New recordings up today. New writing to (hopefully) come soon.
1962, Ben on Bob, Bob Dylan, debut, folk music, greenwich village, highway 61 revisited, house of the rising sun, i am a man of constant sorrow, i saw her standing there, it's alright ma, oh mercy, please please me, the beatles, twist and shout
This is where it all begins. Bob was twenty years old when he recorded his debut and had been cutting his teeth in the Greenwich Village folk scene for a year or so, and the youthful energy and enthusiasm that he brings to his debut is unrivaled in his discography, save perhaps for his first two electric albums. It’s not unlike the Beatles’ debut, Please Please Me, which was released in Britain the same year: exciting, good fun, and indicative of great things to come.
There are some major differences between that album and Bob Dylan, though. John and Paul were able to boast half an album’s worth of originals – the classic “I Saw Her Standing There” among them – and their most famous cover in “Twist and Shout.” Dylan’s debut has only two original songs and none of his covers are particularly well known. The originals are interesting but hardly classics: “Talkin’ New York,” one of seven or so talking blues songs that Bob was playing around the Village at the time, and “Song to Woody,” a pleasant ode to his hero, Woody Guthrie. “Song to Woody” especially is noteworthy, and hints at things to come, but, in spite of the fact that he’d already written plenty of great original songs, this album is not by Bob Dylan the songwriter so much as it is by Bob Dylan the performer and folksinger. There’s something to be said for this: you hear a lot about how great a songwriter Dylan is and how poetic his lyrics are and so on, and while he deserves the praise, his abilities as a performer and song interpreter tend to get swept under the rug as a result (to say nothing of those who question those abilities, but that’s another debate entirely). Only rarely would Dylan hit the high notes that he hits in “Freight Train Blues” and “You’re No Good” to such great effect, and his growls and whines of impending doom in songs like “In My Time of Dyin’” and “Fixin’ to Die” wouldn’t be recreated until Oh Mercy in 1989.
The song selection all around is pretty solid: even casual listeners will have heard “House of the Rising Sun” and “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and maybe even “Gospel Plow” before – albeit in radically different versions by different artists. Add that to the fact that several of the songs served as blueprints for some of Bob’s later masterpieces – “Highway 51 Blues” lending its riff to “It’s Aright Ma” and its title to “Highway 61 Revisited,” for instance – and, in Bob Dylan, we are hearing not only Dylan’s roots, but the roots of a significant amount of the pop music of the past fifty years. Maybe the nuttiest thing about the whole affair is that there were tons of other great songs that Bob was playing at the time that didn’t make the cut, some of which he didn’t even record. Thankfully, we have rarities collections for all of that.
“All Along the Watchtower” is Bob Dylan’s best folk song. I don’t mean by this that it is the song that adheres closest, musically or lyrically, to folk traditions – there are dozens of songs from his early acoustic years which draw more explicitly from the musical forms and/or lyrical themes of traditional folk music. I don’t mean that it is his best song, either, though it is easily one of his most popular and enduring, and any list that attempts to catalogue Dylan’s greatest work would definitely have to include it. When I say that “All Along the Watchtower” is Dylan’s best folk song, I mean that, more than any other Dylan song, it opens itself up wonderfully to interpretation, meshing effortlessly with the musical styles of a diverse range of artists. I have yet to hear a bad version of it, and no two are alike.
Not that there isn’t a lot to love about Dylan’s original studio cut. Quiet, moody, and atmospheric, its focus is on enigma and its own mystery. The original track – released in 1967 on the John Wesley Harding album – is radically different from the version that Jimi Hendrix would make famous six months later. Hendrix’s cut is a tempest, Dylan’s is a fog: the two versions are opposites, reverse sides of the same coin, even down to the number of players in each band. In the wake of the success of the Hendrix cover, the Dylan original remains largely forgotten; even Bob himself has been making an electric romp of the song as long as he’s been playing it live, with varying results. However, I’ve attached it above, as it’s worth a listen.
Debating which version is superior is, I believe, somewhat pointless. One might as well try to decide whether he prefers noise or ambience. Each version of the song – and not just Dylan’s or Hendrix’s, but every version – presents its own vision of apocalypse. Death may come with a bang or a whimper – or a groove, perhaps (XTC), or a creeping fury (Dave Matthews Band) – but it will still come. Or, due to its circular nature, perhaps it has already. I can say with some confidence that Bob should not be trying to copy Jimi Hendrix’s version of his own song. Ever since he went electric, live Dylan has been about reinvention – part of the pleasure of listening to him is hearing how the arrangements of his songs have evolved over the years, changing as his relationship to them changes. “Watchtower” hasn’t really changed all that much over the years, though. He’s played it pretty much the same way ever since the Isle of Wight concert. Even the MTV Unplugged version is a rock-and-roll song.
The studio version remains, though, in spite of all of this: and isn’t that the point of recording songs in the first place?