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Rock & Roll Feature: Dylan Bringing the Controversy All Back Home
This is the fourth in a series of Rock & Roll features I’m writing for this site. I’m a rock and roller and I love blues so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like from those genres every month.
In 1965 Bob Dylan had successfully revived folk music with his first 4 albums, but then he committed the ultimate folk singer sin: he picked up an electric guitar. Bringing it All Back Home was Dylans first real foray into electric roots rock and there was a considerable backlash with a flurry of boos from concert venues and negative press from his folk music following that would grow substantially with the completely electric Highway 61 Revisited. Personally I don’t see it as a huge departure in Dylan’s work. Sure the instrumentation changed and gained a more rock and roll feel, but the heart of Dylan’s songwriting is still evident and pushed to new heights.
Like most people who are familiar with rock music, I had heard about Bob Dylan over the years and I even knew some of the songs he’d written long before I really listened to his work. Also like most people, the first entire album I heard by Dylan was the infamous Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album of 1963. I love that album, but the album that cemented Bob Dylan in place as one of my all time favorite musicians was Bringing it All Back Home.
A unique mix of electric and folk songs, all of which have a distinct feel and vibe that makes this album one of the ones I can play non stop and get the perfect mix of rock, folk, blues stomp, and country. The album starts off with a shock for the folk community: a rock song. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is southern blues stomp at its finest. Dylan’s cryptic but whimsical rapid pace lyrics are what really make the song great. They snake through the song with a sense of social comment so fast that you have to really listen to pick up on everything. This rock feel continues on classic songs like “Maggie’s Farm” and “Outlaw Blues.” Both have this same blues stomp with “Maggie’s Farm” taking the slower route with socially charged lyrics that speak out about ethical treatment of workers if you choose to interpret it that way. “Outlaw Blues” is one of my favorite Dylan tracks of all time. With a riff reminiscent of Hound Dog Taylor’s “Give Me Back My Whig”, it creates the perfect upbeat blues stomp that you just don’t hear anymore. Combined with Dylan’s honest and slightly whimsical lyrics makes for a truly memorable song. You just can’t get more honest than when Dylan sings: “Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’,
I just might tell you the truth.”
Perhaps most noticeable on this album is playfulness in music as it is overall a pretty lighthearted album that is a lot of fun to listen to. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is probably the funniest with its odd, surreal dream of a story set to a dancing roots rock beat. It’s a random collection of images that might be unapproachable to some, but the song’s absurdity is what makes it charming and makes for some very honest social commentary or just a funny dream song depending on how you want to look at it.
The album does have a folk side as well with “Mr. Tambourine Man” as one of Dylan’s folk classics that could have easily been lifted from one of his previous albums. My favorite track though, (if I have to choose just one) is “Gates of Eden.” A simple folk song with supremely symbolic lyrics, it has a unique feel that is rustic and authentic but also sad and full of wisdom. It is a stark contrast to the fun of the rock tracks of the album and a different feel than any of Dylan’s other folk work with hints of “Masters of War” without the anger, mysticism and songs like “All Along the Watchtower,” which would come 2 years later.
I wasn’t around back in 1965 when this album was first released so I can’t really relate to why there was such a backlash against it initially. Now, Bob Dylan’s career spans multiple genres and I knew that when I first started listening to his music so I wasn’t shocked when I heard rock tracks or influences in one of his albums. Personally, I like when an artist or band evolves throughout their career. It shows their changing influences and creates snapshots of particular moments within their songs. I don’t see as much of a dramatic departure from Dylan’s previous writing in these songs as some might suggest. They definitely show evolution and progress as he breaks new ground with surrealism, social comment and imagery in his songwriting, but they still sound like Bob Dylan with the same honesty and authenticity that comes through on his folk tracks. These country blues flavors seem like a logical progression for Dylan and definitely do his songs justice. I’m not saying that these songs wouldn’t have been just as good played solo on acoustic guitar, but they certainly wouldn’t have had the same lighthearted feel. The album as a whole still does have a very spontaneous and rough feel, despite multiple instruments and recorded tracks, just like Dylan’s folk music.
If you’re only a fan of Bob Dylan’s folk music then you might not enjoy this album, but I’d take a listen before deciding for sure. It definitely is one of the classic albums from the 1960s and serves as not only a good bridge between Dylan’s early folk and blues, rock and roll and country to come, but a fun album to listen to as well.
It may have been a controversial move for him to get a backing band, pick up and electric guitar and play rock and roll, but the result, Bringing it All Back Home, is a must have album for any Bob Dylan fan or rock and roll enthusiast.
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