Bob Dylan’s voice can best be summed up in the non-evaluative version of the word “unique”; that is, it’s not really bad, it’s just not good. He is not so much a singer as he is a reciter of songs. With a tone that ranges from passionate shouting to sensuous graveling, at times he articulates his lyrics with the lack of clarity of an 80 year old delta bluesman.
In the coffee houses and folk clubs of New York City, at the end of the beatnik era, his voice was the epitome of nonconformity. Not only was his singing style unique, it was a perfect compliment to his songs. It can be argued that a mellower, lush, pop style of singing might have interfered with the potency of his words. The brush needed to fit the canvas in order for the painter to be effective.
By 1961 Dylan’s performances and songs were starting to be noticed by the world outside of the Village clubs. In the New York Times, critic Robert Shelton raved about Dylan’s performance and songs, saying that he was “bursting with talent.” Columbia Records took notice and offered him a recording contract a month later. The result, Dylan’s first record, was a mild and safe collection of covers of traditional folk and blues songs and two original works. Though it was interesting, it was simply the drizzle before the arrival of the artistic hurricane.
In the spring of 1963 Dylan released The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a milestone work containing all but two original songs. Included in this epoch album were political songs with great range: from the simplicity of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” to the apocalyptic vision of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and love songs characteristic of Dylan charm and heartache such as “Don’t Think Twice, Its All Right” and “Girl from the North Country.” Many critics today single it out as one of the most significant albums of the 1960s.
Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind” went to #2 on the pop charts later that year and Joan Baez began her personal and artistic relationship with the young Dylan. Baez, already well known in folk and recording circles, was able to open doors for Dylan in the bigger American folk community. Dylan was given superstar status at the Newport Folk Festivals in 1963 and 1964 and was a part of Baez’s national tour in 1964.
In 1964 Dylan released two albums which show the two facets of his artistic character. The Times They Are a-Changin’, released in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, the rise of the anti-war, and civil rights movements, contained more protest songs than any other Dylan album. Besides the classic title song, the album offered the agonizing look at racial injustice in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and the sarcastic examination of the American military in “With God on Our Side.”
During the same year, Another Side of Bob Dylan was also released. In stark contrast with the biting sarcasm and apocalyptic pronouncements of Times, Another Side revealed the personal, intimate part of the artist. Songs like “To Ramona” and “Ballad in Plain D” reveal the emotion and heartache of the artist.
At the height of his popularity with the folk music community, Dylan felt both the pressure of being their demigod and the constriction of their acoustical parameters. Dylan always sought his own path, irrespective of other people’s expectations or suggestions. Perhaps as a hint of the radical move he was about to take, Dylan finished the two albums with songs pleading for independence and autonomy. The final song on “The Times, They are A-Changin'” – “Restless Farewell” signs off with this line:
“So I’ll make my stand, and remain as I am,
And bid farewell, and not give a damn.”
The transformation from “Dylan, Demigod of the Folk Movement” to “Dylan, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Voice of Conscience” was about to begin.