By David Werther.
Bob Dylan, Live at the Gaslight, 1962 (Columbia, 2005, Sony BMG Music Entertainment)
In 1961 Columbia Records' John Hammond, who had discovered Billie Holiday, trusted his instincts yet again and offered a recording contract to an unknown, young artist who had been rejected by Electra, Vanguard, and Folkways. Bob Dylan thus signed with Columbia, but when his first record went nowhere he was subsequently dubbed as "Hammond's folly."
The music on Live at the Gaslight, 1962 was recorded between the release of Dylan's first and second albums. Of the ten songs, three are Dylan originals: "John Brown," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and "Don't Think Twice It's All Right." "John Brown" relates the shock and horror every soldier must know when he meets his enemy.
"Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I'm a-tryin' to kill somebody or die tryin'.
But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine.
Oh! Lord! Just like mine!"
"A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is an apocalyptic nightmare that makes "John Brown" sound tame. It conjures images that are as old as humanity and as recent as today's CNN report: "I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin'... I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children... Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world... Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughing... I met a young child beside a dead pony... I met a young woman whose body was burning..." If Dylan had written nothing else, he would be recognized for this composition. It has a prophetic power that transcends the folk tradition.
Among Dylan's other selections are "Barbara Allen," a song said to be one of George Washington's favorites, and "Cuckoo Bird," which Dylan knew from a collection of recordings entitled The Anthology of American Folk Music. This anthology was, and continues to be, an important reference point for Dylan. Howard Sounes notes that Dylan's highly acclaimed 1997 CD, Time Out of Mind, is "flecked with phrases from the anthology."
Most striking about the traditional material is the air of authenticity that Dylan brings to it. These songs sound like Dylan has lived in them, and yet the voice singing about unrequited love ("Barbara Allen" and "Handsome Molly"), drugs ("Cocaine") and drink ("Moonshiner") is the voice of an artist barely out of his teens. If a mark of a master is the ability to quickly immerse himself in a style and make a lasting contribution to it, these songs are the work of a master.
Thanks go to Columbia for releasing these recordings and to John Hammond for recognizing Dylan's gift.