All narratives begin with some kind of birth, rebirth, or death. Such was the case when Bob Dylan killed Robert Zimmerman. Well, at least figuratively. Shortly before the release of his self-titled debut, the now-iconic troubadour ditched his lengthy last name, rechristening himself Dylan, when he signed his first recording contract. It didn’t hurt that he now shared a name with the famous poet Dylan Thomas-an artistic kindship he allowed people to believe despite a 1961 interview where he explicitly stated the opposite (“Straighten out in your book that I did not take my name from Dylan Thomas” he said.) Even in his early 20s, the singer/songwriter understood the power of perception, going so far as to reinterpret songs differently every time he played his guitar and harmonica solo sets around New York’s Greenwich Village.
Bob Dylan, the album which turns 52 years old this week, has a similar, myth building quality. On the surface, it’s easy enough to understand. A man, with a guitar telling stories-by this point artists like Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie (the latter who he dated, the former who inspired the tribute “A Song for Woody”) had already ignited and reignited the American folk tradition. But recorded for a reported $402 dollars over six hours, the release created a whimper rather than a roar in the initial charts, only selling 5,000 copies the first year. It was a slump no doubt caused by America’s growing fascination with radio-friendly pop, and Dylan’s gravel-filled voice, seated somewhere between a lament and howl.
But producer John Hammond, who also signed one of Colombia Records' great song interpreters, Billie Holiday, knew enough to play the long game, despite dealing with the artist he called among the most undisciplined he had worked with before or after. It was a fact that didn’t go unnoticed in the music community. Among many circles, Dylan was referred to as “Hammond's Folly.” Bu a year later, the hyper-political “Blowin’ In The Wind” would change minds and Dylan’s career forever.
While the release does contain two original songs (In addition to “A Song for Woody,” Dylan also penned “Talkin’ New York”) Bob Dylan, is a crib note to the great American songbook, with Dylan borrowing from different eras. The young artist stumbled into now-iconic version of songs that had been recorded by a multitude of artists. Even after defining the 2000 Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it’s his take on “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” that’s still considered to be definitive. While his version of “The House of the Rising Sun,” a standard also recorded by Baez a few years prior, was likewise perceived as solid, he retired it in 1964 when The Animals’ take became canon. However, even when they didn’t succeed in becoming career highlights, many of his debut tracks proved to have unexpected resonance. No stranger to the dangers of dipping into someone else’s culture, Dylan was touched when an African-American janitor gave his approval to Dylan’s take on Bukka White-popularized song “Fixin’ to Die.”
While providing an accurate blueprint for Dylan’s future (See “Gospel Plow,” a cover that seems to predict the songwriter’s religious period.) ultimately Bob Dylan has been minimized in light of some of the artist’s bigger life moments. Becoming a creative political figurehead with much of his 1963 release, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Becoming the Judas of the music world by going electric in 1965. And ultimately branching out into acting, writing, painting, because why the hell not? But ultimately music and interpretation are still at the heart of Bob Dylan’s creative career. And given the fact he’s on a self-described never-ending tour (a grueling schedule some say was the result of an encounter with God, but was actually named for a sly quip during a 1989 interview) the story is still long from over.