Life of an Artist: A New Interpretation of Bob Dylan – The Woody Guthrie Era (Late 1959 – Early 1964)

In early January 1961, a baby-faced 20 year old Bob Dylan rambled into New York City. He had been performing on stage and with bands for as long as he could remember. Only now, it meant meant more. New York meant more. It was where the record companies were. It was the center of the Folk explosion.

The Woody Guthrie era started in late 1959 and ended January 13, 1964. It would encompass his first three albums, Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and The Times They Are a-Changin.’ It would be the era that would see Dylan languish in obscurity to being the toast of Greenwich Village.

It was also the place where his musical idol Woody Guthrie lay dying in a hospital. Guthrie had influenced Dylan so much that the Minnesota born singer adopted the Oklahoma born Folk singer’s manner of dress and as well as his singing style.

Like Guthrie, he would play anywhere that would have him. The voice was throaty and a bit gruff, like any self-respecting ramblin’ folkie or blues musician. The guitar playing was functional but blazed no new paths. His song writing was a work in progress and thus his first album, the self-titled 1962 release, contained mostly cover songs which Dylan performed with his usual Guthrie-esque aplomb.

His self-titled debut was the climax of his Woody Guthrie phase, even though Freewheelin’ and Times contained little snippets here and there. Critics weren’t impressed by Dylan’s interpretation of Guthrie.

“At the time of its release, however, Bob Dylan received little notice, and both Hammond and Dylan were soon dismissive of the first album’s results. In the April 14, 1962 issue of Billboard magazine it was highlighted as a ‘special merit’ release, saying; “(Dylan) is one of the most interesting, and most disciplined youngster to appear on the pop-folk scene in a long time” and “moving originals such as “Song to Woody” and “Talkin’ New York”. Dylan when he finds his own style, could win a big following.” Despite this positive notice, the album also did not initially sell well and Dylan was for a time known as “Hammond’s Folly” in record company circles. Mitch Miller, Columbia’s chief of A&R at the time, said U.S. sales totaled about 2,500 copies. Bob Dylan remains Dylan’s only release not to chart whatsoever in the U.S., although it eventually reached No.  13 in the UK charts in 1965. Despite the album’s poor sales, it was not a financial disaster because it was very cheap to record.

As his songwriting picked up, the Woody Guthrie persona began to fade into the background, beginning with his second album Freewheelin.’ Humor began to dominate his songs. The language, once that of simple folk, became more luxurious, the stuff of poets.

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