In October of 1961, Columbia Records signed a 20-year-old college dropout from Hibbing, Minnesota who had begun to make a name for himself in the coffeehouses and nightclubs around Greenwich Village. Six months later, the label put out his first album, a collection of folk standards that barely sold enough copies to cover the recording costs. A second album came out the following year, this time featuring almost entirely original material (eleven of thirteen tracks), and went on to sell over a million copies in the U.S. alone. The kid who wrote those songs was born Robert Zimmerman but the artist he became through writing and performing them was Bob Dylan — as in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — and the impact of his work on popular music as a whole was positively seismic.
Now, when talking about Dylan and his almost inconceivable legacy, it’s tempting to ditch the facts and get sensational — to indulge in pop-culture creationism. One might conceive of Greenwich Village in the early ‘60s as a cultural Eden of sorts, with Bob Dylan double-cast as God and Adam; it was only a matter of time — less than two years, to be precise — before he picked the forbidden fruit of rock ’n’ roll and went electric; the man has fallen from grace a number of times since, putting out a country record during the Summer of Love and later becoming a born-again Christian, only to achieve total resurrection in the twilight of his career. It’s a pretty fanciful way of thinking about an artist, but sometimes the more responsible approach just doesn’t suit the subject. Over the course of the last 54 years, Bob Dylan — poet, folksinger, rockstar, preacher, crooner, Nobel laureate — has managed to remain both innovative and relevant, to match and even upstage his past selves, often by doing the last thing anyone expected him to do.
After seeing him perform at Gerde’s Folk City in 1961, Robert Shelton of the New York Times wrote:
“Mr. Dylan’s highly personalized approach toward folk song is still evolving…But if not for every taste, his music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth. Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.”
Indeed, Dylan’s cavalier attitude toward the folk tradition allowed him to reshape it over and over, from album to album and decade to decade, until finally there emerged a new kind of tradition altogether: poetic songwriting. And by ‘poetic’ I don’t mean comparing a girl’s eyes to the stars and expecting us to be wowed by the profundity of the sentiment. I mean music in which (according to the OAD’s definition of poetry) “special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.” After Dylan, simple melodies and rhyme-schemes and metaphors would not do; the fact that he was writing both pop and poetry and somehow synthesizing the two into something else entirely was inspiration enough for his peers and successors to attempt the same.
By the late ‘60s, “popular music was something to be studied and taken seriously,” writes Mark Richardson of Pitchfork. “It was something to fight for, a generation’s way of saying, ‘This pop is different from the pop you grew up on. This isn’t Rosemary Clooney; this is art.’” And though many of these ostensible ‘pop poets’ were content to emulate what we now deem the Dylanesque, a select few actually succeeded in transcending that influence and establishing their own styles and rhythms — six decades’ worth of “Great American Songwriters” that took the form of gaslight troubadours, heartland rockers, punk prophets, suburban satirists, and rebel rhymesmiths. Beneath these artists’ personal variations on instrumentation and arrangement and genre lies a thematic concern for the human condition and the nature of society and, most significantly, the American Dream. Be it through the omniscient documentation of the working class or through first-person accounts of decadence and disillusionment, whether in a specific place at a specific time or completely outside any immediate physical reality, the best and most ‘American’ songwriting is that which captures the essence of the nation — its history, its land, its people, its values — in every word and every sound…
“The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.”
And so goes the eponymic refrain of Freewheelin’s opening track, the protest anthem of a generation, a catch-all indictment of social injustice and the Vietnam War and the cultural hegemony in ‘60s America. With its simple yet endlessly hummable melody and broadly symbolic lyrics (“How many years can a mountain exist / Before it’s washed to the sea?”), “Blowin’ in the Wind” would go on to become an American Standard in its own right and to this day remains one of the most widely recognized entries in Dylan’s vast personal songbook. It’s also a one-dimensional representation of his decidedly polyhedral genius. This notion should seem less surprising when one considers how often truly prolific artists tend to evolve and, more specifically, how essential those evolutions are to their artistry. What if Mozart had settled for the style galant of his childhood symphonies and never attempted something as wildly dynamic as his fourteen-movement Requiem? Or if Lennon and McCartney had stuck to pleasantly one-dimensional pop singles like “Love Me Do” and “All My Loving” rather than strive for such cohesive long-form masterpieces as Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s? This tendency has never proven more evident than in the case of Dylan, who has gone through more musical styles over the years than a marathon runner does socks.
