“…I think Abraham Lincoln said that / “I’ll let you in my dreams if I can be in your” / I said that.” – Bob Dylan
The opening track to Bob Dylan’s first masterpiece is a spiritual ode that pairs God, racism and the ways of this world. The second track is a lament to a lover long gone in a nostalgic daydream pitted against the mellowed pain of acquiescence. The third track pokes a finger at warmongers in an eruption of acerbic bile that has perhaps never been matched in protest music. The record unfurls thereafter in a musical maelstrom that leaves no stone of the human condition unturned.
This was 1963; Bob Dylan was in his early twenties when these songs were recorded. The collage of tracks contained therein would go on to change music forever, and there is no hint of the rose-tinted shades of retrospect about that. These are songs that have something to say about the singer in ways that were not always previously dealt with; in fact, the singer’s name features in two of the titles to ram home the unique introspective message for good measure.
In The Beatles Anthology, John Lennon is quoted as saying: “In Paris in 1964 was the first time I ever heard Dylan at all. Paul got the record [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan] from a French DJ. For three weeks in Paris, we didn’t stop playing it. We all went potty about Dylan.” When they finally met their idol at New York’s Delmonico hotel, Paul McCartney recalls a sensation of “climbing a spiral walkway as I was talking to Dylan. I felt like I was figuring it all out, the meaning of life.”
With The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, it was as though he had been a wayfaring numen of folk, wandering the crooked highways of America amassing wisdom in a serpentine swirl since time immemorial until he accidentally stumbled into a recording studio and decided on a whim to change the world in the same way that William S. Burroughs thought when he declared, “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”
These songs were not about taking your little gals’ hand and twisting on the dancefloor, and nor were they polished-up incarnations of some shop-worn abstraction of the past; they were Promethean behemoths which conjure up James Baldwin’s notion that the triumphant musician is giving voice to “the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.”
Very few people were writing like Bob Dylan during this period, and of his fellow Greenwich Village cohorts who had taken the giant leap from the folk traditions of the past into the illuminating world of introspection, none of them were propagating the new wave in such a way that it would make the necessary impact on the charts. Dylan knew that to make a change, people outside of the dive bars he was playing had to hear his music, but for him, the shackles of commercialism would never fit, and instead, he crafted a rainstorm of lyrics, melodies and backbone that would be just as hard to ignore as the literal drenching equivalent.
These songs were so huge in their looming benediction that Bob Dylan himself wasn’t even sure how he managed to lasso them from the flickering firmament of creation, and as such, he likens himself to a benefactor who was guided by mystic figures of fate towards some undefined but vital goal. In The Mystery of Creativity, Dylan discusses how songwriters can never really be sure where their songs come from and with that in mind, he proceeds to quote Hoagy Carmichael: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.” He then adds, “I know just what he meant.”
With songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, it is hard to pass this notion off as some metaphysical hoodoo, spouted by a thinly disguised hippy with an ill-fitting brown suede coat. There are multitudes to the songs that are not easy to define, and the breadcrumb trail of inspiration and influence that usually follows in the wake of even the most brilliant music is wrapped up in some hazy hue that inevitably brings you back to the record as an X marks the spot of the beginning and the end of influence for Bob. Though threads may be followed to the likes of Woodie Guthrie, Odetta and others, Dylan emboldened these filigreed connections to the none too distant past and transfigured them into gilded treasures that were ineffably new.
In 1999, Nick Cave delivered a lecture on love songs in which he dusted off and donned the old Spanish word ‘Duende’, which was defined by poet and (perhaps) purely platonic love interest of Salvador Dali, Frederico Garcia Lorca, as exalted emotion unearthed from within, “a mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained. The roots that cling to the mire from which comes the very substance of art.” This is as close as it comes to defining the myriad of awe within The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and yet it has more than a mysterious force given voice to with an introspective roar, as Dylan seems to have one foot in the evergreen pastures of the past and one firmly in the multi-coloured kaleidoscopic cultural stew of the future.
You could drop a ten-tonne atom bomb in this record and you’d never live to hear it explode. If the rainbow of pop culture reaches back into the past then this is where it hits the ground.