In 1961 Bob Dylan was a 20-year-old folk singer, hanging out in New York's Greenwich Village. From the sound of it, the place was swamped with folk singers at that time. He'd come from Hibbing, Minnesota, via Minneapolis and a brief spell in Chicago, but he seems to have been in the process of freely inventing a past and identity for himself. Improvising a hard traveling biography, appropriating the mannerisms and musical language of black musicians from the deep South, it seems he was making an effort not to let his middle-class roots show.
Maybe he never quite stopped being a folk singer, but for the next 30 years after this album, he almost always stuck to recording his own songs. On his self-titled debut, though, only two of the tracks are entirely his own.
The first of these is 'Talkin' New York', which the liner notes describe as 'a diary note set to music'. It's funny and engaging enough in its rambling way, and an interesting glimpse of his life as a young singer in the big city, but it's not really a highlight of the album, let alone his career. 'Song for Woody' is a sweetly adoring song to his musical hero - 'Hey hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song!' It sounds quite a lot like something Guthrie might have sung himself, and it works pretty well. It's not a patch on his later spoken-word tribute, 'Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie' - but to be fair, that was one of the best things Dylan ever wrote.
The rest is a ragbag of folk, blues and country songs that Dylan had picked up around the place. Some of the songs were made far more famous later, by other singers. To my ears his sparse, dramatic rendition of 'House of the Risin' Sun' carries a hell of a lot more emotional punch than the classic version The Animals recorded three years later, doing without their epic instrumentation and that famous arpeggiation. Dylan's version, like Dave van Ronk's (which it is evidently based on) and Nina Simone's, also leaves the traditional gender roles intact, so we get Bob at his grizzliest hollering 'it's beeeen the ruin of many poor girls, and me - oh, God, I'm one...'
The other song that's much better known now is 'Man of Constant Sorrow', which would become a smash hit for George Clooney's character in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The sleeve notes call it 'a traditional Southern mountain folk song of considerable popularity and age, but probably never sung in quite this fashion before'. Looking back now, we might question whether the young Bobby Zimmerman had really 'seen trouble all his days', but he sings it with such conviction that you can hardly doubt it while it's playing.
There's a preoccupation with death pervading this album, to a degree that might be unhealthy - although perhaps not unusual - for a kid just out of his teens. 'In My Time of Dyin'' is the first of the death-songs, and two tracks later we get 'Fixin' to Die', another song about being at peace with your imminent death. The album closes with a third funereal number, Blind Lemon Jefferson's 'See That My Grave is Kept Clean'.
Elsewhere the album is comical - it is interesting that the sleeve notes credit Charlie Chaplin as a major influence. Sometimes the humour is presumably intentional, as on the immensely silly cover of 'Freight Train Blues' - 'I got the freight! Train! Bluuuuuuuuuuuu-hoo-hoo-hues!' - and the fun, if insubstantial, 'Baby Let Me Follow You Down'. Other times, as with the rousingly overwrought 'Gospel Plow' and 'Highway 51', it seems more likely that he just didn't quite know when to rein in the melodrama. It's not necessarily easy to distinguish the two - Dylan was always capable of laughing at himself, and 'Pretty Peggy-O' (the only British folk song on the album) probably includes a bit of both, as does the opening track, Jesse Fuller's 'You're No Good'. The liner mentions a couple more comedy songs that wouldn't see a proper release until The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 came out three decades later, perhaps because they were thought to just be too absurd for the market at that time.
All in all, it's a pretty decent album of blues and folk music with a few stand-out tracks, and if you're interested in Bob Dylan, the songs and the sleeve notes add up to a fascinating historical document. Dylan grew up to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, and this is as close as we're likely to get to where that all started.