Bob Dylan moved from Minnesota to New York in January 1961, with the goal of earning a reputation in the folk-music scene. Right away, he started making a name for himself. Dylan befriended his idol Woody Guthrie; by April, he was opening for blues legend John Lee Hooker; by September, he was the subject of a rapturous New York Times review. In November, he was going into the studio to make his first album for Columbia Records. All of that, though, didn’t translate to having an audience: When Dylan played Carnegie Chapter Hall a few weeks before he recorded Bob Dylan, there were only 53 attendees.
At the time, Dylan was still discovering his creative voice, as he devoured folk and blues records, grabbed tunes from his contemporaries and worked up his stage persona. He also hadn’t yet made his bones as a songwriter. At the Bob Dylan sessions (overseen by legendary A&R man John Hammond, who’d signed him), only four of the 17 songs he played were originals, only two of those four made the cut for the final record, and both of those two were deeply indebted to Guthrie. “The producer asked me to make an album by myself,” Dylan said in a 1962 interview. “There was a violent, angry emotion running through me then; I don’t know why. I just played guitar and harmonica … and sang those songs and that was it.” (He wasn’t entirely by himself in the studio, though: His girlfriend Suze Rotolo was present, and he used her lipstick holder as a slide on “In My Time of Dyin’.”)
Bob Dylan is clearly the work of a young artist who’s got astonishing gifts, even if he hasn’t quite figured out what he wants to do with them. “When Bob first started playing in coffeehouses, he was an incomparable performer of traditional music,” says guitarist David Bromberg, an early associate of Dylan’s who went on to record with him several times. “I mean, he was really spectacular.” Dylan told Hammond that the material he recorded for the album was “some stuff I’ve written, some stuff I’ve discovered, some stuff I stole,” as if there were no real distinction between those categories.
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In fact, his high-octane performances blurred the lines between some very different bodies of music, including Scottish balladry (“Pretty Peggy-O”), New York folk-scene standards (the Appalachian tune “Man of Constant Sorrow”), Twenties Texas blues (Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”) and even the work of his contemporaries: The album’s opening track, “You’re No Good,” was written by Jesse Fuller, a Bay Area one-man band who didn’t even record it himself until 1963. As Dylan put it in 1984, “When I started, I combined other people’s styles unconsciously… . I wasn’t as good technically as, say, Erik Darling [of the Weavers] or Tom Paley [of the New Lost City Ramblers]. So I had to take the songs and make them mine in a different way. It was the early folk music done in a rock way, which was the first kind of music I played.”
By the time Bob Dylan was released in March 1962, Dylan had started writing songs in earnest. “That’s not me,” he said in August 1963 about his debut. “There was only a couple of my stories on it.” The album was a commercial bomb initially, but the Greenwich Village folk scene took notice of the rising star in its midst. “He was on Columbia Records, and that was a big deal,” says Minnesota folk artist Tony Glover, a peer of Dylan’s early on. “As far as I was concerned, he’d made it.”