Freewheelin’ at 50

By David Burrows

A definition of ‘freewheeling’, often identifies the term as relating to someone who is carefree or heedless of consequences.Surely then, a delightful irony to use such a light hearted title for Dylan’s second album,The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released days after his 22nd birthday in May 1963.The songs having largely been written and recorded during times of turbulent US Civil Rights protests and  a world threatening standoff between the USA and USSR in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October,1962.

Faced with what many Americans feared to be imminent nuclear fallout, Dylan was a man on a mission as he opted for refuge in Columbia Studio A in New York for much of late 1962 and early 1963, honing the recording of the songs he had crafted.These included Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues-powerful in its witty attack on anti Communist, right wing politics.This song was subsequently axed from the record by nervous Columbia executives,but continued to be enthusiastically performed by Dylan at concerts.

A  glance at the titles of the songs on Freewheelin’ shows the key topics in the spotlight in the early 60s, as well as more personal concerns to a young man in love, and on the ascent in the New York music world- a long way from his small town origins.It was an understandable reaction to the album cover picture and songs  that Dylan’s growing number of fans would take the content at face value and head for literal interpretations eg fear of impending nuclear obliteration, a love song to an early girlfriend, a talking blues with a twist of wry humour……but with the benefit of hindsight, academic (not to say, forensic) analysis, and years of listening, it is possible to see the early signs of multilayered genius that has served Dylan so well throughout the subsequent decades .

The cover photograph gives an indication of personal happiness as Dylan and Suze Rotolo stroll down a slushy street, huddled together against the cold.A reasonable assumption, therefore, that Suze would be the inspiration for Girl From The North Country. But, equally likely that the impressionist style of Dylan’s composition was referring to more than one early lover, interlinked with his early years in the Midwest, poetically woven into a tapestry of imagery.In a similar vein,Dylan was quick to deny that ‘hard rain’ was a description of nuclear fallout.On Studs Terkel’s Radio Show a month before the release of Freewheelin’ , he emphasised that every line in A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,could be a song and that during its composition he was writing songs while he could-not knowing how much time was left.Terkel  endorsed New York critic, Robert Shelton’s acclaim of Dylan’s early writings had correctly predicted that the song featuring hard rain would be a ‘classic’.

The hotbed of creativity sparked by the likes of The Clancy Brothers and an abundance of singer/songwriters in the clubs and bars of Greenwich Village, was supplemented by the influence of singers, absorbed on Dylan’s first visit to London in the Winter of 1962.Stalwarts of the English folk music scene such as Martin Carthy and Louis Killen showed young Dylan the drama and emotion of epic traditional ballads.Ever eager to expand on influences, it wasn’t long before the isolation of Lord Franklin’s doomed voyage to the Arctic was adapted to the melancholy of Bob Dylan’s Dream and wistful imagery showcased in Girl From The North Country.

I Shall Be Free is the final song on the record and gives a nod to the zeitgeist that moulded the elements of Freewheelin’.It includes references to the Civil Rights campaign and to President John F Kennedy, hailed as the hero of the averted Cuban Missile Crisis.In view of Dylan’s prominence as a writer and singer, it was no surprise that he and Joan Baez featured in the iconic Civil Rights March on Washington, led by Dr Martin Luther King in August 1963.A different mood would prevail in November of that year, when Kennedy, formerly the subject of Dylan’s affectionate quips would be assassinated in Dallas-just about a year after Freewheelin’ recordings began.

Nat Hentoff provides a masterclass in the art of writing sleevenotes for the album.Five decades on, it is interesting to read about the young, emerging subject of his praise .Also a valuable reminder of the raw power of that talent.In the 21 st century, as The Never Ending Tour travels the globe, it won’t be long before the Dylan caravan pulls up at another venue with a fair chance that a song from Freewheelin’ will be on the setlist.Very likely, Blowin’ in the Wind as an encore but there just may be a slinky version of Corrina Corrina with Dylan at the grand piano and Tony Garnier laying a groove on upright bass….

Signing off his notes for Freewheelin’, Nat Hentoff in typically perceptive style says,’……a young man growing free rather than absurd, that makes Bob Dylan so powerful and so personal and so important a singer.As you can hear in these performances’

Fifty years later, in a lengthy interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Dylan reflected on his music-and summed up his modus operandi.

‘……let’s not forget human nature isn’t bound to any specific time in history.And it always starts with that……’


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