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The damning initial reviews of Bob Dylan


Come gather round critics who once condemned and admit that you were wrong back then. Yes, indeed, Bob Dylan may have still only been a young whipper snapping vagabond when he was heralded as the Voice of a Generation after the release of his second and third record, but the uptake on the master songwriter was very slow, to say the least, and sometimes it was critically cruel. 

When Dylan released his self-titled debut album in 1962, it sold 5,000 copies in its first year, just about enough to break even. He had been discovered a year earlier by John Hammond who said, “Dylan was a born rebel, and I figured that, you know, Dylan could capture an audience of kids that Columbia had lost years before.”

Having returned from service in World War II, Hammond had grown disillusioned by bebop and other scenes that seemed, at least to him, to miss the cognizant point of reflecting the horrors that the world had seen and the introspective reverberations. This set about a musical itch in Hammond that was only scratched when, in 1961, he heard the very singular folk stylings of a scruffy young kid in a session for Carolyn Hester. 

He signed this weird new anti-star onto Columbia in a heartbeat and he was ridiculed just as quickly with fellow executives referring to the man who change the world as simply: ‘Hammond’s Folly’. In fact, as Hammond recalled: “The vice president of Columbia Records said just right off, the most horrible thing he’d ever heard in his life,” he said. “Hammond’s folly.”

He would go on to produce the seismic singles of ‘Blownin’ in the Wind’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and in 1968 he remarked: “What I wanted to do with Bobby was just to get him to sound in the studio as natural, just as he was in person, and have that extraordinary personality come thru…. After all, he’s not a great harmonica player, and he’s not a great guitar player, and he’s not a great singer. He just happens to be an original. And I just wanted to have that originality come through.”

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That sense of originality took a while to dawn on many critics. However, importantly, aside from being an original, Hammond had also put his finger on a telling aspect of Dylan’s character that would later be revered. “He had a good sound and a point of view and an idea. He was very disenchanted with the social system,” Hammond once said. “I encouraged him to put all his hostility on tape, because I figured this was the way, really, to get to the true Bob Dylan.”

Critics, however, still couldn’t get past the “seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal” side of things and it took Joan Baez giving his songs a more palatable approach that finally began to bring him to the attention of the critics and audiences alike. Once that hurdle was ascended the penny finally dropped. As Leonard Cohen eventually opined when Dylan received his Nobel Prize: “To me, [the Nobel] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

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