Archive for the ‘Folk Music’ Category

Bob Dylan, when unplugged just meant acoustic

January 16, 2008

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The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Accounts vary wildly as to what transpired the night Bob Dylan took the stage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. At least one promoter of the event insists to this day that nothing unusual happened. A few behind-the-scenes people claim that famously mild-mannered folk legend Pete Seeger threatened to take an axe to the sound cable, an allegation he later denied. Most journalists who were there, though, agree that when Dylan started playing, people started booing. The booing and protests grew with each song, and after three numbers, Dylan left the stage. What had caused the crowd to turn on the popular rising star, seen by many as the heir apparent to Woody Guthrie? He had played an electric guitar. With an electric back-up band.

After some coaxing by fellow musician Peter Yarrow, Dylan came back on stage solo, with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. He did two more numbers that calmed the crowd and got them applauding again. But the message to folk purists that night could be summed up by the last song he chose to play: It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

By the time I discovered Dylan, all this brouhaha was music history—and amusing history at that. I had no problem with his harder edged, electrified music. Like A Rolling Stone is one of my favorite Dylan tunes, as are the driving Subterranean Homesick Blues and angry Positively 4th Street.

That said, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his breakthrough second album originally released in 1963 when he was not yet 22, remains my favorite. All thirteen tracks are Dylan himself—his words, his raspy young voice [still the quintessential Dylan sound to me], an acoustic guitar and an occasional harmonica [seemingly always at the ready in the holder slung around his neck]. This is the Bob Dylan you would have heard in CafĂ© Wha? or some other Greenwich Village club.

When the music is this stripped down, there’s nowhere to hide. Everything has to work. What strikes me most when I get beyond the lyrics and the iconic Dylan voice is the masterful guitar playing. From the mournful delta blues sound on Down the Highway to the lyrical picking on Girl from the North Country and the hard, expressive strumming on Masters of War, his playing is a perfect blend of technique and emotion.

But in the end, it is the lyrics, it is the songs. Protest songs like Blowin’ in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall and the aforementioned Masters of War all feel chillingly relevant today with the likes of Hurricane Katrina and Iraq. The timely social satire of Talkin’ World War III Blues and inspired goofiness of Bob Dylan’s Blues evoke both Woody Guthrie and one important part of the whole folk music idiom. And Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right is about as eloquent and sad a break-up song as you’ll ever hear.

In this YouTube video of Dylan’s song Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, You’ll hear some of the songwriting and great skills as a performer that made Dylan so important so early on. The music is laid over a montage of footage, some of it very cool, a little bit of it just plain goofy. What is it with guys with editing programs and too much time on their hands?

Got a lot of Dylan in your collection? Got none? Doesn’t matter. If you don’t have The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, you need it.