On 19 March 1962, Bob Dylan’s debut album ‘Bob Dylan’ was unveiled to a largely disinterested United States. They’d soon change their tune as Dylan spread his artistic wings, but this album stands up as a snapshot of where he was at the time – mainly in a Greenwich Village café, cribbing Woody Guthrie’s notes. Here are some red-hot facts you might not know.
1. The album’s producer, John H. Hammond, was instrumental in Dylan signing to Columbia Records in 1961 after he heard his harmonica work on folk-revivalist Carolyn Hester’s third album.
2. In a pleasing piece of symmetry, Hammond also signed Bruce Springsteen – Dylan’s natural successor – to Columbia in 1972.
3. Check out any 60s Dylan cover that features the Columbia logo and you’ll see that it’s on left. The photo on the cover of ‘Bob Dylan’ has been flipped so the neck of the guitar doesn’t obscure it.
4. The cap Dylan’s wearing on the sleeve was a regular element of his walking, talking homage to hero Woody Guthrie.
5. ‘Song For Woody’ makes full use of its tribute status, basing itself on Guthrie’s own 1941 ballad ‘1913 Massacre’. David Bowie would make a Russian doll of it, aping Dylan’s “Hey hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song” with “Oh hear this, Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you” on Hunky Dory’s ‘Song For Bob Dylan’. As for songs about David Bowie, Bowie’s got that covered.
6. The album reputedly cost $402 to record.
7. Dylan had another go at ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’ – originally recorded by Texan bluesman “Blind” Lemon Jefferson in 1927 – with The Band in 1967. It didn’t make the official release of ‘The Basement Tapes’ but was familiar to Dylan bootleggers.
8. Leading up to the recording of the album, Dylan immersed himself in listening to the Folkways label’s ‘Anthology Of American Folk Music’, an exhaustive collection of cuts that had been recorded between 1926 and 1932 but forgotten in the intervening years.
9. The liner notes on the original inner sleeve were written by a “Stacey Williams”. This turned out to be New York Times critic Robert Shelton – whose favourable live review had brought Dylan to label attention – moonlighting under a pseudonym.
10. ‘Gospel Plow’ is a traditional tune based on Luke 9:62 – “Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.'” So there you go.
11. UK blues band The Animals claimed Dylan stopped playing his version of ‘House Of The Risin’ Sun’ when The Animals hit big with theirs, because he was accused of ripping them off.
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12. The line in ‘Talkin’ New York’ – one of only two Dylan originals on the album, alongside ‘Song For Woody’ – that goes “Now, a very great man once said/That some people rob you with a fountain pen,” is yet another fanboy reference to Guthrie. Specifically ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’, Guthrie’s 1939 ballad to the 1930s gangster.
13. The cover image was shot by Columbia in-house photographer Don Hunstein, later responsible for the iconic sleeve photos for ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ and Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Sounds Of Silence’.
14. ‘Fixin’ To Die’ is a cover of a track by delta blues dude Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White, but Dylan messed about with the melody and lyrics. When asked on a radio show in 1962 exactly how much of the recorded version was his, he replied, “I don’t know. I can’t remember.” That’s that cleared up then.
15. After the album shifted just 5,000 copies in its first year, reaching No.13 in the UK and absolutely nowhere in the States, Dylan was nicknamed “Hammond’s Folly” by waggish Columbia execs. They’d soon be eating their leopard-skin pill-box hats.
16. John H. Hammond himself was investigated by FBI Director J Edgar Hoover for alleged communist activities. In reality he was a determined campaigner against race discrimination in the music industry, cutting his teeth with the launch of Billie Holiday’s career.
17. “I first heard this from Rick Von Schmidt/He lives in Cambridge/Rick’s a blues guitar player/I met him one day in the green pastures of Harvard University,” goes the spoken opening of ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’. That’s folkie Eric Von Schmidt, who was mistakenly credited as the writer of the song but had adapted it from a Blind Boy Fuller number.
18. Opening track ‘You’re No Good’ was incorrectly listed as ‘She’s No Good’ on the original record label.
19. ‘A Man Of Constant Sorrow’ is of course most famous for its appearance in the Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? where it’s performed by the fictitious Soggy Bottom Boys, named in tribute to the Foggy Mountain Boys, the bluegrass duo who were know to perform several Dylan songs in the 60s. No, there’s nothing tenuous about that.
20. ‘Pretty Peggy-O’ is adapted from the Scottish folk song ‘The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie’ and would later be tackled in various shape-shifting forms by Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel and former hairspray-rockers Jefferson Starship.