Fifty years ago, Bob Dylan began his rapid emergence as a songwriter. His ascent was so fast and his songs so good that many believe Dylan ranks among the best songwriters who has ever lived.
It was May, 1963, when Dylan’s second album—"The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan"—was released by Columbia Records. Unlike his first album, named "Bob Dylan," the emerging artist wrote eleven of the songs, rather than just two.
Freewheelin’ opens with "Blowin' in the Wind," which would become one of the anthems of the 1960s, and an international hit for the folk trio, Peter, Paul & Mary. Then the album added other classics, including "Girl from the North Country," "Masters of War," "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."
This is the period, as told in Chronicles, that Dylan read 100-year-old newspapers at the New York Public Library. He did this to get a sense of timelessness in his writing as he told stories from newspaper headlines. Dylan's lyrics about civil rights and anxieties about the fear of nuclear warfare have stood the test of time, towering above other material written in that era.
Balancing the topical subjects were love songs, often bitter and accusatory, and songs that contain surreal humor. This was the time when Dylan’s talent broke into the open and flowered for all to see.
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan eventually went platinum. In 2003, the album was ranked number 97 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2002, Freewheelin' was one of the first 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.
The recording of Freewheelin' took place over the course of a year, from April 1962 to April 1963, and the album was assembled from eight recording sessions in the Columbia Records Studio A, 799 Seventh Avenue in New York City.
Clinton Heylin, a Dylan biographer, has connected the blossoming of Dylan’s lyrics along topical and political lines to the fact that he had moved into an apartment on West 4th Street with his girlfriend, the late Suze Rotolo, in January 1962.
Suze Rotolo, 2009 - Photo by Frank Beacham
Rotolo's family had strong left-wing political commitments; both of her parents were members of the American Communist Party. Dylan acknowledged her influence when he told an interviewer: "Suze was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was. I checked out the songs with her."
Dylan's relationship with Rotolo also provided an important emotional dynamic in the composition of the Freewheelin' album. After six months of living with Dylan, Rotolo agreed to her mother's proposal that she travel to Italy to study art. Dylan missed her and wrote long letters to her conveying his hope that she would return soon to New York.
She postponed her return several times, finally coming back in January 1963. Critics have connected the intense love songs expressing longing and loss on Freewheelin' to Dylan’s fraught relationship with Rotolo. In her autobiography, Rotolo explains that musicians' girlfriends were routinely described as "chicks," and she resented being regarded as "a possession of Bob, who was the center of attention.”
The tremendous speed and facility with which Dylan wrote topical songs attracted the attention of other musicians in the New York folk scene. In a radio interview on WBAI in June 1962, Pete Seeger described Dylan as "the most prolific songwriter on the scene" and then asked Dylan how many songs he had written recently.
Dylan replied, "I might go for two weeks without writing these songs. I write a lot of stuff. In fact, I wrote five songs last night but I gave all the papers away in some place called the Bitter End."
Dylan also expressed the impersonal idea that the songs were not his own creation. In an interview with Sing Out! magazine, Dylan said, "The songs are there. They exist all by themselves just waiting for someone to write them down. I just put them down on paper. If I didn't do it, somebody else would."
Last night, Bob Porco, grandson of Gerde’s Folk City owner Mike Porco, presented a 50th anniversary tribute to Dylan and his work on Freewheelin’. It was in the last building to house a Gerde’s Folk City, now called the Village Underground.
Terre Roche opened the show with a powerful "Blowin' in the Wind," followed by Randy Burns with “Girl from the North Country.” Willie Nininger did a crowd pleasing version of “Hard Rain,” while Judy Gorman performed Dylan’s “Masters of War.”
Other highlights were Samoa Wilson and Ernie Vega’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” Rick Illowite’s “Corrina, Corrina” and an updated and often funny “Talkin’ World War III Blues” by Poez.
To hear this package of excellent songs and to learn the entire album was recorded over the course of a single year is a bit hard to grasp. Even Dylan himself has said in recent interviews that he doesn’t know how he did it and most certainly couldn’t do it again. It has to be chalked up to a creative miracle.
When Freewheelin' was chosen one of 50 recordings to be added to the National Recording Registry in 2002, the citation read: "This album is considered by some to be the most important collection of original songs issued in the 1960s.” That statement is as true as ever on this 50th anniversary.
This outstanding group of folk singers did Dylan’s work justice in what was an fine tribute to the master’s work.