Saturday, 3 October 2020

Bob Dylan - Come Gather 'Round People (1962-1964)

Bob Dylan (1962)

You're No Good/Talkin' New York/In My Time Of Dyin'/Man Of Constant Sorrow/Fixin' To Die/Pretty Peggy-O/Highway 51 Blues/Gospel Plow/Baby, Let Me Follow You Down/House Of The Risin' Sun/Freight Train Blues/Song To Woody 

"Like Elvis Presley, what Dylan can sing, he quickly masters; what he can't, he twists to his own devices" - Tim Riley         

Yes, I know this is where it all started for Bob Dylan, but, as someone who owns all his albums (save the last two "crooning" ones - Fallen Angels and Triplicate) I have to admit that I rarely play this album and find it a slightly grating and, at times, difficult listen. It is largely made up of old blues covers, but they are sung nowhere near as appealingly as they are say, by the older Dylan, on Good As I Been To You or World Gone Wrong. I find Dylan's young voice just a little irritating on this album in places, although of course, I realise what an effect the album had, having been released by one so young. It is nowhere near as good an album as The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan or The Times They Are A-Changin', though. Though released not long after, they are light years ahead. This set him on his way, though, but the whole folk/protest movement thing came over the next year or so, with his next two albums and contributions from other artists in the Greenwich Village folk scene.

There are good moments though, it has to be said.  Some of the more bluesier numbers I quite like - the cutting Talkin' New York; the powerful bottleneck blues of In My Time Of Dyin' (also memorably covered by Led Zeppelin);  the pure blues of Highway 51; the moving Man Of Constant Sorrow; the acoustic, aggressive Fixin' To Die and my favourite, Baby Let Me Follow You Down

There is an almost punky, edgy, attack to Dylan's renditions of these songs, it has to be said, and his harmonica throughout  is revelatory. Dylan's mournful take on House Of The Rising Sun is actually very evocative, but it is completely different to that made famous by The Animals (which was apparently inspired by a version by Josh White, not Dylan's version). 

Freight Train Blues, with that ridiculously drawn-out high-pitched bit just annoys me. In fact all the wailing on that track just doesn't do it for me.

I do have time for Woody's Song, however, it was one of the few written by Dylan and in it you can hear hints of the two albums that would follow over the next year. 

See That My Grave Is Kept Clean has its good points too in its menacing, lamenting tone. The protest songs began with this one. Dylan approaches it with a verve and vigour and a cynicism too.

Incidentally, the mono version is excellent, particularly In My Time Of Dyin' and Highway 51.

** The non-album single, Mixed-Up Confusion, was a skiffle-esque piece of lively fun. It would have nice for it have been on this album.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)

Blowin' In The Wind/Girl From The North Country/Masters Of War/Down The Highway/Bob Dylan's Blues/A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall/Don't Think Twice, It's Alright/Bob Dylan's Dream/Oxford Town/Talkin' World War III Blues/Corinna, Corinna/Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance/I Shall Be Free 

"How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free..."               

After a debut album that included only two original compositions, Bob Dylan effectively launched his singer/songwriter career from here. He still used traditional folk melodies but now he added his own unbelievably mature, prophetic and wise beyond his years lyrics. The cultural impact of this album simply cannot be overstated. Some of the songs on here became synonymous with the early sixties, the burgeoning folk scene, particularly in New York's Greenwich Village, and with an increased need in the young and intelligent to protest.

The songs embraced the Civil Rights movement, political corruption and the omnipresent early sixties paranoia about impending nuclear war. He also had love songs on here, but they were not "moon in June"/"baby I love you" odes - they were often cynical, bitter and accusatory, something continued for a fair few years. As fetching as the picture is on the front cover, I have always felt sorry for poor old Suze Rotolo, who must have been on the receiving end of Dylan's acerbic tongue on many occasions. You can somehow imagine him talking to her in a scathing manner when she failed to grasp whatever irony he was dabbling with or because she wasn't aware of a particular little-known author.

