It’s difficult to reconcile that the same artist released the landmark album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan only fourteen months after his relatively unremarkable debut Bob Dylan. This is the album where Bob Dylan’s skill as a songwriter became apparent. As opposed to his thirteen track debut which featured just two original titles, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan counts only two covers amongst its thirteen tracks and these have been rewritten in such a way to as put his own stamp of originality on them.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is a milestone release, right down to the iconic album cover of Dylan and his then girlfriend Suze Rotolo walking through the snow at the corner of Jones Street and West 4th Street. Apart from containing five songs which after thirty-six albums still rank amongst Dylan’s best, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan also contains the foundation of so much that he would build and perfect over the next decade.
The album makes its mark immediately opening with three quintessential Dylan songs. One a philosophical call for freedom, the next a haunting love song, followed by an angry political protest song. The next two tracks slightly less successfully encompass two of the other predominant styles of Bob Dylan songs from the period: The classic blues song and the slightly surreal humorous piece (often with “Bob Dylan” somewhere in the title).
The first track “Blowin’ In The Wind” is an anthem for the decade and one of the most recognisable of Dylan’s songs. An adaptation of an old spiritual song “No More Auction Block”, the lyrics are a series of questions used to evoke the integrity of the civil rights movement. Only a few weeks after the album’s release “Blowin’ In The Wind” was covered by Peter, Paul & Mary, selling an astonishing 300,000 copies in the first week of its release and creating a new awareness of the young singer-songwriter.
A take on the song “Scarborough Fair”, the second track “Girl From The North Country” is one of Dylan’s best songs of lost love and longing. As with several of his songs there is a lot of speculation about the identity of the girl in question, but the song is so beautifully written that the girl could stand in for any lost love of any listener. This is supported by the numerous outstanding covers of this song, including Dylan himself revisiting the song as a duet with Johnny Cash on the Nashville Skyline album in 1969.
The third track “Masters of War” is an indictment on the military-industrial complex and quite possibly the angriest folk song I’ve heard, closer in tone to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” than any other protest song of the time. Differentiating himself from other songwriters of the time, Dylan’s song lacks any sense of forgiveness, summed up in the last verse which opens “And I hope that you die/And your death’ll come soon” before ending “And I’ll stand over your grave/‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead”.
The album contains two other masterpieces, the closing track on side one and the opening track on side two. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is a phenomenal lyrical achievement, a song which can be interpreted in many different ways, but whatever your interpretation it speaks for ecology, peace and justice. It works as a precursor for the idiosyncratic song writing of the Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited albums. It’s also musically the best tune on the album. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is an incredibly affecting bittersweet song of a break-up. The song brilliantly conveys a sense of regret and self-pity, ending with the near perfect verse: “I ain’t saying you treated me unkind/You could have done better but I don’t mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time/But don’t think twice, it’s all right”.
Also of note is that The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan sessions marked the first time that Dylan recorded with a backing band in the studio. “Corrina, Corrina” was the only of these tracks to make the final album, but this was a process which would mark radical changes in his music over the coming years.
Although only Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is his first masterpiece and an album that is a touchstone for all popular music that followed it. The presence of songs such as “Blowin’ In The Wind”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” were the first signs that this 21 year old folk singer had the potential to become arguably the world’s greatest songwriter. If for some reason you haven’t listened to this album yet, you probably should.
Favourite Track: “Blowin’ In The Wind”
Favourite Cover: Bryan Ferry – “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”