Album Review #36: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan (1963)

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan

This is one of those albums that’s difficult to talk about. Bob Dylan is simply one of the most important musicians of all time, full stop. I mean, how exactly do you go about writing a review of a Nobel prize laureate’s greatest masterpiece? There isn’t a single track on this thing that doesn’t have something huge to say about the human spirit, and each of Dylan’s lyrics are perfectly written to deliver said messages. With nothing but an acoustic guitar, harmonica and a whiny, nasally voice, he managed to make one of the most culturally significant, emotional and timeless albums of all time, thanks almost solely to the sheer power and brilliance of his songwriting. This is one of those records that should simply be made required listening for the entire human race, and that’s an honor that only a handful of albums have ever been worthy of.

As by far the most acclaimed and popular album of Mr. Dylan’s acoustic era, this album can be a bit hard to approach. My advice for a first time listener is to just sit back, forget about the status the record holds, and just listen to the lyrics as they come. Don’t think too hard about them, at least not on your first listen: just hear them and let their emotion and power do their thing. The beauty of the songwriting here is that, unlike a lot of his later work, the lyrics aren’t that hard to understand. They say what they mean, and they’re strong enough on their own to have an impact without much of a hidden meaning or symbolism behind them. He knows exactly how to get you sad, angry and happy with nothing but a good melody and a stroke of the pen. His guitar work doesn’t hurt either: the excellent chord progressions and rhythmic strumming are a perfect chaser for his lyrics, and his guitar proves itself to be more than enough instrumentation necessary to hold the entire record up on its own. His harmonica is great too: on the tracks where it shows up, it serves as a nice (although rather shrill at points) partner to his guitar, blowing out short bursts of improvised harmony that glue together the song quite well. All said, his lyrics really are the true star of the show here. Listening to this masterpiece, it’s difficult to deny that he deserved that Nobel Prize in Literature moreso than almost any other singer-songwriter of the 20th century.

Bob Dylan 1963, nprdotcom

Dylan c. 1963. Image source:

In terms of individual tracks, this record is positively jam-packed with classics. Right off the bat we have “Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of Dylan’s most world-famous songs. It’s lyrics are a powerful indictment of war and fighting in all of its forms, and it retains its poignancy and relevancy even to this day. Telling of this album’s excellency, then, that it isn’t even close to the album’s best track. The album’s third track, “Masters of War,” is chilling and filled with pure rage so strong you can feel it in your stomach. It’s probably the album’s most direct and un-subtle anti-war statement, and it’s all the better for it. The pure hatred in his voice is almost startling, and if you aren’t at least a little angry and/or upset by the end of it, you’re either a robot or just didn’t pay it that much attention. Then there’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” I honestly don’t even know if I have the writing prowess to communicate the qualities of this song, so I’ll just say that it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, and you just need to experience it. There are a few other great tracks worth mentioning too: “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is a darkly humorous account of the end-times, and “Oxford Town” is a brief, depressing picture of segregation and racism on college campuses.  Really though, every track on this album is important and deserves recognition. Dylan didn’t waste a single song when making this album, and all 50 minutes of it still feel fresh today.

This is just one of those albums. It’s hard to talk about, because I don’t want to overhype it, but at the same time, it’s wholeheartedly deserving of said hype. It’s the perfect showcase of Bob Dylan’s songwriting ability, not to mention his guitar playing, and is one of the most essential records of the folk genre, right up there with Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads. It’s an album that was both timely in 1963 when it came out and timeless and relevant even today, almost 55 years after its release. It retains its sense of urgency and relevancy through (for the most part) refraining to reference contemporary figures and events, and in doing so, it creates a politically charged, powerful and still-applicable record that can be repeatedly discovered and loved by each generation to come.

Favorite Tracks: “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Oxford Town”

Next Up: A Christmas Gift for You by Phil Spector (1963)

Album Review #24: Joan Baez by Joan Baez (1960)


Well, we’re back! It’s been an abnormally long time since my last album review (in no small part due to the recently posted album recap I’ve been working on), but now we return to the reviews themselves. Our first album of the 60’s just so happens to be one of my favorite so far: Joan Baez’s (pronounced BYE-ez, something that took me an embarrassingly long time to realize) debut self-titled album is a masterpiece of acoustic folk. This is made even more impressive considering that not only was it her first release, but that she recorded it at age 19. A lot of musicians don’t even create their best work until twice that age. It’s a top-quality folk record, introducing the decade on a particularly high note.

Interestingly enough for a “singer-songwriter” album (does that label even apply in this context? I’m not really sure), this album consists entirely of traditional songs, which are either in the public domain or simply have no known author. Despite not having written a word of the lyrics, she truly makes each song her own, singing every song with emotion and accompanying her vocals with virtuosic guitar. Despite featuring nothing but voice and acoustic guitar, the album sounds lush, detailed, and almost operatic at points. Her guitar playing is intricate, soothing, and hypnotic. Her voice is equally fantastic: she has one of the most beautiful singing voices I’ve ever heard, and coupled with her instrumental expertise, this album becomes what I can honestly say is one of the greatest folk albums of all time.


