The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is fifty years old. May 1963. That’s a hell of a thing. In the next ten years, a lot of my favourite records are going to hit that milestone. That’s a hell of a thing, too, one I’m having a little trouble processing.
So what does Freewheelin’ sound like, fifty years on, on a Saturday morning, in England?
It’s one of those records where my relationship with it has grown more complicated over the years. The first two Dylan records I bought (as an 18 year old, I think) were Freewheelin‘ and Before the Flood (which seemed like a good way to hear a bunch of Dylan’s most famous songs and get to know the music of the Band, too – good plan in theory, but fortunately I gave the Band another chance). Before the Flood sounded flat, uninspired, lacking in power for a record of a tour famed for its energy and force. Freewheelin’, in contrast, seemed marvellous – witty, playful, heavy, alive.
It still seems like that, in places. Sometimes. The standout songs on Freewheelin’ – Blowing in the Wind, Girl from the North Country, Masters of War, A hard rain’s a-gonna fall, Don’t Think Twice, it’s All Right – are so much a part of our culture that it’s been a good few years since I sought any of them out to listen to (more than a decade, probably). That leaves us with the rest: the Down the Highways, the I Shall be Frees, and the Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chances. They’re less impressive, and this is where things get more complicated.
‘Authenticity’ in music is itself a tricky notion, one I have less time for with each year that passes. But a sensibility that looks for and delights in ‘the authentic’ can be nuanced rather than boneheadedly literal, and it’s not correct to think that the listener that pursues the ‘authentic’ requires their artists to simply do the same thing over and over. Artists – singers, songwriters, especially bands (since they are a blend of evolving personalities and tastes and sensibilities) – contain multitudes, and their creativity is not going to be one-dimensional. Most listeners get that.
Yet, the early Bob Dylan persona – the wandering Okie hobo, the second coming of Woody Guthrie – is clearly a conscious creation, is clearly for want of a better word inauthentic. Exposure to more Dylan records than simply his New York folk albums will lead you to conclude that Dylan doesn’t sing these songs in his own voice, in the literal sense, and that he didn’t write them in his own voice either. Whatever that may have been at this time (I have a hunch that the voice he uses on Corinna, Corinna is the closest Dylan got to his true vocal self on those early records but that can’t be proven) it’s not the rough, sandpaper timbre he adopts to sound older, to sound tougher, to sound more rural. (As for the voice in which the songs are written, that’s an even more complicated question, but by the time you get to the early acoustic-psychedelic songs like Lay Down Your Weary Tune, Chimes of Freedom and so on, you’re dealing with something for which there were fewer precedents, something that feels more like it sprang from within Bob Dylan himself.)
Listening to these songs, one is continually brought up short when Dylan’s folksinger drag act makes itself too obvious: on each repeat of the line ‘Honey just allow me one more chance’, at the sound of his out-of-tune guitar (what you saying, Bob – real cowboys don’t tune up first?) on Down the Highway, on the vowel sounds of the high notes on Masters of War (‘…build the death planes‘), the studied folksy archaisms and rusticisms (‘it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall’, ‘if’n you don’t know by now’, ‘the light I never knowed’ – and just how many roosters crow at the break of dawn in the Village?). It’s a canny impression, but its falseness slowly dawns on the listener, and once it’s rumbled, it’s hard to hear these songs the same way again.
Dylan himself got sick of playing this character, sick of the demands of his folk audience, and so perhaps the skeletal, big-haired, absurdist speed freak – dandified and somewhat camp – character of the Bringing it All Back Home–Highway 61–Blonde on Blonde period was more true to the real Dylan. Or perhaps he’s simply a talented actor with a flair for totally immersive performances who’s never given his audience a glimpse of the real him in over fifty years.
None of this is to say that Freewheelin’ isn’t an essential listen. It is, with three or four timelessly classic songs, songs that transcend their contradictions (and the phoniness of their performances on this album). But for many, the deliberately rough, ‘protest song’-singing Bob Dylan is the only Dylan they know, an endpoint, a Dylan perpetually marching on Washington with Joan Baez, singing Blowing in the wind or The times they are a-changing. But it’s truer to say that this was just the beginning of his journey. It’s worth bearing in mind that he was 21 when he arrived in New York and 23 when he made this record. He was, in other words, a kid – just as full of self-delusion and nonsense as any other kid, unsure of who he was and who he wanted to be, fearful of getting found out, of having to live up to others’ expectations, working more from instinct and hope than experience and knowledge.
Freewheelin’ is the first significant staging post in Dylan’s career, which is not to say that his artistic progress was linear with his work improving in quality at every stop on the way. For me Dylan peaked in 1965–66, with several other major mini-peaks thereafter. So while it’s nice to mark the occasion of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s fiftieth anniversary, I hope for a bigger celebration in a couple of years’ time when it’s the turn of Highway 61 Revisited to reach that milestone.
Bob Dylan & Suze Rotolo, New York, 1963