Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album certainly makes for enjoyable listening and gives many hints of the artist he will become, but realistically it is the sound of a young musician finding his voice. Of the album’s thirteen tracks, only two tracks (“Talkin’ New York” and “Song To Woody”) are written by Dylan, with the remainder of the album comprising folk and blues standards.
Bob Dylan was recorded over three afternoon sessions in November 1961 and produced by John H Hammond, the Columbia talent scout who signed Dylan. Nearly half of the album was recorded in single takes with Dylan refusing to record the same song two times in a row. The album received little attention on release and to date is the only Bob Dylan album not to chart in the US.
Probably the most widely known track on the album is “Song To Woody”, an ode to Woody Guthrie, who at the time was Dylan’s key musical inspiration. “Song To Woody” is clearly influenced by Guthrie’s own song “1913 Massacre” and feels like Dylan is trying a little too hard to live up to subject of the song rather than to create his own song.
To me, the other original track on the album “Talkin’ New York” works far more successfully. Musically, vocally and lyrically it contains a lot of what I enjoy most in Bob Dylan’s music from the 1960s. The song is based around a driving acoustic blues riff with guitar and harmonica working perfectly in unison. Lyrically Dylan is telling a story of character, time and place and his vocals are filled with humour.
Of the remaining tracks, “Highway 51″ and ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” are probably the most accomplished songs on the album. Apart from being the most interesting musically, echoes of these songs can be heard throughout Dylan’s career. “Highway 51” is a touchstone for numerous tracks across Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, with “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” feeling like a template for much of Blood on the Tracks. “House of the Rising Sun” is also particularly notable as a companion piece to the hugely successful version released by The Animals two years later.
All in all Bob Dylan certainly isn’t an “essential” Bob Dylan album, particularly given that it only contains two original songs. However it is fascinating to listen to as his debut album, particularly in the context of his wider career.
Favourite Track: “Talkin’ New York”
Favourite Cover: The Animals – “House of the Rising Sun”