Arriving in New York aged 19 in the winter of 1961 with his guitar on his back, a great career was not the first thing on young Dylan’s mind. Walking the streets, sleeping here and there, and playing in the coffee houses and folk clubs in Greenwich Village, New York, is what he was doing. Learning as many folk songs as he could, is what he was aiming at.
Folk music was a popular genre at the time. The guys on the scene sang traditionals and other songs from the extensive catalogue of folk songs. They rearranged the songs, made changes to the tunes, the chords, and the lyrics, but rarely made up new songs of their own. Dylan followed that pattern.
Woody Guthrie was highly rated in people's consciousness and not least so in Bob Dylan's head. He admired the way the old folk singer expressed himself, the language he used; and the stuff he was singing about was serious stuff. He was fascinated by the life Guthrie had had rambling all over the USA, though now sick and hospitalized. He was the number one hero and inspiration to young Dylan as well as to many others. Dylan himself had read Guthrie’s book, Bound for Glory, and was fascinated. He adapted the way of talking of the hobo characters in the book, beginning to talk that way himself, and he also used this parlance in his songs and has done so more or less ever since. The result has become a unique combination of down-to-earth expressions, literary and philosophical references, plus extraordinary sensitivity and intelligence. Surprisingly as it may seem, the combination turned out to be a recipe of high carat poetry.
Dylan visited Woody Guthrie at the hospital and in his home and played the old man’s songs to him, and he wrote what he later describes as the first important song of his own. The title was Song To Woody, and it was recorded to his first album, Bob Dylan, released in 1962. An unconditional tribute to the old folksinger. He thought it a must to sing this song, but as no one had written it yet, he had to do it himself.
But hold on a minute. It was no obvious thing for a stray folk singer biding his time in coffee-shops around MacDougal Street, New York City, to release albums. And the few musicians that did, did it on Folkways Records and similar minor record companies. Dylan’s road from something to something more was going to be a different one. In fact Folkways strangely enough turned him down. It was Dylan's luck, however, if you believe in such a thing as luck, that John Hammond, a high executive at Columbia Records, spotted him and offered him the opportunity to record an album.
It was downright unthinkable that Columbia Records would release an album with a folk singer. All their artists were neat people with neat voices and nothing on their mind. But Hammond wanted Dylan and that meant a profound boost to the young singer’s career. Not that the first album was very well received or that Dylan himself was very happy with it.
But Dylan had already started writing songs in a serious way and gained increasing confidence in himself as a songwriter. With the speed of light, in less than a year in New York, he had become a popular performer; and performing was what mattered to him. This is one thing we should not forget, he’s a musician first and last, and a good and original one, too, and he loved playing his songs to an audience. At the time he had no idea what kind of fame lay ahead of him, though. He was just proud and happy for the opportunity to record an album. The ultimate wet dream for most of the people actingt on the folk scene.
In the time to follow it was his capabilities as a poet that swept everybody’s feet away. He was a very special singer, but there were many excellent voices in play, and they all had something to offer. But Dylan was the master of words.
He wrote maybe the most renowned songs at all from that period, Blowin’ In The Wind. This song also became the first track on his second album, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, released in 1963. So much had happened in the intermediate time since the release of the first album, and he now stood out as a singer and a poet in his own right, exposing authority and maturity in the performance of his songs.
Despite the popularity he enjoyed, and he did enjoy it, he expressed himself rather humbly about his songs in an interview with the music magazine, Sing Out!:
‘The songs are there. They exist all by themselves just waiting for someone to write them down on paper. If I didn’t do it, somebody else would.’ *
He had three hectic years ahead of him where he skyrocketed away, touring and recording and earning loads of money and obtaining marvellous popularity, until a motorcycle accident made the bubble burst, and there was silence.
At least for some time.
* Howard Sounes, Down the Highway, The Life of Bob Dylan, p. 154