The early 1960s found hundreds of Woody Guthrie imitators and wannabes descending upon New York City. Robert Zimmerman arrived from Minnesota and quickly became known as a unique singer of traditional blues and folk songs.
Dylan was offered an audition with Columbia Records in the fall of 1961 by John Hammond. He performed before Hammond and Mitch Miller (yes that Mitch Miller) and was offered the standard five LP contract that all new artists received. Dylan quickly accepted. His audition tape has never surfaced from the Columbia archives.
He was signed as a singer and not as a songwriter. The folk music scene was picking up steam in the United States and record labels were scrambling to sign talent. The Columbia label hit the forty year jackpot with their signing of Bob Dylan.
He recorded his self titled album in November of 1961 for a cost of under a thousand dollars. Bob Dylan would be released in 1962 and fail to chart in the United States but would be a hit in England. The album consisted of seven traditional folk songs, a few classic blues tunes plus two originals.
Dylan’s first two original tunes ever released were direct opposites of each other. “Talkin’ New York” was a comical look at the big city from the viewpoint of a Midwesterner. “Song For Woody” is the first song that we have that shows Dylan painting a picture with words. It is a stark song based on Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre.” He was very aware of the legacy that the ill and dying Guthrie was leaving behind and this song was the best, and lasting, tribute that Dylan could create.
At this point in his career, he was at heart a folk singer. He had a large repertoire of traditional folk songs that he was performing live. He would record a number of these on his first album. “Man Of Constant Sorrow” and “Pretty Peggy-o” are older, classic folk songs re-worked by Dylan to fit his style. “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” would go through a number of incarnations during Dylan’s career and emerge as a rock song. Here in this simple interpretation, he is looking ahead toward the future. HE steals Dave Von Ronk’s version of “The House Of The Rising Sun,” which The Animals would then steal from him and turn it into their signature British invasion hit song.
Dylan’s interpretations of some old blues songs remain fascinating over 45 years later. He keeps alive the spirit of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” with a vocal close to the original. “In My Time Of Dyin’” finds Dylan straining vocally but in a good way. Compare this stripped down version to Led Zeppelin interpretation a decade later.
Given Bob Dylan’s subsequent career, Bob Dylan, may sound primitive, raw, and incomplete. The year was 1961 and it was a stunning first album. Through this release, he would rise to the top of the New York City folk scene and further cement that status with performances at The Newport Folk Festival. Having achieved that success in 1961; 1962 would see the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan which would begin to change the fabric of American music.