Saturday, November 9, 2013

Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Released in May 1963, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" has lost none of its power.  In fact, the idea of someone downloading it on their Ipod or coming across an old vinyl copy gives me hope.  Recorded over the course of a year, after his debut LP failed to sell, Dylan's songwriting ability jumped by leaps and bounds in the interval period.  He easily had enough material for two albums (many outtakes have appeared on bootlegs over the years).  Rather than a collection of folk covers, 'Freewheelin' contains almost all originals with subjects ranging from the most pointed political commentary to lighthearted rambles.

"Blowin' in the Wind" assured Dylan's words were heading towards immortality.   He drew upon biblical language and Lincolnesque rhetoric to make sense of America's struggle for civil rights as the country reflected on the centennial of the Civil War.  By asking rhetorical questions like "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" and "How many times can a Man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see?" he not only invoked the African-American struggle for equal rights, but used language that could connect with anyone,anywhere living under oppression.  By June of 1963, Peter, Paul, and Mary's version of "Blowin in the Wind" had reached #2 on the charts. 

"Masters of War" persists as Dylan's most stinging protest song.  In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned Americans about the ominous partnership between the government and the defense industry.  Dylan questioned the the underpinnings of the Cold War itself: a militarized society ready for war at any given moment as wealthy capitalists stood to profit on the blood of others. Throughout the years Dylan has performed blistering live versions: Listen from the righteous anger on the "Live at Brandeis" release or to a controversial performance at the 1991 Grammy's as the first Gulf War waged.

Another spellbinding track, "A hard-rain's-a-gonna-fall" envisions a world where all hope has disappeared   Once again he asks rhetorical questions, "Where have you been, my blue eyed son?  Where have you been my lovely young one?" All the the modern fears of nuclear holocaust or environmental disaster are there with images of "the poet dead in the gutter" and "babys with wild wolves all around them."  Dylan still performs "Hard Rain" and the words and imagery remain sharper than ever.

"Girl From North Country" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All  Right" look at the opposing sides of lost love.  His delivery of the line "please see if she's wearing a coat so warm/to keep her from the howlin' wind" emotes the affection towards someone long gone and never coming back.  On "Don't Think Twice" Dylan reverts back to his Guthrie like syntax "I'm walkin' down that long, lonesome road,babe/Where I'm bound I can't tell" and ends the song accusing the lover of wasting his time" but he "don't mind."

The final three tracks conclude with some comic relief: "Honey, Give Me One More Chance, "Corrina, Corrina" and the ramshackle stream of consciousness of "I Shall be Free." 

"Freewheelin" introduced Dylan to the world.  The cover photo him and Suze Rotolo instantly set the tone for 1960s cool.  As for 1963, America rode a wave of optimism that summer with peaceful March on Washington (where Dylan performed with Joan Baez) and the signing of the Test Ban treaty with the Soviets.  Vietnam hovered in the distance as more abstraction than reality.  For many,"Freewheelin" was their first encounter with Dylan - giving all who listened then and later some mental toughness for the tumultuous times ahead.

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