John Hammond signed the 20-year-old Dylan to Columbia Records in 1961. He served as his producer on this first recording. Hammond was a legend at Columbia, having signed and produced many celebrated artists, including Billy Holiday and Bruce Springsteen. Hammond’s colleagues at Columbia were less than impressed with the scruffy kid with the weird voice. They referred to him as “Hammond’s folly.”
Recording sessions for folk artists in the early sixties were often slapdash affairs. The first Dylan sessions were loose even by that standard. There was practically no planning. According to Dylan, during the sessions, Hammond would suggest songs for him to perform, and if Dylan happened to know it, it was recorded.
Dylan researcher Clinton Heylin notes that there is no record of Dylan having played several of the songs that appear on the recording before the sessions. Dylan obviously knew them, but they didn’t seem to be part of the standard repertoire of songs he was playing around New York City at the time.
I don’t think many would argue that this first record is anything truly special. The album includes only two original songs, both good but not exceptional. The rest are covers of well-known folk, blues, and country tunes. Although the covers are performed with verve and originality, at twenty-one Dylan was not ready to sing the blues like he did in on his 1993 release, World Gone Wrong.
Dylan knew that at his young age he wasn’t up to covering the old masters. In the liner notes of his next album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, he is quoted as having said: “I ain’t that good yet. I don’t carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they’re older people.”
But New York Times music critic Robert Shelton thought he was special. In the liner notes of Dylan’s first album (published under the pen name Stacey Williams), he calls Dylan “the most unusual new talent in American folk music,”…“one of the most compelling white blues singers ever recorded,”…“a songwriter of exceptional facility and cleverness,”…“an uncommonly skillful guitar player and harmonica player.”
Below is his September 29, 1961 New York Times review of Dylan’s gig at Gerde’s Folk City, written about five months before Dylan’s first album was released. Sounds about right to me. (Shelton’s No Direction Home is worth a read, especially the part covering Dylan’s early years.)
Mr. Dylan’s highly personalized approach toward folk song is still evolving. He has been sopping up influences like a sponge. At times, the drama he aims at is off-target melodrama and his stylization threatens to topple over as mannered excess.
But if not for every taste, his music making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth. Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.