Robert Shelton – “Bob Dylan: A Distinctive Stylist” (1961)

March 15, 2010 at 1:18 am (Bob Dylan, Music, Reviews & Articles)

This is probably the very first newspaper article ever written about Bob Dylan. Taken from The New York Times, Sept. 29, 1961, Dylan hadn’t even come out with his first album yet, or written any major songs at this point. Shelton went on to write the 1986 biography “No Direction Home”…

A bright new face in folk music is appearing at Gerde’s Folk City. Although only 20 years old, Bob Dylan is one of the most distinctive stylists to play in a Manhattan cabaret in months.

Resembling a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik, Mr. Dylan has a cherubic look and a mop of tousled hair he partly covers up with a Huck Finn black corduroy cap. His clothes may need a bit of tailoring, but when he works his guitar, harmonica or piano and composes new songs faster than he can remember them, there is no doubt that he is bursting at the seams with talent.

Mr. Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty. He is consciously trying to recapture the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his back porch. All the “husk and bark” are left on his notes, and a searing intensity pervades his songs.

Mr. Dylan is both comedian and tragedian. Like a vaudeville actor on the rural circuit, he offers a variety of droll musical monologues. “Talking Bear Mountain” lampoons the overcrowding of an excursion boat. “Talking New York” satirizes his troubles in gaining recognition and “Talkin’ Hava Negilah” burlesques the folk-music craze and the singer himself.

Slow-motion Mood 

In his serious vein, Mr. Dylan seems to be performing in a slow-motion film. Elasticized phrases are drawn out until you think they may snap. He rocks his head and body. He closes his eyes in reverie, seems to be groping for a word or a mood, then resolves the tension benevolently by finding the word and the mood.

He may mumble the text of “House of the Rising Sun” in a scarcely understandable growl, or sob, or clearly enunciate the poetic poignancy of a Blind Lemon Jefferson blues, “One kind favor I ask of you — See that my grave is kept clean.“

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 a 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.

Robert Shelton

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