Outside of the various nightclubs in which he’d played throughout the south, few had heard of Robert Johnson in those immediate years following his death. But that began to change in 1961.
John Hammond was the head of Columbia Records—the same man who had tried to book Johnson years ago for a bill at Carnegie Hall, only to discover that he’d died just weeks before. By this time, Hammond already had a few feathers in his cap, having signed the likes of Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to the label. Now he was overseeing the production and release of King of the Delta Blues Singers, the compilation album featuring those original songs which Johnson recorded inauspiciously some 25 years ago in San Antonio.
The album would prove to be a monumental influence in the oncoming wave of rock and roll set to sweep the cultural landscape in a couple years.
One of the first people to hear the record before it was even released was a young artist Hammond had just signed to the label, an unassuming folk-singer mostly known in the Greenwich Village folk revival scene.
People knew him as the kid who sang Woody Guthrie songs, who talked and dressed like Guthrie, but whatever else John Hammond saw in Bob Dylan seems a bit of a mystery since there were other artists in the neighborhood arguably making a bigger splash at the time.
Nobody had any real indication that he wrote his own songs. Not John Hammond nor perhaps even Dylan himself.
His debut album, Bob Dylan, featured mostly traditional songs—some obscure, others well-known—songs that had been covered and performed various times in the clubs and cafes of Greenwich Village, not least of which included House of the Rising Sun, soon to be cemented as a classic by Eric Burdon and the Animals a few years later.
Even so, the album made very few waves. Personnel at Columbia were already regarding the kid as Hammond’s folly, as though he were some pet project everybody could overlook in light of Hammond’s already proven success.
When he listened to his album for the first time, Dylan later confessed, he was highly disturbed and he immediately felt the need to go out and make another record.
By this time, Hammond had given Dylan a preview of the Robert Johnson album set to be released by Columbia. And when Dylan heard it, like so many of his contemporaries to follow, he was greatly affected by the sound. Yet perhaps unlike his contemporaries—especially those blues-obsessed musicians gearing up in the U.K. who were more entranced by Johnson’s guitar playing—Dylan found that he was particularly drawn to the lyrics.
He describes it best in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume One:
I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction—themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them. I thought about Johnson a lot, wondered who his audience could have been. It’s hard to imagine sharecroppers or plantation field hands at hop joints, relating to songs like these. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future. -Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume 1 (2004)
Just how much hearing Johnson’s music influenced the making of Dylan’s next record, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, can only be guessed; but given Dylan’s own words on hearing the music, it seems at the very least that it might have inspired him to start heading in a more authentic and personal direction, that realizing Johnson’s profound originality might have further encouraged him to veer from covering the old folk standards and start getting serious about finding his own voice.
If so, then authenticity began with staying true to the times in which he lived, when the Cold War was at its peak and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing.
Unlike his previous record, Freewheelin’ would mostly feature original songs, songs that would quickly establish Dylan as an early voice in the underground folk revival now spreading across America as part of the emerging 1960s counter-culture.
Blowin‘ In the Wind, the album’s anthemic first track would prove to be one of the most celebrated and recognizable songs in Dylan repertoire, and the number of times it was covered in the ensuing months and years would bear testimony to its cultural and social relevance.
Now, for those readers looking to take their first dive into Dylan’s work, it’s difficult to pinpoint any one song or album to start, but I think one place that’s as good as any is The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, because in many ways, it’s his true first album. Though his previous self-titled debut did feature two original songs including Song for Woody, a tribute to his hero Woody Guthrie; I think Freewheelin’ marks the beginning of Dylan making his own path, taking those real first steps to becoming the artist he was looking to be.
Now of course, as is the case with Robert Johnson and so many of the artists we’ll be talking about in this series, it’s impossible to capture the scope and influence in an artist’s work in one article, so you can be sure we’ll be revisiting Dylan’s music in many more articles to come.
But in closing, for now, and in honor of these two giants of American Music and on that subtle art of conveying strong emotion and images through seemingly subtle means, here’s the opening verse of one of Dylan’s early songs off Freewheelin’, called Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.
It’s one of my personal favorites, and one in which I think the spirit of Robert Johnson looms quite heavily.
Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don’t know by now
Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It’ll never do anyhow
When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I’ll be gone
You’re the reason I’ll be travelin’ on
But don’t think twice it’s all right.
–Bob Dylan, ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right’