5 Must-Know Facts About Bob Dylan’s 1962 Self-Titled Debut Album—Released 62 Years Ago

On March 19, 1962, Bob Dylan released his self-titled debut album. The Minnesota-born musician was emerging as a darling of the New York City folk scene, and was en route to becoming one of the most influential singer/songwriters of all time, but his first album did not launch him to stardom.

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Dylan, who was born Robert Zimmerman, was just 20 years old when he recorded his first album. Although he had been writing plenty of his own original songs, the record was mostly made up of renditions of traditional folk, blues, and gospel tunes.

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Here are five fascinating facts about the Bob Dylan album:

Only Two Songs on the Bob Dylan Album Were Originals

Bob Dylan features 13 tracks, but the only original songs are “Song to Woody” and “Talkin’ New York.”

Dylan had come to New York in January 1961 with plans to perform in the city and also to visit his musical idol, folk legend Woody Guthrie. Guthrie, who suffered from Huntington’s disease, was in a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey.

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“Song to Woody” pays tribute to Guthrie and some of his musical contemporaries—Leadbelly, Cisco Houston, and Sonny Terry. Dylan incorporated music and lyrics from Guthrie’s own songs in his musical homage.

“Talkin’ New York” is a talking blues that offers a humorous look at Dylan’s somewhat discouraging experience trying to find success as a folk musician in Manhattan. The song also incorporated lyrics and music that appear in Guthrie songs.

Dylan Recorded the Album Very Quickly

Bob Dylan was recorded during three sessions over the course of two days, on November 20 and November 22, 1961, at Columbia Records’ 7th Avenue studios.

Dylan recorded a total of 17 songs during the sessions, 13 of which were included on the album. Five of the songs on Bob Dylan were done in one take—“Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” “In My Time of Dyin’,” “Gospel Plow,” “Highway 51 Blues,” and “Freight Train Blues.” In addition, “Song to Woody” was recorded after just one false start.

The album features Dylan performing solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica.

Dylan Learned Several Songs on Bob Dylan Specifically for the Album

Although Dylan already knew a variety of traditional folk songs, before he made his first album, he began searching for new material as the recording sessions approached.

Carla Rotolo, sister of his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo, recalled in an interview featured in the 2012 biography Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan that Dylan spent “days and nights” listening to her folk records, including the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, in the lead-up to recording the album

Dylan rarely performed most of the songs featured on Bob Dylan after the record’s release. The exceptions were his original “Song to Woody” and “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.” The latter tune, a traditional folk song popularized in the late 1950s by a blues guitarist named Eric Von Schmidt, was played frequently during Dylan’s 1965-1966 tour with his backing group The Hawks, who later became The Band.

The Album Was Produced by the Record Executive Who Signed Dylan

Legendary Columbia Records executive John Hammond discovered Dylan and produced his debut album. Hammond decided to sign Dylan to a record contract after hearing him play harmonica at a rehearsal for a recording session with folk singer Carolyn Hester.

After recording a formal audition for Hammond several days later, Dylan was offered a five-year contract with Columbia on September 29, 1961, which he signed immediately.

Hammond claimed that the sessions for Dylan’s album only cost “about $402,” although he complained that the young singer/songwriter was difficult to work with.

“Bobby popped every p, hissed every s, and habitually wandered off mike,” Hammond said, according to the 1995 book Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions, 1960-1994. “Even more frustrating, he refused to learn from his mistakes. It occurred to me at the time that I’d never worked with anyone so undisciplined before.”

The Bob Dylan Album Was a Commercial Failure

Bob Dylan never charted on the Billboard 200. However, several years after its release, when Dylan had become successful, the album reached No. 13 on the U.K. chart.

During its first year of release, the album reportedly only sold 5,000 copies, leading some to begin referring to Dylan as “Hammond’s Folly.”

Things changed for Dylan with the release of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in 1963. That record, which featured such Dylan classic as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” topped the U.K. chart and peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard 200.

Bob Dylan Track List:

  1. “You’re No Good”
  2. “Talkin’ New York”
  3. “In My Time of Dyin’“
  4. “Man of Constant Sorrow”
  5. “Fixin’ to Die”
  6. “Pretty Peggy-O”
  7. “Highway 51”
  8. “Gospel Plow”
  9. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”
  10. “House of the Risin’ Sun”
  11. “Freight Train Blues”
  12. “Song to Woody”
  13. “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”

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