It is difficult to completely comprehend how monumental and necessary The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is both for Dylan and for music in general.
Not only does the album document one of the greatest artists of our time discovering his own unique identity both as a man and as artist, it also one of the rare albums in which traditions are transformed into timeless statements.
On his second album, Dylan utilizes traditional melodies and modes of folk storytelling to make poignant statements on how question, condemn, live and love.
Dylan’s eponymous debut fell flat essentially because it failed to do what Freewheelin so remarkably achieved. Dylan’s first album finds him at a point of great knowledge and ability in a folk sense (no small achievement after a mere 20 years on this Earth), but he had not yet mastered the art of transforming that knowledge into original songs.
Indeed, one of the biggest differences between Dylan’s first and second albums is that the former contained only two Dylan originals, while the latter featured 12 originals and only one traditional song—which Dylan, of course, made completely his own (“Corrina, Corrina”).
Of course, Dylan continued to borrow (steal) melodies and ideas from folk icons and contemporaries, but on Freewheelin’ his masterful grasp of language comes bursting out, resulting in the emergence of not only a great songwriter, but also a great communicator of human pain, wit and contemplation. By this point, virtually all of the tracks on Freewheelin’ have come to be revered.
The album opens with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which was already a hit by Peter, Paul and Mary (also under the management of Albert Grossman). “Blowin’ in the Wind,” sonically soft, makes a bold statement on the status quo. This statement is made clear through the song’s repetition of questions. In the liner notes Dylan writes, “The first way to answer these questions is by asking them.”
Dylan’s delivery and arrangement, however, makes it clear that he has had quite enough. Undoubtedly “Blowin’ in the Wind” will forever remain a Dylan classic because of its eloquence and insight, but to really pin down its true importance would, indeed, be simply chasing an answer in the wind.
More of Dylan’s contemplations come in “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” which is also a prime example of Dylan’s improvisational style. Less eloquent than “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is much more witty.
The sarcastic commentary on paranoid hot dog who scream a bit, mistaking Dylan for a Communist, however gives way to a greater statement on the growing distrust among the people.
In the final verse Dylan juxtaposes an alleged Lincoln quote that “Half of the people can be part right all of the time / Some of the people can be all right part of the time / But all the people can’t be right all the time” against “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours,” boldly taking ownership of the latter.
In this way, Dylan sets his aside his enumerated contemplations for the moment in order to assert his own worldview—a practice that set him apart from more purist contemporaries, and one he would continue to utilize.
Freewheelin’s love songs transcend ordinary love songs for their wit and authentic tenderness. Clearly, Dylan was just beginning to discover how to allow his emotions to inform his lyrics, and the poetic wit he utilizes in Freewheelin’s love songs is evidence of some level of discomfort.
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” at once both tender and full of wit, is perhaps the best example of Dylan guarding his pain beneath a clever veneer. Although Dylan is perhaps one of the best liars of our age, nothing can disguise his pain, and his newfound songwriting self betrays his fabricated careless troubadour self in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
The “finger pointin’ songs” on Freewheelin’ include the brash “Masters of War” and “Oxford Town.” Although both powerful songs (the more powerful being “Masters of War”) it is now clear why Dylan never truly accepted the identity of “protest singer.”
Although there is no doubt Dylan’s legacy is still one characterized by political and social dissent, Dylan’s own disaffectedness towards these songs indicates that they were more musings that had to be gotten off the chest rather than obsessions he held in his core. Dylan surely believed in the power of music to transform, but is a good thing he never decided to rest his laurels on his more polemical songs.
The one song that stands out most, however, stood out even from the beginning. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” continues to shine as the brightest track from Freewheelin’. Since it’s first performance at Carnegie Hall on September 22, 1962, “Hard Rain” has utterly flabbergasted listeners. Easily the album’s most complex song, “Hard Rain” is perhaps its most iconic and important because it packs all of Freewheelin’s essential qualities into one song.
Framed as a conversation between a father and son, it enumerates the son’s experiences out in the world in a manner similar to the enumerations of Dylan’s contemplations found elsewhere on the album. The commentary in “Hard Rain,” however, is carefully constructed—each verse is essentially an episode in the son’s realization of the world.
Taking this constructions one step further, however, Dylan arranges the verses into a poetic structure based on sense and experience, exploring where “the darling young one” has been, what he has seen and heard, who he has met and what he will now do. Again, Dylan is unafraid to assert his view, warning repeatedly that “a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
While to the audience of the time it seemed Dylan was referring to imminent nuclear fallout, Dylan himself has refuted this interpretation. Dylan’s own interpretation that “the pellets of poison are flooding the waters’ means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers” is indeed more timeless, as we still have that problem today. As with all great songs, great literature even, the piece’s ability to evoke various interpretations only proves its integrity.
This is why The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Dylan himself have remained so vital to our culture through the years. In Freewheelin’ Dylan discovered how to allow himself, and therefore a more human, less studied element, into his songs. On The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, it is Dylan’s use of language to explore common themes and make bold statements on the nature of our lives that is, and continues to be, his greatest gift to give.