It’s been more than 50 years, but he still sings. Still causes noise, gossips, wonders and ‘wows’. According to many definitions, he is a bard, writer, poet, political activist, and a musician. He was born as Robert Allen Zimmerman, but for more than 50 years everybody has been calling him Bob Dylan.
There are and will continue to be many new texts, aiming to discover his “true nature” and “true motives” of his life. Among many of Bob’s albums, one of them deserves an extra special attention. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – the second of Bob Dylan’s published sets of tracks – is, until today, recognized as one of the most important releases and the biggest milestone in his career.
The voice of generation
One may wonder what’s the point in dusting off the old albums and trying to give them a new life. However, there are artworks, which despite being over 50 years old, still surprise with vitality and are very actual. That’s exactly how The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan can be described. Since its release at the beginning of the 60’s, Dylan marked his presence in the music world not only as an instrumentalist and skilled vocalist, but also a genius writer and composer. It was already during the March on Washington in 1963 when everybody started to consider Bob to be a politically-involved public figure. It was also on the same album, where we first met one of the most significant songs in Dylan’s career – Blowin’ in the Wind. Critics agree – The Freewheelin’ is a true music gem, full of anthems about social equality and expressing the musician’s philosophy.
In 1963, the artist matched perfectly with the society’s mood of the American people. No matter if he wanted it or not, he became “the voice of the generation”. Funny enough, Dylan himself did not like to be labeled as such. He was always saying that he has never intended to represent anybody’s “voice”. Maybe – but even Bob couldn’t deny that his album was perfectly aligned with the hot atmosphere of fights for equal rights and fear of a possible nuclear war.
It was inevitable – the songs about social freedom or nostalgia for a beloved girl, spiced up with the Dylan-like sense of humor and dipped with the layer of Dylan’s folk blues melody – this simply had to be a success. At the beginning of the 60’s Bob exploded with the creative energy and was producing texts like a crazy person. He was so much into his genius work that even his friends wondered if he’s not taking any drugs “They just float out of me” – replied the artist, talking about his lyrics.
In 1961 and 1962, however, it was not really likely for Dylan’s popularity to explode so suddenly. After his first released album (called Bob Dylan), the artist was standing on the border of the land of forgotten musicians. The album sold only 5000 copies; mainly thanks to the help of the producer, John Hammond and his friend Johnny Cash. In 1961 Bob Dylan was recognized just as a talented young vocalist and instrumentalist, passionate about folk, blues, and gospel music. Among 13 published tracks only 2 were written by him – Talkin’ New York and Song to Woody; created as a tribute to his big idol, Woody Guthrie.
A crush with potential
The critics wondered many times how was it possible that, in just a year after his first and unsuccessful album, the artist published a new released – the world-known, filled with political meanings and rich with legendary lyrics, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Clinton Heylin, the author of Dylan’s biography, has an answer to this question. According to Heylin, the main reason for Bob’s popularity and, at the same time, interest in politics and social activism, was… a girl.
It was no ordinary girl, but Suze Rotolo; a tiny, pretty, 20 years old in 1963, blonde, and a daughter of members of USA Communist Party. There’s no secret that this very girl had a huge influence on Dylan’s artwork. As the musician himself said: “Suze was into this equality-freedom environment much longer ago than me. I was aligning my songs’ lyrics with her”.
Despite that Bobby wasn’t interested in politics before, he sacrificed his primary aversion and was taking part in the political events. One of them, definitely the most important, was the March on Washington in 1963, when Dylan performed a couple of his songs, welcomed by a loud applause. Joan Baez, a folk singer, was accompanying Dylan in this concert (some say she would be “the perfect girl for Dylan”).
Songs that overcome speeches
Bob’s engagement in the March on Washington was, however, contradicting with his statement about not getting involved in politics. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to deny that since the release of The Freewheelin’, Dylan became inevitably connected with the politically-engaged music. There’s an interesting theory, that this behavior was a subconscious tribute to his biggest idol – Woody Guthrie (“the mouthpiece of problems and worries of the American people”). Dylan was fighting for the social equality either consciously or not – still, his influence was visible. And appreciated. He was not a type of a fighter who would go out on the streets with the waving flag. His battles echoed in his songs, which were often much more effective than the passionate politicians’ speeches.
Funny fact: Rotolo is this happy, worry-free blonde girl who appears on the album’s cover photo, walking on the street with Dylan. Who knows how Bob’s life and career would turn out if he hadn’t crossed roads with Suze. It’s very probable that The Freewheelin’ wouldn’t look like or succeeded as it did. What’s worth mentioning is that lots of songs, written by Dylan at that time, were filled with nostalgia after Rotolo, who eventually left to Italy to study art.
