Fifty years ago this week, Bob Dylan released his first Columbia Records album. I celebrated the occasion by pulling out my copy of his self-titled debut and gave it a listen.
It's probably the 10,000th time in my life I've listened to that record. I first bought the vinyl incarnation of the recording while I was in college. I still have it, although I feel like kicking myself for not taking better care of it. The jacket looks exactly like it has been handled 10,000 times. To my credit, I have many others - including a "Hi-Fi" version of Freewheelin' and The Times, They Are a Changin' - that are in pristine collectable condition.
I had heard of Bob Dylan long before I became hooked. His name seemed to pop up under the song-writing credit on several records in my rapidly growing collection. I had Peter, Paul & Mary's version of Blowin' in the Wind. I had an Elvis record where The King sang Tomorrow is a Long Time. Cher's first hit record was a Dylan song called All I Really Want to Do. The Byrds had a huge hit with Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man. Ditto for The Turtles with It Ain't Me Babe.
I'd heard of Dylan, just hadn't heard him. That all changed when my dad bought me a 45-rpm with a bright red Columbia label. On one side was the song She Belongs to Me. On the flip side, Subterranean Homesick Blues. Whoa! That was it. I was hooked. Everything about that record stopped me in my tracks. Forget the comparisons to Chuck Berry's Too Much Monkey Business, there had never been a sound like that before, or maybe since. Dylan's rat-a-tat-tat delivery of "Johnny's in the basement, mixing up the medicine ..." was hypnotic. It was all I listened to for weeks.
Years later, music historians say Subterranean Homesick Blues was the first rap song ever recorded, 30 years before the genre was officially established. It became the first music video ever, 20 years before MTV first presented the music form.
The Dylan I became hooked on was actually his second of what would be many incarnations over the years. This was Dylan the rock star. The Dylan trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde was my musical holy grail.
Years later when I was in college, I had a roommate whose Dylan collection included the folk albums recorded between 1962 and 1965. I soon became equally obsessed with those recordings.
Dylan's first recording, simply titled Bob Dylan, was anything but a hit. It initially only sold some 5,000 copies and Columbia executives questioned the wisdom of John Hammond signing the kid to a five-year contract. Behind his back, they called Dylan "Hammond's Folly."
In retrospect, questioning any decision John Hammond made about music talent was ludicrous. During his career he produced the first records made by Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Within a year with the release of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Hammond had the last laugh. But even Dylan exceeded Hammond's expectations. At his own retirement party in 1976 (a retirement that didn't last even a year), when asked about Dylan, Hammond only shook his head and said, "He completely changed the face of a record company."
All these years later, there is still a fresh and exciting quality to that Dylan debut from 50 years ago. It only includes two original songs and not-so-surprisingly those songs steal from an age-old tradition in song-writing. New songwriters often will place their lyrics over the template of an old song. It's how you learn the balance and cadence of writing songs. With "Talkin' New York," Dylan used an old standard talking blues riff. On "Song for Woody," Dylan's touching tribute to Woody Guthrie, Dylan masterfully applied his lyrics to the tune of Guthrie's "1913 Massacre," a song Guthrie first wrote and recorded in 1941.
The rest of the record is a collection of covers only found in the deepest corners of the Americana-folk treasure chest. Dylan's treatment of Eric Von Schmidt's "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" was so profound that most people today believe Dylan wrote the song. The record also includes Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" and "Fixin' to Die" by Bukka White. It also includes old traditionals such as "House of the Risin' Sun" and "Man of Constant Sorrow."
Throughout the record, Dylan delivers the songs with a road-weary passion that's unbecoming of a 20-year-old. He sounded like an old man and he delivered the songs like a guy who had been singing them for 50 years. Hey, he was on to something; he's done a good job over the years of growing into that old man persona.
What's so amazing about Dylan 50 years later is that he really hasn't changed at all. He's still writing new songs. He's still making records. He's still performing. His last three studio recordings all debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Isis magazine is reporting that another new Dylan album is imminent. He's now getting ready to begin an extensive tour of South America. The Expecting Rain web site has documented that Dylan performed 200 concerts since 2010. Since 1989, he has averaged over 100 concerts a year without fail. He has not conceded anything to age.
More than any other singer-songwriter who's ever chosen that road, Dylan has an uncanny ability to write and sing songs that are timeless. His words, his sound, has never been tied to an era. He's always been uniquely different from everyone else. Even his harshest critics admit that he is one of a kind.
That's why it's still a treat to pull out a record Dylan first released 50 years ago and give it one more spin. It's still fresh. It's still honest. It's still real.
And, to this day I've never heard anyone hold a note for as long as Dylan did all those years ago on "Freight Train Blues."