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Bob Dylan released his first album on March 20th, 1962. ?The self titled album didn’t make it to the Billboard Top 100, only selling 5,000 copies, but four months later he would record the track “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which would change music forever. ?Today we look back on the early days and recordings of Bob Dylan. ?From his roots with Moses Asch and Folkways Records, to his duets with Joan Baez, we have made a wonderful Spotify playlist for your listening pleasure. ?Please?click here?to listen.

Early Career

Dylan dropped out of college at the end of his freshman year. In January 1961, he traveled to New York City, hoping to perform there and visit his musical idol?Woody Guthrie,?who was seriously ill with?Huntington’s Disease?in?Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital.?Guthrie had been a revelation to Dylan and was the biggest influence on his early performances. Describing Guthrie’s impact on him, Dylan later wrote: “The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them … [He] was the true voice of the American spirit. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple.”??As well as visiting Guthrie in the hospital, Dylan befriended Guthrie’s acolyte?Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Much of Guthrie’s repertoire was actually channeled through Elliott, and Dylan paid tribute to Elliott in?Chronicles?(2004).

From February 1961, Dylan played at various clubs around?Greenwich Village. He befriended and picked up material from many folk singers in the Village scene, including?Dave Van Ronk,?Fred Neil,Odetta, the?New Lost City Ramblers, and Irish musicians?Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers.??Dylan later described?Liam Clancy?as “the best ballad singer I ever heard. ?In September, Dylan gained some public recognition when?Robert Shelton?wrote a positive review in?The New York Times?of a show at?Gerde’s Folk City.? The same month Dylan played harmonica on folk singer?Carolyn Hester’s eponymous third album, which brought his talents to the attention of the album’s producer?John Hammond.? Hammond signed Dylan to?Columbia Records?in October. The performances on his first Columbia album,?Bob Dylan?(1962), consisted of familiar folk, blues and?gospel?material combined with two original compositions. The album made little impact, selling only 5,000 copies in its first year, just enough to break even.?Within Columbia Records, some referred to the singer as “Hammond’s Folly” and suggested dropping his contract. Hammond defended Dylan vigorously. In March 1962, Dylan contributed harmonica and back-up vocals to the album?Three Kings and the Queen, accompanying?Victoria Spivey?and?Big Joe Williams?on a recording for?Spivey Records.??While working for Columbia, Dylan also recorded several songs under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt,?for?Broadside Magazine, a folk music magazine and record label.??Dylan used the pseudonym Bob Landy to record as a piano player on the 1964 anthology album,?The Blues Project, issued by?Elektra Records.??Under the pseudonym Tedham Porterhouse, Dylan contributed harmonica to?Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s?1964 album?Jack Elliott.

Dylan is seated, singing and playing guitar. Seated to his right is a woman gazing upwards and singing with him.

With?Joan Baez?during the civil rights “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom“, August 28, 1963

[/two_five]Dylan made two important career moves in August 1962. He legally changed his name to Bob Dylan,?and signed a management contract with?Albert Grossman.??Grossman remained Dylan’s manager until 1970, and was notable both for his sometimes confrontational personality, and for the fiercely protective loyalty he displayed towards his principal client.?Dylan subsequently said of Grossman, “He was kind of like a?Colonel Tom Parker?figure?… you could smell him coming.”??Tensions between Grossman and?John Hammond?led to Hammond being replaced as the producer of Dylan’s second album by the young African American jazz producer?Tom Wilson.


From December 1962 to January 1963, Dylan made his first trip to the United Kingdom.??He had been invited by TV director?Philip Saville?to appear in a drama,?The Madhouse on Castle Street, which Saville was directing for?BBC Television. ?At the end of the play, Dylan performed “Blowin’ in the Wind”, one of the first major public performances of the song.??The film recording of?The Madhouse on Castle Street?was?destroyed?by the BBC in 1968.??While in London, Dylan performed at several London folk clubs, including?Les Cousins,?The Pinder of Wakefield,?and?Bunjies.??He also learned new songs from several UK performers, including?Martin Carthy.

By the time Dylan’s second album,?The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in May 1963, he had begun to make his name as both a singer and a songwriter. Many of the songs on this album were labeled?protest songs, inspired partly by Guthrie and influenced by?Pete Seeger’s passion for topical songs.?”Oxford Town”, for example, was a sardonic account of?James Meredith’s ordeal as the first black student to risk enrollment at the?University of Mississippi.

Dylan with his guitar onstage, laughing and looking downwards.

Bob Dylan in November 1963

[/two_five]His most famous song at this time, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, partially derived its melody from the traditional?slave?song “No More Auction Block”, while its lyrics questioned the social and political status quo.?The song was widely recorded and became an international hit for?Peter, Paul and Mary, setting a precedent for many other artists who had hits with Dylan’s songs. “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” was based on the tune of the folk ballad “Lord Randall”. With its veiled references to nuclear apocalypse, it gained even more resonance when the?Cuban missile crisis?developed only a few weeks after Dylan began performing it.?Like “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” marked an important new direction in modern songwriting, blending a?stream-of-consciousness,?imagist?lyrical attack with a traditional folk form.