But as disparate as his many phases seem at the surface, each of them adheres to what we might consider the very broadest of narratives: the subjective reaction of the artist, not as a man but as a shapeshifting persona, to the world around him. At the heart of this narrative lies a fascination with the decay of Western society and of intimate relationships — the apocalypse as both public and personal events — that ranges between sardonic and sincere, disaffected and blasé. The discrepancy between Bob Dylan the folksinger and Bob Dylan the rockstar has less to do with lyrical techniques and musical arrangements than it does his (their?) ability to consider the same subjects on separate terms. “Blowin’ in the Wind” might sound like an idealistic singalong compared to some of his later work, but the fact that the song asks so many of life’s ‘big questions’ without offering any actual resolution seems, in hindsight, like an invitation. If the answer was truly blowing in the wind, then it was only a matter of time before someone snatched it out of the air — that someone being Dylan himself.
This tendency toward self-contradiction and revision began with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, not only in terms of what came before it but within the span of the album itself, which showcases the pupal stages of Dylan’s metamorphosis from a songwriter firmly entrenched in the folk tradition (i.e. a disciple of Woody Guthrie) to a poet in his own right. On “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Dylan takes what he started on “Blowin’ in the Wind” even further by delving into the unsettling particulars of the subject at hand– bigotry, violence, and the American way– and doubling down on his literary devices. The narrator of “Hard Rain” — whom the descriptors “blue-eyed son” and “darling young one” lend an air of privileged naivety — recounts his formative experiences using a series of ominous metaphors: “a dozen dead oceans,” “a black branch with blood that kept dripping,” “a clown who cried in the alley,” and other horrors that demand to be interpreted, like so many Greco-Roman auguries, as the collective evidence of social decline. The color black pervades the song’s symbolism and hangs over the verses like a pall; Dylan, the narrator, also describes seeing “a white man walking a black dog” and claims to have walked “the depths of the deepest black forest,” a place where “black is the color” and “none is the number.” The acute dread conjured by this setting and its population — child soldiers, dying poets, a baby surrounded by wolves, men wounded by love and hatred — ultimately resolves with a tone of acceptance in the final verse and refrain.
“And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it / And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it / Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’ / But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’ / And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard / It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
Dylan’s use of allegory over realism affords his lyrics a significance less topical than cryptic; the unbiased, omnipotent, eternal forces of nature are the figurative consequence of mankind’s unspoken transgressions. In that regard, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” applies not only to the sociopolitical climate from which it arose but also to subsequent generations of global conflict and crisis. Those “ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,” despite having different names and faces, still hold public office and appear in media to this very day, just as entire populations of “darling young ones” have lived to see their own “blue-eyed” sons and grandsons come face to face with the sobering realities of a world in which they have no choice but to reside.
If “Hard Rain” addresses decay at a macrocosmic level, then “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” does so at a microcosmic one. Here Dylan first dabbled with the tone of nonchalant condescension that would come to define all of his ‘breakup songs,’ which always clashed against the maudlin expressions of heartbreak so common in folk and pop, like splashes of vinegar in a jar of honey. And “Don’t Think Twice” is full of such contradictions. Dylan ditches the laid-back boxcar strum of “Hard Rain” in favor of a Piedmont-style fingerpicking pattern, his thumb and forefinger alternating at a nimble clip, making the stripped-down arrangement feel oddly (and deceptively) upbeat. He also gives what might be the most tender vocal performance of his career — an echo of the more overtly sentimental “Boots of Spanish Leather,” also released in ’63 — without showing any actual tenderness in his words. The entire song is about as blithe as they come. There’s none of the brayed invective that would appear on “Positively 4th Street” a year later or on “Idiot Wind” in the following decade; only matter-of-fact conclusions, delivered casually: “I ain’t a-sayin’ 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.” If lines like these evidence Dylan’s mastery of poetic songwriting at the absurdly tender age of 23, then they also foreground the formal constraints he would soon shatter with the three-punch combo of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde — albums that maintain a singular perspective while also expanding to new aesthetic dimensions.