Bob, the songs picker
And so Bobby started to write songs. From the moment when this mysterious, introvert and incredibly talented young man caught the pen, the history of rock and roll changed its direction. The musician was always saying that writing is not at all difficult as it seems. Apparently, all the lyrics just lay down on the street – all you need to do is to grab them and write them down. “If not me, then for sure somebody else would do it” – said the artist in one of the interviews. Was it a fake modesty or inability to appreciate his own talent? Bob has always been an artist who cannot be described with one label. Still, 1963 was the year which started Dylan’s fame and the year when he was exploding with beautiful lyrics almost every day. The Freewheelin’ was the place to put all of those little masterpieces together.
This sudden eruption of literary talent was a surprise even for the author himself. According to the plan, the first record of the album would contain only 4 Dylan’s songs. The reality: 11 released songs. Apparently, Bob was so skilled in “picking up lyrics from the ground and then writing them down on the paper”, or simply, was blooming with his hidden talent and passion to literature.
The poet who became a musician
The love of poetry has always been present in Bob’s life. Since his childhood and teenage years, he was fascinated by literature and poetry; also, he felt a strong connection with the Beat Generation. His biggest idol was Woody Guthrie and the Beat writers with, of course, the king of this subculture – Jack Kerouac. Simply speaking, Dylan just wanted to be like Guthrie. This fascination was visible in various moments in his life – like for example when he was 19 and dropped out of college in order to go on a big lonely journey. In terms of poetry, he loved Arthur Rimbaud (the album released after The Freewheelin’ marked some references to this interesting poet).
Since 1963, Dylan’s song lyrics started to evolve very fast; they seemed like an artwork of literature of the finest quality. Until today they’ve been a topic of study for lots of philologists, and the author himself received many awards such as honorary Ph.D. degree from Princeton University or Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Bob also published a poetry book called Tarantula and two collections of songs, poems, and drawings: Writings And Drawings By Bob Dylan and Lyrics 1962-1985. The artist was even working on a novel, Ho Chi Minh In Harlem, released by the end of the 80’s.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind…
The Freewheelin’ was very significant for one more reason. It was this very album which presented to the world one of the most recognizable songs in the history of rock and roll. Put on the 14th place on the Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time playlist… Known as the youth anthem of the 60’s, the best song of the after-war times… or even a suspected plagiarism. Blowin’ in the Wind. This song is a definite “number one” from Dylan’s second album. Funny enough, the author of this legendary track wasn’t even realizing what he has created. The lyrics, analyzed for over 50 years by millions of fans, hundreds of specialists, critics, or philologists, Bob wrote in just a few minutes, while sitting in a coffee place. “It was just another song” – he commented years after.
Typically for the musician who’s deep into folk tradition, Bobby based the composition on the old song No More Auction Block For Me. It was a very common trick to do at those times and in this environment – that’s why all the plagiarism accusations make no sense. Blowin’ in the Wind, even though today beloved by millions, wasn’t appreciated by the critics of the early 60’s. In their opinion, the lyrics were too chaotic and not enough pithy or logical. Tom Paxton, a well-known American folk singer, said that he hates this song. “It is a typical example of a track that’s also a “grocery list”, where one verse doesn’t correspond with another”.
Well, it is hard to say what Dylan had in mind when he was inventing the lyrics. When asked to explain the meaning of the song, he answered: “The only thing I can say about it is that the answer is blowin’ in the wind”.
Whatever reasons and motives were dictating Bob’s thoughts, the origins of the legendary song remain to be a mystery. It’s hard to disagree with Roy Silver, who said in the 60’s, that Blowin’ in the Wind was a key to Dylan’s fame. “Everything started with this song”. When talking about the text layer and the ideological sense, we need to remember about the equally important component of every release: Music. Here it’s mainly blues-y folk or folky-blues, with lots of (typical for Dylan) harmonica and peacefully rhythmical, but surprising, guitar. We could already hear Bob’s passion for a stronger rock and roll playing – still, he has never denied it.
It all started there
Till today, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is the topic of many discussions and reviews. With no doubt it was the end of the beginning of Dylan’s great career; his admission ticket to the fabulous world of music; a milestone in his artwork. Dylan before and after The Freewheelin’ was probably the same person, but rock and roll have definitely changed (for the better!) thanks to him. Bobby introduced himself as a brilliant writer and charismatic and sensitive rock’n’roller but above all, as a high-quality music artist – and that’s how he stays until today.
However, there are still many faces that he hasn’t shown us – but this feature has been working like a magnet for millions of fans who fell in love with his artwork. The Freewheelin’ was the start of many motives in his creative output; motives that characterize him in so many levels. The poetics of his texts, engagement in social cases (or just an illusion of it), writing under the impact of the feelings for a woman, and this unwavering yet nonchalant artistic charisma – all of it bloomed on the track from 1963.
The text was originally released in Polish in 2013, on the 50th anniversary of publishing The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. You can read the whole text HERE (p. 42-45).
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