The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan blows everything and anything you’re currently listening to completely out of the water. Recorded when Dylan was just twenty-one, it features the voice and poetic prowess of a man at least three times the singer’s age—and were it not for the fact that Dylan is still putting out compelling stuff in his seventies, it would be a pretty convincing argument for the supremacy of youth.
Besides all this, Freewheelin’ is a nice snapshot of a particular time in American history. It’s commonly said that the Sixties officially began with the assassination of JFK—which means that Freewheelin’ is Fifties music. And there’s something to that: there’s an innocence to the album that aligns more with a simpler age. But the themes it deals with are very much Sixties-oriented: Civil Rights and War. Sadly, the respective struggle for and against each of those things still continues.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is best devoured as a whole. I recommend the remastered CD version released about ten years ago. I can’t speak to the vinyl version because I haven’t made that particular audiophilic leap yet (but someday, maybe).
Now, there was no reason for me to re-listen to Freewheelin’ in preparation for this post, since the music of Bob Dylan plays in a constant loop in my head anyway.
But I went ahead and listened to it again several times, in case I’d missed or forgotten something. I hadn’t—but the album set off quite a few memories. So instead of just rehashing a bunch of information about the album easily gleaned from Wikipedia, I’ve taken the rather narcissistic, self-referential approach of running through a few of the songs and discoursing on any associated memories I have connected to them.
In so doing, I hope to make the case that albums are a worthwhile medium not to be tossed away on the scrap heap of outdated technology: they are cohesive artifacts/artworks that can define a whole period in one’s life.
“Blowin’ in the Wind”
I remember I once traveled to Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing to do research for an article I was going to write about him for my university’s student newspaper.
Somehow tracked down his childhood barber. His name escapes me, but he was very friendly and talkative and engaging. He was an older gentleman, and there are few things I enjoy more than talking to a lively, funny old-timer—which Dylan’s childhood barber definitely was.
Most of our conversation had little to do with Dylan. It mostly consisted of him telling me about how he participated in the world curling finals in Scotland. Curling is a winter sport in which somebody pushes a big rock across the ice and two other people sweep away at the ice with brooms to guide the path of said rock.
Anyway, I still remember him remarking that when Bob as a kid would come in for a cut, he would notice how thin his hair was. Later, when he’d see pictures of the adult Dylan, he’d always think, “Hair implants.”
I mention all this in relation to “Blowin’ in the Wind” because this barber was obviously not a big Bob Dylan fan—seemed more of a Lawrence Welk type to me—but when I asked him what he thought of Dylan’s music, he said he had been watching TV sometime in the early Sixties and seen Dylan perform “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and he had been very moved and impressed. High praise indeed: to move and impress someone who isn’t a real fan.
Never did write that article. Realized I was just being another parasite—but for some reason I don’t feel so bad about sharing all this now.
“Girl from the North Country”
I always think of my very first serious girlfriend when I hear this song—not just because it’s a touching song about lost love, but because my girlfriend was technically from the very same “North Country” Dylan is singing about. Dylan grew up on what Minnesotans call “The Iron Range,” and my girlfriend was from there, too. And I get a slight pang every time I hear this song.
“Masters of War”
I was still somewhat religious at the time I first heard this song, and it shocked me. That’s because I had been brought up Christian and had embraced a very literal interpretation of Jesus’s non-violent injunctions to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and to “turn the other cheek.” So when I heard the lines from this song “not even Jesus would forgive what you do” and “I’ll stand over your grave till I’m sure that you’re dead,” the sentiments struck me as quite savage.
I also remember playing this song when I was busking on the streets of Dublin one time. I was never a very good guitar player or singer, but I made quite a haul on the streets of Dublin—especially as the pubs closed for the night. I distinctly remember getting a very big donation from one young man who stood there with his girlfriend and raptly listened to me sing “Masters of War.”
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
When Allen Ginsberg first heard this song, he said he realized that the torch of poesy had been passed to the next generation. Disconnected images all strangely connected, punctuated by open-ended questions—similar to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but more archetypal and beautifully disjointed.
The song is basically about the Apocalypse. The images of injustice and heartbreak keep piling up, leading up to Dylan casting himself in the role of prophet.
This song used to really hit home for me because I, too, used to feel that the world, as Dylan sang on his first, self-titled album, “looks like it’s dying and it’s hardly been born.”
Don’t quite feel that way anymore. Apocalyptic visions of the disgusting state of the world are a young man’s game. After being exposed to the ancient Greeks, I’ve embraced a more cyclical view of history and I’ve learned to embrace the chaos and multi-facetedness of human life.
In other words, I was so much older then—I’m younger than that now.
“Bob Dylan’s Dream”
This is my favorite song on the album—but it seems to get short shrift. Rarely do I hear it mentioned among Dylan fans or music fans in general. Don’t know why—it’s a great song, and nearly universal in its recalling of better, happier times in the past with a tight cohort of comrades.
Nostalgia is a young man’s disease, and this song is a perfect example of that. Dylan, an ancient twenty-one years old when he penned this song, is caught in a reverie about how in his younger days he used to hang out with friends, “laughing and singing till the early hours of the morn.”
There was a very lonely time in my late twenties when I greatly sympathized with this song. Felt like my best days were behind me and that only desolation lay ahead. Luckily, that loneliness—along with the tremors of apocalypse I once felt—are gone.
Again: I was so much older then—I’m younger than that now.
“Talkin’ World War III Blues”
A humorous song about nuclear annihilation.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up during the Cold War. Terrorists were Irish. What we feared was the Russians. And we didn’t fear some random, isolated bombing, but entire cities and whole regions wiped off the map.
Now, I’m not trying to downplay the threat of terrorism—but I do wish people would keep things in perspective a little bit. I distinctly remember us talking about the Russian threat in elementary school, and it was common consensus among us youngsters that it was very possible that vast amounts of our country could be leveled and millions of people could die at the spur of the moment. Us included, since we lived near a big military base.
“I Shall Be Free”
This song is a postmodern rift on contemporary society, full of nonsense and pointing toward the more radical leap Dylan would make in 1965, going electric and dealing in surreal and pop culture-oriented images.
At one point in the song, he recounts a telephone conversation with John F. Kennedy, who was at that time the sitting president. Kennedy queries, “My friend Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?” And Dylan answers, “My friend John: Brigitte Bardot.”
My life has been one long string of successive obsessions. Before I got obsessed with Bob Dylan, I was obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, set off by the Oliver Stone film. I read many books on the subject, and became convinced there was a conspiracy, most likely involving rogue elements within the U.S. intelligence community. This song serves as a bridge between my two obsessions.
179 days after the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the Sixties would officially begin.