The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Life changed for the 20-year-old Minnesota transplant named Bob Dylan after he cut his self-titled debut for Columbia in 1961. Sure, there was some modest public attention and a prominent new perch within New York’s folk community. But mostly Dylan fell in love and into radical politics, both due in part to Suze Rotolo, the smiling brunette famously clutching the kid’s arm as they paraded down a street in the West Village on the cover of his 1963 breakthrough, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. On his debut, released just a month before sessions for his second record began, Dylan had included only two original songs—little oddities tucked among Bob Dylan’s 11 covers. But on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the numbers were reversed, with two traditional songs at the end offering a reprieve from the intensity and intricacy of Dylan’s political invective and romantic longing. Freewheelin’ is not only a masterpiece, it’s the bona fide beginning of Bob Dylan proper. Much as he would remain his entire career, Dylan was still in the thrall of antique songs on Freewheelin’. He was a magpie who pulled bits from traditional English ballads, American folk numbers, and hardscrabble blues. But now, rather than just play those tunes, he used them as templates for anti-Vietnam screeds like “Masters of War,” generational volleys like opener “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and lovesick laments like “Girl From the North Country.” In very short order, Dylan had become a singer-songwriter, not merely a folk singer who sometimes set some of his own verses to strums. It was, in many ways, a new paradigm. Dylan experimented with supporting musicians during these sessions, spread as they were across a year. He gets a little help on the lovely “Corrina, Corrina,” too, with shuffling drums and a spritely guitar lifting up his little song of love. Otherwise, the songs on Freewheelin’ mostly consist of Dylan’s voice, guitar, and emphatic harmonica, so that each song is a perfect distillation of intent. Maybe it sounds silly, but “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is an unstoppable plea for solidarity. Maybe it sounds jaunty, but “Oxford Town” sets the grim evening news to a graceful melody, giving the Civil Rights movement another song to share—and providing another invitation for the coalition. Dylan was a wide-eyed idealist in 1963, supercharged by the potential power of old tunes bearing new ideas, and Freewheelin’ was his introductory contribution to the revolution of his age.

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