The Evolution of Bob Dylan: Early Recordings Let You Hear an Unknown Singer Turn Into a 60s Superstar (1958–1965)

Approach­ing Bob Dylan’s body of work as a new­com­er can be intim­i­dat­ing. The Nobel Lau­re­ate now gets taught at Har­vard and Prince­ton, com­pared to Vir­gil and Ovid, Yeats and Joyce. Div­ing into Dylan’s own lit­er­ary influ­ences requires a for­mi­da­ble read­ing list. But as Sean Wilentz, con­sum­mate Dylan fan, Prince­ton pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry, and author of Bob Dylan in Amer­i­capoints out, the Dylan lega­cy car­ries so much weight not only because of the singer’s vora­cious read­ing habits, but because he emerged “in a cul­ture in which song­writ­ing has always been a major force” on the cul­ture.

New Dylan fans come to him through his influ­ence on the past 50 years of pop­u­lar music, and under­stand him through the influ­ence of the first 50 years of 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can music on him. He’s cit­ed by such diverse leg­ends as Hen­drix, Bowie, and Boy George—at one time every­one want­ed to be Dylan, or to write like him, at least—but one rea­son so many have imi­tat­ed him is because he acquired his con­sid­er­able depth by imi­tat­ing oth­ers.

Grow­ing up in the bleak sur­round­ings of Hib­bing, Min­neso­ta, “a good place to leave,” he said, Dylan spent his time absorb­ing all he could from the Delta blues, the Carter Fam­i­ly, John­ny Cash, Lit­tle Richard, and Elvis. Like the best of his own imi­ta­tors, Dylan devel­oped the abil­i­ty to trans­mute his influ­ences into some­thing new through close study, crit­i­cal appre­ci­a­tion, and just plain-old goof­ing around.

In his ear­li­est known record­ings, made in 1958 in Hib­bing with his home­town friend John Bucklen, Dylan does a lit­tle bit of all three, but most­ly he sings ram­shackle cov­ers of rhythm and blues songs on an acoustic gui­tar, hon­ing his tal­ent for bar­rel­ing through solo per­for­mances two years before he hit the stages of Green­wich Village’s cof­fee­house folk scene.

The John Bucklen tape opens up a 5‑hour Youtube col­lec­tion fea­tur­ing record­ings from 1958 to 1965, which you can stream above. It’s a set of “almost all the ear­li­est tapes Bob made before sign­ing up with Colum­bia Records,” notes the Youtube uploader. (“Some of the ear­ly stuff is dis­mal at best,” one review­er of the col­lec­tion writes, “but its his­tor­i­cal impor­tance can­not be over­stat­ed.”) From the ’58 home record­ings, over­dubbed with Bucklen’s lat­er com­men­tary, we move to the so-called Min­neso­ta Par­ty Tape, “a 35 minute record­ing in Bob’s apart­ment in Min­neapo­lis” fea­tur­ing his ren­di­tions of some tra­di­tion­al songs like “John­ny I hard­ly Knew You” and “Streets of Glo­ry.”

This tape also shows the pre­dom­i­nat­ing influ­ence of Woody Guthrie on Dylan at the time, the song­writer whom he most mod­eled him­self after in the ear­ly sixties—later writ­ing that he aimed to be “Guthrie’s great­est disciple”—and who pops up again and again in near­ly all of these record­ings after 1960. In Jan­u­ary of 1961, Dylan moved to New York to vis­it Guthrie, then dying of Huntington’s dis­ease, and began pick­ing up Irish folk songs and African Amer­i­can spir­i­tu­als from Dave Van Ronk, Odet­ta, and oth­er down­town folk singers. He inte­grates these styles into his Guthrie imi­ta­tion and picks up bits of Pete Seeger, Hank Williams, Blind Lemon Jef­fer­son, and Jesse Fuller from his cov­ers of their songs.

In tapes from 1962–63, we hear home record­ing ver­sions of well-known orig­i­nals from his first two albums—“A Hard Rain’s A‑Gonna Fall,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”—and hear in them the cumu­la­tive lay­er­ing of influ­ence from Dylan’s years of appren­tice­ship. The entire col­lec­tion, which includes inter­views with Bil­ly James and Steve Allen and per­for­mances on radio and TV, shows Dylan “evolv­ing from a young kid in Min­neso­ta to a super­star in 1965 before going elec­tric… an amaz­ing look at a young Bob Dylan becom­ing a leg­end in front of you.” Key to that evo­lu­tion was his tal­ent for cre­ative imi­ta­tion of tra­di­tion­al Amer­i­can music and its great­est inter­preters.

See the full track­list in the com­ment sec­tion of the video, and note that the third and fourth seg­ments are in the wrong order in the Youtube video above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Bob Dylan Demos: They Are A‑Streamin’

A Mas­sive 55-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Bob Dylan Songs: Stream 763 Tracks

Hear Bob Dylan’s New­ly-Released Nobel Lec­ture: A Med­i­ta­tion on Music, Lit­er­a­ture & Lyrics

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Andrew Good says:

    First heard his voice on the radio at 10 years old…now 67. 50 years with my ear clued to the speak­er! He is my friend that I haven’t met, yet! Prob­a­bly nev­er will. But, with this release I feel I have — and that is good enough for me! God Bless you all!!

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