How Bob Dylan Took Flight

'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' transformed his career – and American songwriting

April 2, 2013 6:30 PM ET
'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' by Bob Dylan.
'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' by Bob Dylan.

Even if you were among the handful of people who bought Bob Dylan's 1962 self-titled debut, you couldn't have predicted The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the 1963 folkie touchstone where Dylan transformed American songwriting and blew the minds of everyone from his coffeehouse compatriots to the Beatles.

The debut album was mainly folk covers, with two rather unmemorable originals; Dylan and producer John Hammond had cut the whole thing in just two days. The label brass at Columbia Records took to calling Dylan "Hammond's Folly," and Hammond was determined to prove them wrong. Fortunately for him, a flood of songs began pouring out of Dylan in the months after the debut had hit shelves. Dylan's girlfriend, Suze Rotolo (that's her with Dylan on the album cover), helped him take an active interest in the Civil Rights struggle, which sparked new ideas and fresh material. Recording began in late April, 1962 and didn't conclude until early December, though Dylan only spent six actual days in the studio. He spent the downtime testing out the new material in coffee houses around New York.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Bob Dylan, 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan'

By the end, Dylan had an absolutely staggering collection of songs that included "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" and "Girl From the North Country." The disc originally included the politically charged "Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues," but Columbia made him drop the charge fearing it would invite a libel lawsuit. By this point they had already shipped a few copies of the LP, and they are now quite valuable on the collector's market.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan landed in May 1963 and wasn't an immediate hit. But soon Joan Baez (then at the peak of her fame) began bringing Dylan onstage during her solo concerts. Peter, Paul and Mary also scored a huge hit with their cover of "Blowin' in the Wind" that summer. All the attention caused countless young people across the country to pick up Freewheelin', which  created the indelible image of Dylan as the lone folk troubadour singing songs about injustice and war. It would prove to be a hard image to shake.

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