Bob Dylan's Folk Masterpieces Renewed

High-quality digital reissues prove Dylan's first five acoustic albums transcend all audio formats

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Happy Birthday Bob

On September 16th, fifteen Bob Dylan albums will be released as hybrid super-audio CDs. That means they can be played both on SACD systems, which will obviously maximize all of the new technology's sonic enhancements, as well as on other types of CD players. I'm not an audiophile, to say the least, and I don't have SACD equipment, but to me these discs sound terrific – clear and full, but without the distracting attention to insignificant detail that often mars high-end audio technology. Too many audiophiles reduce music to the sum of its separate parts; they concentrate on what each individual player is doing, not on the ensemble and the overall sound. When you're talking about songs by one of the greatest songwriters of our time, that could be a disastrous problem. But on these discs you hear the song and the performance as a whole, and the newly revealed details only strengthen the general effect. They're quite impressive.

But this column is not about the sound of these CDs, it's about Dylan and a specific period in his life and work. Beginning in the Sixties, when he first started to record, I've played Dylan's albums in every format that has come along: 45-rpm vinyl singles, 33 1/3-rpm vinyl LPs, eight-track tapes (!), cassettes and CDs. I've listened carefully to his early records, his most recent ones and everything he's done in between. When I received advance copies of these SACD versions, I had another welcome occasion to revisit his work. These fifteen albums are drawn from every period in his storied career, so I thought I would simply start with the earliest ones: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which came out in May of 1963; Another Side of Bob Dylan, which appeared in August of 1964, and Bringing It All Back Home, which was released in March of 1965.

To be honest, I rarely got beyond listening to those three discs. I had heard them many times before, of course, but this time, for some reason, they overwhelmed me. The first two are all-acoustic -- just Dylan alone, accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica. Bringing It All Back Home, on the other hand, is a transitional record. Back in the days of two-sided vinyl LPs, one side of this album consisted of a kind of loose-limbed folk-rock, which Dylan recorded with electric instruments. (Those songs, in fact, could be thought of as the invention of folk-rock, though they did not have the defining impact in that regard that Dylan's legendary next album, Highway 61 Revisited, would have upon its release five months later.) The album's extraordinary second side – "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Gates of Eden," "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," as strong a four-song run as you will find anywhere – is essentially acoustic. They're tightly focused on Dylan and his guitar, with subtle second guitar and bass accompaniment.

I found myself completely gripped by the mesmerizing power of the performances on those three albums, and realized that hardly anyone speaks about them any more. Oh, I know that Dylan standing alone with an acoustic guitar strapped on and a harmonica brace resting on his chest is among our culture's most indelible images, the spokesman of his generation proclaiming truth to power. But I began to understand how that iconic, reverential image of Dylan gives people a reason not to have to grapple with what he was really doing during this period. It's as if the cliched version – he was a "protest singer" like Woody Guthrie for a few years, and then he went electric and really became important – has buried the power and complexity, the struggle, of those early songs.

My impressions might be skewed by the fact that the two most one-dimensional of Dylan's early albums – his 1962 debut, Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin', the first of the three albums he released in 1964 – are not yet part of the SACD reissue program. Bob Dylan froze the idea of Bob as Woody Jr.; Changin' forever fixed the image of Protest Bob. But Freewheelin', Another Side and, God knows, the four tracks on Bringing It All Back Home paint a far more complicated portrait of a far more complicated artist.

Freewheelin' opens with "Blowin' in the Wind," itself a stranger and more wistful song that it's often thought to be. "A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall" presages the hallucinatory lyrics that Dylan would be writing very soon; a line like "I saw a white ladder all covered in water" defies literal interpretation (although it did provide an album title for David Gray). Gentle love songs like "Corrina, Corrina" and "Girl From the North Country" jostle against the bitter denunciations of "Masters of War," the taunting regret of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and the yearning recollection of lost youth that is "Bob Dylan's Dream," a song he wrote when he was all of twenty-one. Far from being narrowly consistent, each song is like an album, or at least a short story, in itself.

By the time of Another Side, a mere fifteen months later, Dylan had already grown weary of the righteousness of the protest movement, as he makes clear on the immortal "My Back Pages," with its definitive write-off of his own past: "I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now." "Chimes of Freedom," meanwhile, is a sweet, existential prayer for "every hung-up person in the whole wide universe." Finally, "Ballad in Plain D" and "It Ain't Me Babe" are examples of a genre that would become a Dylan staple – the dismissive kiss-off, laced with equal parts anger, corrupted affection and exhaustion. As with Freewheelin', listening to the album straight through is a devastating emotional journey.

As for those four songs on Bringing It All Back Home, each is a masterpiece. Seven months after Another Side, Dylan is now writing a kind of phantasmagoric poetry that he borrowed from the Beats and transformed into folk music from the deepest reaches of imagination. "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Gates of Eden" are wildly romantic introductions to every promise of transformation that the Sixties made, while "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" takes up where "My Back Pages" left off. It's a rueful but clear farewell to anyone with expectations of what Bob Dylan should be. In subsequent decades, there would be many more such songs to come. And if you haven't heard "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" recently – or if you've never heard it – you really must listen to it as soon as you can. In the atmosphere of dread currently pervading our society, the song is more brilliantly cogent now than at any other time since Watergate.

So if you've been preoccupied with Dylan's contemporary doings, or with his rock & roll high points, you'd be well rewarded to visit these early back pages of his acoustic work. You'll be surprised at the treasures you find there, and even more surprised at how much more they have to say about the present than the past.

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