The Magazine

What Good Came from the Sixties?

The answer, my friend, is Bob Dylan

Jan 1, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 16 • By MICHAEL LONG
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Pop music has given us talented stylists and praiseworthy songwriters -- but only one artist. No one matters but Bob Dylan. He emerged in the early 1960s with a voice as authentic as the genres he seemed to have created. He did nothing less than upend the cultural landscape. He redefined the method and meaning of music itself.


According to his high school annual, Robert Zimmerman aspired "to join Little Richard," yet he began his career singing -- under the assumed name "Bob Dylan" -- old folk and blues standards. In 1960, nineteen-year-old Bob Dylan arrived in New York from Hibbing, Minnesota, with the singular goal of comforting Woody Guthrie, who was dying in Brooklyn State Hospital.


A lot of New York folkies were showing up there, too -- it was a kind act from members of a small and tight-knit community, if not also a way to enjoy a little personal contact with their unofficial leader. Dylan, described as being a veritable "Woody Guthrie jukebox" at the time, had no following, no record deal, and no articulated artistic vision. But that changed fast. Dylan joined the city's folk music scene, picking up standards from other performers around Greenwich Village and from recordings (most often those of folk icon Ramblin' Jack Elliott). He quickly became a leading light.


The key to Dylan's fast success was his voice. Comic parodies of his voice have become standard over the last twenty years, but Bob Dylan was initially recognized for his singing talent. Live recordings of the early days document just what he could do: His heart-bruising rendition of the slave lament "No More Auction Block" -- available only as a bootleg recording until its official release, thirty years later -- reveals a young man with the world-weary delivery of someone three times his years. Dylan's aching, soaring vocal conveys real pain over the "many thousands gone," a profound and mortal injury that prohibits the narrator, a just-emancipated slave, from fully accepting his freedom. Dylan's raw interpretations make the cardigan harmonies of Peter, Paul, and Mary sound like dorm-room anthems for the privileged.


Within two years of his arrival, he had a record deal. His first album was recorded in 1962 by Columbia Records' John Hammond, who was led to Dylan by the New York Times folk-music critic Bob Shelton. Recorded in a single afternoon on a $ 400 budget, Bob Dylan was a collection of folk and blues standards supplemented by two original compositions.


The recording did little for either Columbia or Dylan. While folk music had its fans, it had yet to achieve a significant segment of the market for recorded music. The record initially sold a disappointing five thousand copies.


But Dylan's talent was clear. He had, in his growling interpretations, a voice beyond his years and, in the new compositions, a hint of humor. In 1963 came Dylan's second chance, the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and a mature artist sprang forth fully formed. Now Dylan's antique voice was applied to his own words and music, and the combination was breathtaking. The very first song, "Blowin' in the Wind," borrows the melodic essence of "Auction Block" and transforms it from field blues into an acoustic anthem.


Two cuts later comes "Masters of War," perhaps the most powerful antiwar song ever set down. Over nothing but a pair of minor chords relentlessly repeated, Dylan uses simple couplets to curse the masters of war, far from the frontlines, who build the "big bombs" and the "death planes," who treat the men of his generation like cannon fodder. This amazing album also includes Dylan's prescient "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," while still making room for a few non-political things -- especially the sad, playful "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right":

 

It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe,

if you don't know by now.

An' it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe.

It don't matter, anyhow.

When your rooster crows at the break of dawn,

look out your window and I'll be gone.

You're the reason I'm travelin' on.

But don't think twice, it's all right.


By 1965, Bob Dylan was a household name and the poet laureate of the youth movement. He was also a twenty-four-year-old, bridling under a mammoth reputation and restless for change. After four acoustic albums, Dylan was officially an Icon, and his lyrics served as elegant shorthand among the counterculture.