On this day in 1963, Bob Dylan—who has a birthday three days before–firmly cemented himself in mainstream folk music with the album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Before that, he’d released a self-titled album in 1962. This featured only two original songs by the future Nobel Prize winner. On this album, 11 out of 13 songs were penned by Dylan; it was those surreal, poetic, imagery-rich lyrics that catapulted him into the public eye.
“The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” features songs like the 60s anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the almost 7-minute long “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and the heavily covered “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” It was the start of Dylan branching out into traditional folksy melodies with imaginative lyrics, showcasing his writing talent.
This album is occasionally poignant, occasionally goofy, and a great introductory course in Bob Dylan, who will be releasing a new book in the fall. Looking to get into Dylan? In my opinion, start here.
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Tracks on ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’
Blowin’ In the Wind
“How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man? […] The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind / The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
This song was taken on as a protest song when it debuted, as it poses a series of rhetorical questions about war, peace, manhood, and freedom. It has a simple melody, a gentle acoustic sound, but it asks profound questions to which there are no answers. The nature of the line “the answer is blowin’ in the wind” has been often debated; either the answers to these questions are glaringly obvious, or they’re completely intangible and unattainable. Either way, it’s easy to see how this song became a 60s anthem.
‘Masters of War’
“You put a gun in my hand / And you hide from my eyes / And you turn and run farther / When the fast bullets fly.”
“Masters of War” has a repetitive melody, but Dylan’s lyrical genius really shines here. This song was in direct protest to the Cold War, which began in 1947. The nuclear arms race came to a head in 1962, when the JFK administration failed to overthrow Castro, and the Soviet Union’s Khrushchev secretly placed nuclear warheads in Cuba.
The album notes mention that this song startled Dylan, and quotes him as saying, “I’ve never written anything like that before. I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out […] a feeling of what can you do?”
‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’
“I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests / I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans / I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.”
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is another song inspired by Bob Dylan’s fear of nuclear apocalypse. In 1963, Dylan explained, “Every line in [‘A Hard Rain’] is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs, so I put all I could into this one.”
This song reads like a poem, and it’s no wonder he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has a true poetic voice, and an excellent grasp of language, but of course, any Bob Dylan fan knows this. If you know me at all, you know I love long songs with imagery-heavy lyrics (my favorite song, Joanna Newsom’s “Only Skin,” is almost 17 minutes long), so it’s no wonder I latched onto “A Hard Rain.” It’s repetitive, yes, but it’s also full of texture and richness.
“I met a young child beside a dead pony / I met a white man who walked a black dog,” Dylan sings; as a poet, I’m smitten with this song. As a person who listens to music, the melody is simple. But, that’s the wonder of Bob Dylan; on this album, he took simple acoustic melodies and blew them wide open with his masterful lyrics. Listening to “A Hard Rain” is like what I imagine the creation of the universe looked like; it’s celestial, it’s full of light, and it’s cracking my third eye wide open.