50 years ago this week, on 19 March 1962, Bob Dylan released his eponymous debut album. It's not an album I can remember listening to much before, although I have an image in my mind (perhaps erroneously) of the LP being among my parents' collection as I was growing up - the sleeve slightly battered at the corners, Bob Dylan's youthful face gazing out from under his black peaked cap and the upturned collar of his sheepskin coat.
For me, the album had more significance as a physical object than as a piece of recorded music. It was a relic from a far distant past, a ticket back to the long-lost early 1960s, pre-Beatles, pre-Stones, pre-anything much. Yet since I was born just 10 years later in 1972, the temporal distance between me and the cultural phenomenon of this album's release really was not so great. I suppose this is proof of the old cliche about time speeding up as you get older, although the gap between 1962 an 1972 still seems to me, in cultural terms, to be considerably greater than that between, say, 2002 and 2012.
As an experiment I bought the album on MP3 this week, and tried to listen to it as though 50 years had not intervened since its release. I tried to imagine what it might have sounded like to someone coming to it afresh in March 1962. A fairly hopeless task of course, since cultural objects cannot be so straightforwardly removed from their contexts in this way. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable challenge.
I discovered 13 songs of different styles and provenance, very different from the caricature of earnest protest-singing Bob Dylan. Clearly a mixture of self-penned works (Talkin' New York, Song to Woody) and folk standards (House of the Risin' Sun, Gospel Plow), the album rattles along at quite some speed, though it is the simplest possible recording set-up: just Bob, his guitar and a harmonica. The first track, You're No Good, is almost over before it begins, and seems to involve Dylan sniggering half way through as he stumbles over himself to commit the song to vinyl.
The second track, Talkin' New York, is captivating: the story of Dylan travelling from the 'Wild West' to New York, where the people go down to the ground and the buildings go up to the sky. 'Walking around with no-where to go, someone could freeze right to the bone', but Dylan ends up in Greenwich Village where he tries his hand at performing in coffee houses for a dollar a day. At first he is rejected for sounding like a hillbilly, then eventually starts to earn more money and even joins the union and pays his dues. The song ends with Dylan leaving New York to head west, but not before departing with this philopsophical observation - laced with threat and anger:
A very great man once said, some people rob you with a fountain pen
Don't take too long to find out just what he was talking about
A lot of people don't have too much food on their tables
But they got a lot of forks and knives
Gotta CUT something.
No doubt it's a staple observation of Dylanologists, but Dylan's voice here is as much an instrument as his guitar - the way he spits, sneers, punches, yells, carouses, propels the words from his mouth in his distinctive twang. Yet there's also warmth and tenderness in the pleading sound of a track like Baby Let Me Follow You Down, where the harmonica joins the voice in seeking to woo a lover with devotional pleadings.
Song to Woody is a key track, where Dylan pays his respects to the passing of another singer, Woody Guthrie. It's impossible here not to understand the song in its context - the story of Dylan visiting Guthrie in hospital is well known, and the song is the folk equivalent of the passing on of a baton. While Dylan claims to have seen his share of hard times, of people sick, hungry, tired and torn, he ends by taking his leave and hoping that he does not have the same hard travelling as Guthrie had in his life.
Man of Constant Sorrow sounds like a manifesto for the rambling man persona that Dylan was adopting on this album, while acknowledging the morbid truth that death is never far away even from the morning railroad. The album ends with See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, where Dylan's voice demonstrates its power and rage, returning to the spirituality of the earlier tracks In My Time of Dyin' and Fixin' To Die. All three songs, like Song to Woody, have death as their main theme, and death and spirituality recur throughout the album.A birth, then, but one grounded in thoughts of mortality.