Blowin' In The Wind is, of course, an absolute classic, and has been recorded by many other artists, including Peter, Paul & MaryStevie Wonder and Neil Young. It is the daddy of all anti-war protest songs, articulating beautifully and starkly against an acoustic background Dylan's fears for the world's future. The line "how many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free..." perfectly aligned the song with the Civil Rights movement too. Quite simply, this song, written by a twenty-one year-old, is one of the greatest songs of all time. 

The incredibly bleak Masters Of War is another whose subject is hard-hitting and obvious, although the apocalyptic A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall is a mysterious journey through all manner of imagery, biblical, poetic, mythological. It is a work of inspired genius.

Other classics are the vitriolic, leaving his lover song, Don't Think Twice, It's Alright; the far more yearningly beautiful original take of Girl From The North Country (later to be recorded with Johnny Cash) and the excursions into the blues tradition of the folky, harmonica-driven Bob Dylan's BluesDown The Highway, the much-covered blues oldie Corinna Corinna and another old blues cover in Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance.

The pure folk tradition is there too in Bob Dylan's Dream and Oxford Town

Talking World War III Blues shows Dylan's black humour at its most obvious, but, for me, it it has always been slightly irritating and dated. A lot of people love it, though, but I have never really gone for the humorous Dylan, preferring him riled up, reflective or mystical.

As I mentioned earlier, the impact of this remarkable album and its songs was immense, but, as someone who owns all Bob Dylan's albums, I rarely play it so there you go. I much prefer subsequent live, often bluesy or electric live versions performed by Dylan of the songs, or indeed, covers of them by different artists. Check out Dylan's storming full band, rocking version of Masters Of War on Real Live. It completely transforms the song. The same applies to many of his versions of Don't Think Twice, or Neil Young's blistering Blowin' In The Wind.

The Times They Are A-Changin' (1963)

The Times They Are A-Changin'/The Ballad Of Hollis Brown/With God On Our Side/One Too Many Mornings/North Country Blues/Only A Pawn In Their Game/Boots Of Spanish Leather/When The Ship Comes In/The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll/Restless Farewell 

"Well, you know - it seems to what the people like to hear" - Bob Dylan
This is by far my favourite of Bob Dylan's folk "protest" albums. It is a spectacular masterpiece of the genre, written and delivered by a young man of barely twenty-two. Personally, I find the songs more melodic and less starkly bleak than those of the previous album's, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The subject matter is pretty much the same - impending nuclear war, the Civil Rights movement, racism, oppression, social deprivation, poverty, religious hypocrisy, political corruption and wealth and, of course, the generation gap, as expressed in the magnificent, epoch-defining title track.

The Times They Are A Changin' is, frankly, a strong contender for being the greatest popular song ever written, albeit a protest one. It means something to every young generation as they collectively rail, passionately, but often naively, against their elders. It mattered so much in 1963, when there was an older generation that really could not comprehend the ideals and attitudes of the younger one. Today's older generation are much more understanding - many of them listen to rock music and Bob Dylan, of course something hardly anyone over twenty-five did in 1963. Even now, in my own middle-age I find I can listen to this and bristle with rebellious ire, imagining I am singing it to what were my actually quite tolerant, enlightened parents. Its effect is that strong.

The Ballad Of Hollis Brown is just one of the hardest-hitting, most depressing tales ever sung. It concerns an impoverished father who eventually kills himself and all his children, having reached the point of no hope, no way out. It is truly tragic. Incidentally, the seventies Scottish rock group Nazareth did an absolutely storming version of it in 1973. 

Similarly, The Neville Brothers' cover of With God On Our Side is almost definitive. Dylan's delivery of the song is haunting and pins you to the spot. It is a marvellously evocative journey through the wars America has been involved in. A more apposite condemnation of war it would be hard to find. It is a simply mighty, portentous song.