While Dylan’s topical songs solidified his early reputation,?Freewheelin’?also included a mixture of love songs and jokey, surreal talking blues. Humor was a large part of Dylan’s persona,?and the range of material on the album impressed many listeners, including?The Beatles.?George Harrison?said, “We just played it, just wore it out. The content of the song lyrics and just the attitude?it was incredibly original and wonderful.”

The rough edge of Dylan’s singing was unsettling to some early listeners but an attraction to others. Describing the impact that Dylan had on her and her husband,Joyce Carol Oates?wrote: “When we first heard this raw, very young, and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing, the effect was dramatic and electrifying.”?Many of his most famous early songs first reached the public through more immediately palatable versions by other performers, such as?Joan Baez, who became Dylan’s advocate, as well as his lover.?Baez was influential in bringing Dylan to national and international prominence by recording several of his early songs and inviting him onstage during her own concerts.

Others who recorded and had hits with Dylan’s songs in the early and mid-1960s included?The Byrds;?Sonny and Cher;?The Hollies;?Peter, Paul and Mary;?The Association;?Manfred Mann; and?The Turtles. Most attempted to impart a pop feel and rhythm to the songs, while Dylan and Baez performed them mostly as sparse folk pieces. The cover versions became so ubiquitous that?CBS?started to promote him with the tag “Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan.”

“Mixed Up Confusion”, recorded during the?Freewheelin’?sessions with a backing band, was released as a single and then quickly withdrawn. In contrast to the mostly solo acoustic performances on the album, the single showed a willingness to experiment with a?rockabilly?sound.?Cameron Crowe?described it as “a fascinating look at a folk artist with his mind wandering towards?Elvis Presley?and?Sun Records.”

In May 1963, Dylan’s political profile was raised when he walked out of?The Ed Sullivan Show. During rehearsals, Dylan had been informed byCBS Television’s “head of program practices” that the song he was planning to perform, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, was potentially libelous to the?John Birch Society. Rather than comply with the censorship, Dylan refused to appear on the program.

By this time, Dylan and Baez were both prominent in the?civil rights movement, singing together at the?March on Washington?on August 28, 1963.?Dylan’s third album,?The Times They Are a-Changin’, reflected a more politicized and cynical Dylan.??The songs often took as their subject matter contemporary, real life stories, with “Only A Pawn In Their Game” addressing the murder of civil rights worker?Medgar Evers; and the?Brechtian?”The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” the death of black hotel barmaid Hattie Carroll, at the hands of young white socialite?William Zantzinger.?On a more general theme, “Ballad of Hollis Brown” and “North Country Blues” address the despair engendered by the breakdown of farming and mining communities. This political material was accompanied by two personal love songs, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “One Too Many Mornings”.

By the end of 1963, Dylan felt both manipulated and constrained by the folk and protest movements.?These tensions were publicly displayed when, accepting the “Tom Paine?Award” from the?National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee?shortly after the assassination of?John F. Kennedy, an intoxicated Dylan brashly questioned the role of the committee, characterized the members as old and balding, and claimed to see something of himself (and of every man) in Kennedy’s alleged assassin,?Lee Harvey Oswald.

A spotlight shines on Dylan as he performs onstage.

Bobby?Dylan, as the college yearbook lists him:?St. Lawrence University, upstate New York, November 1963

[/two_five]Another Side of Bob Dylan, recorded on a single June evening in 1964,?had a lighter mood than its predecessor. The surreal, humorous Dylan reemerged on “I Shall Be Free #10” and “Motorpsycho Nightmare”. “Spanish Harlem Incident” and “To Ramona” are romantic and passionate love songs, while “Black Crow Blues” and “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” suggest the rock and roll soon to dominate Dylan’s music. “It Ain’t Me Babe”, on the surface a song about spurned love, has been described as a rejection of the role his reputation had thrust at him.??His newest direction was signaled by two lengthy songs: the?impressionistic?”Chimes of Freedom,” which sets elements of?social commentary?against a denser metaphorical landscape in a style later characterized by?Allen Ginsberg?as “chains of flashing images,”?and “My Back Pages,” which attacks the simplistic and arch seriousness of his own earlier topical songs and seems to predict the backlash he was about to encounter from his former champions as he took a new direction.

In the latter half of 1964 and 1965, Dylan’s appearance and musical style changed rapidly, as he made his move from leading contemporary songwriter of the folk scene to?folk-rock?pop-music star. His scruffy jeans and work shirts were replaced by a?Carnaby Street?wardrobe, sunglasses day or night, and pointy “Beatle boots”. A London reporter wrote: “Hair that would set the teeth of a comb on edge. A loud shirt that would dim the neon lights of?Leicester Square. He looks like an undernourished?cockatoo.”??Dylan also began to spar in increasingly surreal ways with his interviewers. Appearing on the?Les Crane?TV show and asked about a movie he was planning to make, he told Crane it would be a cowboy horror movie. Asked if he played the cowboy, Dylan replied, “No, I play my mother.”

Dylan in 70 years old. ?He recently finished a tour of South America and has upcoming US dates announced, including a birthday show (for his 71st birthday) in New York.



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