50 Years Ago Today: Bob Dylan Released His Debut Album
When Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut LP hit shelves on March 19th, 1962, it didn’t sound anything like the popular music of the time. It was the height of “The Twist” dance craze, and 11 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart had the word “twist” in the title, including “Dear Lady Twist” by Gary U.S. Bonds, “Twistin’ The Night Away” by Sam Cooke, “Hey, Let’s Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starlighters,” “Twistin’ Postman” by the Marvelettes and “Alvin Twist” by the Chipmunks. (A new California group called the Beach Boys reached a new high of Number 77 that week with their first single, “Surfin.'”)
To most of America, the Kingston Trio were the embodiment of folk music. The clean-cut, sweet-voiced California group hit Number 25 that week with their cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” Dylan was also a fan of Seeger’s, but he sounded nothing like the Kingston Trio. The 20-year old singer-songwriter from Hibbing, Minnesota had been playing the coffee houses in New York for a little over a year, mostly singing traditional folk songs in a nasal voice that was virtually impossible to imagine hearing on the radio.
It was Columbia record executive John Hammond who saw the huge potential in Dylan. The 51-one year old, who famously discovered Billie Holiday and countless other jazz legends, became acquainted with Dylan when he played harmonica at a recording session with folk singer Carolyn Hester. They met during a rehearsal in a Greenwich Village apartment. “We were all seated around a kitchen table, and John was seated next to Bob,” Hester recalled to Dylan biographer Howard Sounes in his book Down The Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan. “Bob starts in on the harmonica and John turns and looks at him and couldn’t take his eyes off the great character.” His interest grew when he learned that Dylan wrote his own songs.
Right around that time, Dylan opened up for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerde’s Folk City and earned a rave review in the New York Times by pop writer Robert Shelton. Hammond didn’t need any more convincing; on October 25th, 1961, he signed Dylan to a five-year contract. A little more than a month later, they entered the studio together to record Dylan’s first album. They cut the whole thing in just six hours (spread across two days) for an estimated $402.
“There was a violent, angry emotion running through me then,” Dylan said. “I just played played guitar and harmonica and sang those songs, and that was it. Mr. Hammond asked me if I wanted to sing any of them over again and I said no. I can’t see myself singing the same song twice in a row. That’s terrible.”
Much like his live set at the time, the album consisted mainly of old folk songs, including “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” by Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Highway 51” by Curtis Jones and “Fixin’ to Die” by Bukka White. It was his rendition of “The House of The Rising Sun” that caused him trouble in the tight-knit Greenwich Village folk music community. Dave Van Ronk – one of Dylan’s earliest supporters and a huge presence in the Village – was famous for his arrangement of the traditional tune. “Before going in the studio, he asked, ‘Hey Dave, mind if I record your version of “Rising Sun?'” Van Ronk recalled to Dylan biographer Anthony Scaduto. “I said, ‘Well, Bobby, I’m going into the studio soon and I’d like to record it.’ And later he asked me again and I told him I wanted to record it myself, and he said, ‘Oops, I already recorded it and I can’t do anything about it because Columbia wants it.’ For a period of about two months we didn’t speak to each other. He never apologizes, and I give him credit for it.”
The album did contain two original songs: “Talkin’ New York” and “Song to Woody.” The first song recounts Dylan’s earliest days in New York when he “got a harmonica job, begun to play/Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day.” Dylan claims he wrote “Song to Woody,” a tribute to his musical hero Woody Guthrie, just weeks after arriving in New York, a trip partially inspired by the fact that Guthrie was living at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey and Dylan wanted to meet him. “(‘Song to Woody’) was written in New York City in the drugstore on 8th Street,” he said to Sing Out! magazine in the summer of 1962. “It was one of them freezing days that I came back from Sid and Bob Gleason’s in East Orange, New Jersey…Woody was there that day and it was a February Sunday night…and I just thought about Woody, I wondered about him, thought harder and wondered harder…I wrote this song in five minutes…it’s all I got to say.”
The album failed to crack the Billboard charts and sold about 5,000 copies that year. Executives around Columbia referred to Dylan as “Hammond’s Folly.” Undeterred, Hammond brought Dylan back into the studio just one month after the album came out to begin work on his second LP. In the five months after the first album was recorded, Dylan had turned his attention towards political causes. He recorded “The Death of Emmett Till” and “Talkin’ John Birth Paranoid Blues” at the first session, and in July of 1962, he returned to Columbia Studio A with a new song called “Blowin’ In The Wind.” It had been a part of his live show for months, and by the next summer, it would completely transform his life.