals in 1964 and “Man of Constant Sorrow” popularized by early 2000s movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. The upbeat “Freight Train Blues” features some nice harmonica playing and “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” is a folky love song.
Dylan does a very good job of displaying conviction and emotion when singing “Fixin’ to Die’” written by Bukka White. At just 20 years old when he recorded it, Dylan pulls off the hard-hitting track about a dying man leaving his crying children behind. “In My Time of Dyin’” is a dirty blues track that reportedly Dylan had never sung out loud until this recording. Bob Dylan features two Dylan originals. The first is a semi-autobiographical track “Talkin’ New York” about arriving in the great city and rising through the folk ranks. Possibly the only track from this album that would make it onto a Greatest Hits is his first notable original in “Song To Woody”. A touching lyric in honour of his hero, Dylan gives a nod to the past while looking toward the future.
When reviewing albums like this from major artists, it is hard to separate the work from the legend. Because of this I often think in terms of if the artist had just released this one album and a label re-released it today, what would I think of it. In Dylan’s case, it would certainly be a lost classic. Even though the debut is soon eclipsed by his other work, it still a thrilling ride through the mind of a talented and exuberant young artist. It is easy to see why he quickly rose through the folk scene and then kept moving far beyond it.