Talkin’ Bob Dylan’s First Album Blues
I was crawling around the concrete floor downstairs in the basement of The Strand, the massive indie bookseller just south of Union Square on Broadway in Manhattan, looking for nothing in particular when I came across a worn paperback about Gerde’s Folk City written by Robbie Woliver and published in 1986. The story he weaves goes far beyond Mike Porco’s small nightclub that became one of the top venues for Greenwich Village’s folk music roots scene. Bringing It All Back Home is an oral history told by the people who lived in the neighborhood, listened to rural music in Washington Square, performed for coins in the basket houses, came and went, rose and fell, and witnessed a constantly changing landscape and rotating cast of characters.
While Bob Dylan plays a large role in the eventual popularity and monetization of traditional folk music, he was simply one of hundreds who carried their instruments down the narrow streets in search of an audience. But he was also the one who broke out of the scene first, signing to Columbia Records in late September 1961 during a string of concert dates at Gerde’s, where he opened for the Greenbriar Boys. Music critic Robert Shelton wrote a review for The New York Times that was published the day after Dylan signed his contract and, although he knew about it, Shelton kept the deal out of the story at Dylan’s request.
“A bright new face in folk music is appearing at Gerde’s Folk City. Although only twenty years old, Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play in a Manhattan cabaret in months.
Resembling a cross between a choir boy and a Beatnik, Mr. Dylan has a cherubic look and a mop of tousled hair he partly covers with a Huck Finn black corduroy cap. His clothes may need a bit of tailoring, but when he works his guitar, harmonica or piano and composes new songs faster than he can remember them, there is no doubt he is bursting at the seams with talent.”
Over three afternoon sessions in November, John Hammond Sr. took Dylan into the studio where he produced his first self-titled album and paid him the union scale wage of $402. In discussing the difficulty of working with Dylan in the studio, Hammond told biographer Clinton Helin “Bobby popped every p, hissed every s, and habitually wandered off mike.”
“Even more frustrating, he refused to learn from his mistakes. It occurred to me at the time that I’d never worked with anyone so undisciplined before.”
Bob Dylan was released 56 years ago this month, on March 19, 1962. Of the 13 songs, only two were original: “Song to Woody” and “Talkin’ New York.” Along with a few folk standards, he included songs written by Jesse Fuller, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White, Curtis Jones, and John Laird. For two traditional tunes he lifted the arrangements from Dave Van Ronk and Eric von Schmidt.
Considered by many as “Hammond’s Folly,” the record wasn’t well received and was Dylan’s only album that never charted in America, although it did rose to number 13 in the UK charts three years later, in 1965. Mitch Miller, Columbia’s head of A&R at the time, said that in the US only 2,500 copies were sold, but Hammond defended Dylan vigorously and was determined that Dylan’s second album should be a success.
Recording for the second album began in April 1962, and continued for over 12 months, with eight separate studio sessions. Dylan was committed to including more of his own songs, and in a July session he recorded a song that he had debuted at Gerde’s Folk City in April, built on the melody of the old spiritual “No More Auction Block.” He called it “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was released on May 27, 1963.
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