This album is young, bare, green. I listened to it while making a turkey sandwich. The Dylan on the cover sports the soft, pudgy cheeks of a youth still clinging to his baby fat. The tracks feature just his straining voice, his playful harmonica, and his deftly played, richly textured acoustic guitar. All but two of the songs–“Talkin’ New York” and “Song for Woody”–are folk traditionals, such as “House of the Rising Sun” and “Pretty Peggy-O.” Though his performance is impressive–even virtuosic–as he embodies a collection of folk songs collected from the New York scene, missing are his trademark turns of phrase and cutting lyrical insight. He hadn’t gotten there yet, and I tried to remember that as I listened.
In everything but the lyrics, we can hear Dylan laying foundations. Listen to the traipsing guitar-harmonica interplay on “Highway 51 Blues.” Listen to him contort his voice to sound strikingly like a train whistle in “Freight Train Blues.” His vocals are all over the place. If he were one of my students, I’d ask him to settle down. The adrenalized performance was only slightly more interesting than my turkey sandwich.
Do I get this album? Yeah, it’s Dylan’s first take on folk music, and he innovates in his performance and arrangement if not in his writing. Do I need to hear the earlier albums to get it? Knowing some Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger would help to recognize just where Dylan is breaking new ground, though I think a Greenwich Village influence on those standards comes through pretty clear. Do I like it? Yeah, it’s pretty good. I’m eager to hear how Dylan expands his style into more original songs.