Jan 17, 2017, 09:06AM

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan: Not a Classic

But not without redeeming value.

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Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize has had me thinking about him recently, so I pulled down my copy of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. It's been years since I've listened; Dylan’s not my favorite performer, and this was never my favorite album. Returning to it, though… I like it even less. It's hard to see what justifies its classic status—except of course for Dylan's later career and importance.

"Blowin' in the Wind" was the best-known song on the album, and one of the most famous anti-war songs. It's a pretty tune, but in retrospect it comes across as blandly non-confrontational. "How many years can some people exist/before they're allowed to be free" seems like a cutesy way to talk about the Civil Rights movement without actually talking about it. The chorus, "the answer my friend is blowin' in the wind" foregoes a call to action for breathy navel-gazing.  It's a long way from Woody Guthrie's "Deportee" and "Union Maid" to this kind of wishy-washy protest song without protest.

"Masters of War" is more forthright, but the repetitive guitar is uninvolving, and the wordplay is forced and predictable—"mud/blood" rhyme, anyone? The lyrics aren't really sad or outraged; they're hectoring. It sounds like it's written by some drunk guy at the end of the bar querulously holding forth. Even worse are the rote blues of "Down the Highway," which come across as embarrassing, especially given Dylan's vocal limitations. He's a little kid playing dress-up, and not in a cute way. Similarly, the humor on "Bob Dylan's Blues" and "Talkin' World War III Blues" is smug rather than cutting or loopy. "Abraham Lincoln said that," except he didn't really say that. Get it? It's a joke.

To be fair, Dylan was only 21 when he recorded the album, and he was working in a folk music milieu that demanded earnest profundity, significance, and authenticity. As a young musician, he had paid few dues, but was supposed to display world-weariness, wisdom, and knowingness. It's no wonder that the strain showed.

Still, there are tracks where he overcomes his limitations. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" couches its churlish lyrics in lovely, gentle guitar, with Dylan's talk-singing adding an off-hand sincerity and bile. The miming of folksy phrasing still rankles; you can almost hear him patting himself on the back for using the contraction "if'n." Still, "Don't Think Twice" remains a genuinely and effectively mean-spirited song, neatly making explicit the misogynistic spite behind all those "babe I gotta ramble” odes.

The rolling version of "Corrina, Corrina" may be slight, but it's nonetheless wonderfully executed. And of course there's "Girl From the North Country," Dylan's sublime reworking of "Scarborough Fair." The formal language ("Remember me to one who lives there") suits Dylan better than the gestures at dialect elsewhere on the album, and the personal subject matter keeps Dylan from lyrically overreaching as on the would-be apocalyptic "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." Instead, the sensual description and relatively straightforwardly expressed longing takes on heft from the jagged harmonica punctuations and the nasal vocals. I prefer the version with Johnny Cash that Dylan recorded for 1969's Nashville Skyline, but this early effort is still indisputably great. It’d be a standout even on a better record.

Freewheelin' may be overall mediocre, but it's not exactly unrepresentative. Toothless political engagement, sloppy regurgitation of the work of more accomplished performers, and irritating enthusiasm for his own cleverness were all weaknesses that would dog Dylan throughout his career. But Dylan's also always used his own flaws to advantage, transforming folk material with intelligence and grace. At least in his classic period, even his lesser efforts had their moments.

  • Completely disagree on "Hard Rain." It's a remarkable song from a 21-year-old, even one with Dylan's smarts and ambition.

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  • Re: Don't Think Twice - In other words, any breakup song with some bitterness contained is "misogynistic."

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  • No...snotty "I've gotta ramble babe" tropes are misogynist. Though I think it's rare for men in a break up song not to use misogyny if bitterness is what they're going for. Misogyny is fairly ubiquitous.// Merle Haggard's "I Think I'm Gonna Live Forever" is quite bitter and doesn't have the same sense of "I am cool for being able to not care about women." The thing about Haggard's song is that it's willing to admit to the love as a weight, so the release feels personal (and funny) rather than self-mythologizing.

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  • Here's the song if you haven't heard it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFKs2jFKdKY

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  • I found this article unsettling in a way that was hard to pinpoint, so I clicked on the Noah Berlatsky link to see what else this person had written. I quickly came to this conclusion, either Noah is an algorithm or a completely soulless human being. The unbelievable consistency that every article has a click-bait title, snarky but vanilla negativity and uninspired writing style. Leaves you with an oddly hollow feeling because if Noah is in fact a human being and not a computer he turns his brain on just long enough to come up with the title and then turns it off for the remaining five minute writing session. I suspect this is because he doesn't actually believe the opinions that he is saying and is simply doing this for whatever meager amount of money someone gets paid to do this sort of thing. But, hey it works! I fell for it, and just for the record an album of Bob Dylan farting on a snare drum for an hour would have more depth than this article.

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  • The greatness of A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall has been acknowledged by artists as varied as Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Seamus Heaney, Joyce Carol Oates and Salman Rushdie. What has Noah Berlatsky ever achieved apart from condescending superficiality?

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  • Re: the two above comments, could what we're seeing here be called gratuitously stirring the pot?

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  • No, it was linked yesterday on expectingrain.com, a great Dylan site. That's the reason for renewed interest.

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