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Dylan's Outlaw Blues - Happy Birthday Bob

24 May 2020

Bob Dylan can easily be described as the greatest songwriter of the past sixty-years. Today he turns 79 years young, a cause for celebration. Since his debut in 1962, Bob has released 39 albums, and now he is about to release album number 40 -‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’. Some of his albums are  works of brilliance that have a place amongst the greatest albums of all time, on par with the Beatles, at times even surpassing them. So with an edge of honouring the legend, I take an in-depth look back six-decades to his sixties creative flourishes. 


Bob Dylan lit the fuse for the anti-establishment voice that still burns today. In-turn becoming the architect of the ‘flower power’ generation. If you think of the timeline, the assassination of JFK in November 1963, then imagine that in the May before that tragedy,Bob Dylan released his second album, entitled The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. This cry for peace of the sixties generation erupted from the Greenwich Village Cafes as if a tsunami of anarchic hope. A soundtrack firmly placed in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.

It is perhaps for a man of twenty-two, an album of considerable depth, and maturity. A far removed outing from his self-titled debut which only contained two originals. The Freewheelin’.. by comparison, contained eleven original songs. That  leap of artistic depth was in a similar vein to that of Robert Johnson, the blues, soul-selling troubadour.

These songs are collected, and surrounded by one of the most iconic album covers. Showing Dylan as he casts an almost James Dean aura. With the show of human affection, courtesy of a hugging and smiling Suze Rotolo. The two simply enjoying each other’s company, walking through Greenwich Village. Rotolo,the girl who provided the emotional glue to Dylan’s songwriting,from their apartment on West 4th Street (“Positively 4th Street”) Dylan would take her freethinking influence, American-communist upbringing, and forge slowly his creations. Using her ideals and building on them.

To say Suze Rotolo impacted Dylan’s writing more so than Woody Guthrie is by no way an overstretched one. The speed at which Dylan worked to capture the downturn of both the spirits, and the anxieties of a nation was breathtaking. Even fifty-seven years on his music is as relevant in the state of the States. Dylan’s anti-war protest songs were never more evident than here. A genre he fell into as he has stated himself in the years long after, he never set out to be a protest singer although hugely influenced by Woody Guthrie.

From the opening,”‘Blowing In The Wind”, where ‘no solution’ can be reached, where there is no answer to the questions the government asks of itself. And the only alternative is through nuclear means, and death.Thus beginning the theme at the centre of the album. Stopping at interludes such as “Girl  From The North Country” a poignant love song, making sure not to immerse the album as a complete protest statement. Evident again in the hypnotic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. A masterful song based on a traditional arrangement, but in Dylan’s hands the tone was turned to his muse of the day Rotolo,who had left for Italy for a prolonged stay in 1962.The song,a tale of love and loss, covered famously by the late Johnny Cash amongst others. Such are the songs on the album, still widely covered and repeated but never with the same blues soul of Bob Dylan.

His astounding “Masters Of War”, fully displaying an attack at the world’s governments, Dylan’s voice has a maturity beyond his short years, helped no doubt by the cold and hard living in New York. The first side of the record itself remains strong, ending with the nuclear winter of “A Hard Rain’s A- Gonna Fall”. Every verse the start of a new song, condensed together into one sprawling prediction. Dylan’s music resonated with a nation and then the world. His influence touched the world’s greatest musical unit, the Beatles. Their ‘Rubber Soul’ album, altered for release in the States to give it a more folk appeal, the Beatles always wore this influence on their sleeve.

After his debut album was largely ignored, now Bob Dylan was the cusp of a UK number one album, a survival monthly royalty cheque, and artistic appeal which was a quest of his journey. Although a little under two years later nobody knew he would take the stage in Newport with an electric guitar, and make a long lasting mark unequalled in music.

Electric Judas 

Newport, Rhode Island, 25th of July 1965. In the cold evening air a shade wearing Bob Dylan changed the course of history. A revolutionary spit in the face of the old guard folk players who he was surrounded by that night. Walking on stage carrying a black stratocaster, not his usual weapon of choice, as an acoustic guitar was his machine used effectively to power the voice of generation. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band waiting on stage with a temporary leader, a seventeen-year old Mike Bloomfield ready to breath fire into the Rhode Island air.

The ‘boos’ that followed only driving the night’s outsider spirit, partly because of the material Dylan performed. On a whim, and partially because of the short fifteen minutes it lasted as people felt they were being ripped off. The intention was for a normal acoustic set, but his disregard for the treatment of The Paul Butterfield blues band, along with comments made by festival organiser, Alan Lomax had prompted his change of plan just 24 hours before he was due to take the stage. This decision to go against the old guard, who he felt were trying to keep the electricity out of the folk scene. That night it is said Dylan “electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other”.

The first take off in this new direction, a heavy electrified “Maggie’s Farm”. Then the single,released five days previously, his monumental “Like A Rolling Stone”. It was probably around this time that the late Pete Seeger was looking for an axe to cut the cables. The surviving footage shows the poor sound quality, Seeger always stated it was ‘apparently’ for this reason, and not because he was trying to stop the desecration of the festival with rock and roll, in the fear of diluting the folk community. The sets closer,a powerful, and early rendition of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, to further ‘boos’, but now as many cheers.

After leaving the stage Dylan, was encouraged back to do acoustic numbers by Pete Yarrow, and stay faithful to the festival audience. Surprisingly he did, performing  two songs on acoustic guitar, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and then “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The last song Dylans ironic goodbye to folk music and the festival.

What Bob Dylan did, should not have come as any surprise, just maybe the place and time he did it. His previous offering released in March of the same year Bringing It All Back Home contained the rollicking “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. A completely electric affair that even came with its own video. Half the album in fact was electric, peaking at number six in the billboard charts. Dylan’s highest charting album to that point. Containing such tracks as the Byrds covered “Mr.Tambourine Man”. The aforementioned “Maggie’s Farm”, and “Outlaw Blues”, Dylan’s acceptance here of his new yearn to change style and not hide behind the politically motivated folk songs, in some ways a signal of the obvious change that was going to happen.

Dylan’s take on the  Americas discovery,the highly enjoyable “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”. The hallucinate dream inspiring “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, a love song with a twisted imagery,a forerunner of “Visions Of Johanna”. Bringing It All Back Home is a soundtrack to the novel On The Road Again, a somewhat inspired Bohemian, Jack Kerouac style. It is a remarkable album, folk lyrics put to rock music,testament alone by it’s acceptance by both the folk and rock communities. And the starting point for Dylan’s blast off into electric adventures.

The follow up, the magnificent Highway 61 Revisited, was already taking shape for an August release. Mike Bloomfield again used to devastating effect on tracks such as “Tombstone Blues”. The late Bloomfield’s talent was let loose, Al Kooper the guitarist, now substituted to a keyboard and organ role,gave the album an amateurish rock quality. Again here, like the previous album, the folk stylings put to electricity worked powerfully well. From the snare drum opening of “Like A Rolling Stone”, to the albums closer, the eleven minute, urban chaos of “Desolation Row”. 

The result of the two albums success, opened doors for other folk-style artists to go rock and put their lyrics to songs with electric instruments. Simon And Garfunkel, The Byrds, Neil Young, all taking influence from that one moment in time which resonated through the music industry.