Joan Baez. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Even though the songs are traditional, their lyrical content still contributes quite a lot to the album overall. The record starts off strong with “Silver Dagger,” followed by “East Virginia” (a haunting track that, sadly, is only present on reissues, and not on the original release). Now, “lullaby-like” isn’t typically a positive descriptor under most contexts, but not only do I think that’s a perfect way to describe much of the album, but the songs are even better for it. Joan sounds like she’s trying to serenade you to sleep, like a mother would to her baby. So it’s most definitely a calming album, not to mention compelling, moving and emotional. Most of the tracks tell some sort of story, such as highlight “John Riley,” which I won’t ruin for you here. Some other of my favorite tracks include “Donna Donna,” “Mary Hamilton,” and the album’s closing track, “El Preso Numero Nuéve.”

Joan Baez’s self-titled debut is a marvel of acoustic folk. Beautiful singing, excellent guitar playing and classic, age-old lyrics make this album a true record for the ages. While she would later go on to be famous for her activism and political lyrics, this is still an album that deserves to be remembered. Yes, it’s much different from the material she would later become known for, but it is still an outstanding album in its own right. Any fan of folk who hasn’t heard this album is truly doing themself a disservice.

Favorite Tracks: “Silver Dagger,” “John Riley,” “Donna Donna,” “Mary Hamilton,” “El Preso Numero Nuéve”

Next Up: Elvis is Back! by Elvis Presley (1960)

Album Review #22: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins (1959)


I feel bad for people who don’t listen to country. The genre has such a stigma surrounding it for some reason, which confounds me, with the wealth of great country music that there is. Writing off an entire genre of anything is a terrible thing to do. My personal belief is that there’s great music to be found in every genre, so for all the country haters out there, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins is proof of that theorem.

The title is accurate; every track is either a story-song about outlaws and shootouts, or a campfire folk song about the daily struggle. Marty Robbins has a good singing voice, and his band is a good accompaniment to his lyrics. He’s got a classic country croon, clean and almost never faltering on a tone. It’s simple, but it works. In fact, I’d say that that can describe the album as a whole: simple but good. The melodies are uncomplicated and difficult not to sing along to, and the instrumentation is minimal, with the only instrument other than guitar, bass and drums appearing on the album being a brief fiddle intro to “Cool Water.” He does more than well with what little he has to work with, making each and every track an engaging listen.


Image source: Los Angeles Times

While the music itself is great, the album’s true strongpoint is the lyrics. Marty Robbins himself only has a writing credit on four of the album’s twelve tracks, with the others being either covers of fellow country artists or traditional folk songs, but he still infuses both his own songs and his covers with equal love and attention. My favorite tracks still tend toward Robbins originals, however. “Big Iron” starts the album off on a high note, and “In the Valley” is soulful and moving, with the only negative I can come up with being that it’s too short, at only 1:48. “The Master’s Call” is the only one of the four I don’t like; the lyrics are good, but musically it’s almost identical to “Big Iron,” just in a different key. The best track of the album has to be “El Paso.” With great lyrics, excellent guitar playing, and the catchiest melody of the record, it was his biggest hit for good reason. It’s a truly classic song, and one every country fan should hear.

If you don’t like country, that’s fine. Different strokes for different folks. Heck, I wrote possibly my most scathing review yet on Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers, the first country album on this list. But that isn’t to say you should dismiss the entire genre. As I said before, there’s great music everywhere. If you dislike a certain genre, you just have to dig a little more for it. I’m almost certain you’ll find it somewhere. And if you dislike country, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs just might be the one to change your mind.

Favorite Tracks: “El Paso,” “In the Valley,” “Big Iron,” “Cool Water”

Least Favorite: “The Master’s Call”

Next Up: Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

Album Review #17: Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)


While Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is sadly pretty obscure among the general public, his influence among fellow musicians is massive. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Mick Jagger to Paul Mc-Freaking-Cartney has cited this guy as a major influence on their music (listen to “Rocky Raccoon” off The White Album and the influence of his “talking-blues” style is blatant). It’s not hard to see why. His guitar playing is excellent, his songs are catchy, and his stories are entertaining. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott truly is a folk musician only paralleled by Woody Guthrie himself.


Image source:

Jack Takes the Floor is, to say it simply, one of the finest folk albums of all time. It feels like a relaxing afternoon on the back porch with grandpa and his guitar. Jack Elliott’s guitar playing is almost flawless, and his lyrics are engaging and sometimes even funny. Each of its 11 tracks (later 13, when it was reissued as Muleskinner with a couple bonus tracks) are memorable, but “Mule Skinner Blues,” “New York Town,” “Cocaine” and “Dink’s Song” are stand-outs. “New York Town” even has Woody Guthrie himself as a guest performer! “Cocaine’s” guitar is strangely sweet considering the song’s subject matter. “Dink’s Song” is just plain heartbreaking, sung from the point of view of a prisoner singing about his love outside of prison. “Mule Skinner Blues” is the longest song of the album, at over 5 minutes in length, and boasts some great guitar work and singing. Overall, the whole album is great, with wonderful playing and lyricism throughout.

Jack Takes the Floor is one solid folk album. If you’ve got even a passing interest in the genre, or are looking for a good place to start, this is your record. With a set of songs like this, its no wonder an entire generation of musicians to follow were impacted by it. Give it a listen, will ya?

Favorite Tracks: “Mule Skinner Blues,” “Cocaine,” “Dink’s Song,” “New York Town”

Next Up: Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly’s by Sarah Vaughan (1958)