One Too Many MorningsNorth Country BluesBoots Of Spanish Leather and Restless Farewell are all examples of Dylan's stark folky, acoustic blues that he mastered in at this time. Harsh, bleak, sombre and resonant.

Only A Pawn In Their Game was a surprisingly cynical song about the murder of Medgar Evers, a black civil rights activist. The song suggests that yes, the killers are to blame, but the blame is everywhere and while poor whites clamour to blame poor blacks for their poverty, they should maybe look at the corrupt politicians exploiting them and wilfully keeping them poor. There are, indeed, many pawns in many corrupt, immoral games.

A similar theme runs through the moving tale of The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll. These were difficult issues, and Bob Dylan, a young white man, was exceptionally brave to confront them head on in such a hard-hitting manner. This really was ground-breaking stuff.

My own personal favourite is the warning of the apocalypse that is When The Ship Comes In. It is as relevant today as it was then. To be honest, the whole album is.

** Outtakes from this album's sessions are the gently rousing Lay Down Your Weary Tune and the folky, acoustic ballad Percy's Song.

Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964)

All I Really Want To Do/Black Crow Blues/Spanish Harlem Incident/Chimes Of Freedom/I Shall Be Free #10/To Ramona/Motorpsycho Nitemare/My Back Pages/I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)/Ballad In Plain D/It Aint Me Babe  

"We talked to people in bars - miners - talking to people - that's where it's at, man" - Bob Dylan 

This, Bob Dylan's last all-acoustic "folk" album is one of those that I don't play so much, for some reason. I much prefer its predecessor, The Times They Are A-Changin'. I'm not quite sure why that is. I think I prefer the more blatant "protest" songs of that album and The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan  to the more tongue-in-cheek, or romantically bitter tunes on offer on this outing.

The opener All I Really Want To Do has Dylan in light-hearted mood, but I have to say I much prefer The Byrds' version. 

Black Crow Blues is a fine piano and harmonic driven blues, but in my opinion, it could really do with some bass and drums. 

Spanish Harlem Incident is a lyrically incomprehensible number but, as with the previous one, it cries out for a full band. 

Not so for the next number though, the starkness of a gently strummed, melodic acoustic guitar suits the apocalyptic warning of Chimes Of Freedom that has Dylan showing solidarity with the outcasts, the downtrodden and the oppressed. It is the one real "protest", socially aware song left here. It is, unsurprisingly, my favourite song on the album. Bruce Springsteen memorably covered it on the 1988-89 Amnesty International tour. It is simply a marvellous song.

I Shall Be Free No. 10 harks back to the sort of thing he was doing on the first two albums. It is amusing enough, actually pretty witty, but it wears off after a while. It is ok to listen to just once in a while. At least the studio version doesn't have an audience laughing at the funny parts. 

To Ramona is a gentle, tender number. Dylan is definitely a different animal on this album - less stridently protesting, more poetic, more romantic, more lyrical, more diverse, more whimsical. For many, it makes this album a more satisfying listen. For me, I preferred the more biting, aware numbers, but I totally understand what they mean. 

Motorpsycho Nitemare is a bluesy, witty stream of consciousness with some excellent amusing couplets, particularly the one about taking a shower.

My Back Pages is another great song made even better by The Byrds, showing what could be done with a band turned up high. It does, however, have a moving, plaintive appeal to it. Dylan is already sounding considerably world-weary in his tone and lyrics on this. 

I Don't Believe You is a staccato and beguiling number, while Ballad In Plain D has Dylan griping, tediously, about his girlfriend's sister. Just let it go, eh, Bob? It Ain't Me Babe is one of the best songs on the album, and it closes the set. It has Dylan again cynical about aspects of the heart.

There are undoubtedly some fine songs on here, and Dylan has certainly diversified his songwriting approach. There are other changes necessary too, though. These songs need more of an accompaniment - get yourself a band and strap on an electric guitar and play .....loud!

** A non-album track from this album's sessions was Mama, You Been On My Mind. It is a track that has got occasional live airings, notably on the Rolling Thunder tour.

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