This was my favorite Dylan album when I was 20. It’s easy now for me to see why- the album is full of anthems, stirring statements about the issues of the day, with good and evil clearly drawn in black and white. Granted the day was more than twenty-five years old by the time I got to it, but in the era of Rodney King and the first Gulf War it rang just as true. You never doubt who’s side you’re supposed to be on in “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, “With God On Our Side” or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and I needed that conviction, along with the certainty that right will eventually prevail that the title track conveys.
Listening to it now, I’m stuck by the poignancy of that song. The times had changed after he wrote it, and then changed back by the time I first listened to it. And since then they changed and changed back and may now be changing back again. The song itself hints at the humility that comes form a long historical view: “don’t speak too soon/ For the wheel’s still in spin/ And there’s no tellin’ who/That it’s namin’/ For the loser now/ Will be later to win” And then win and lose again.
Which is not to say, even now, that I’m immune to the prophetic notion that the time is at hand and the order is about to be fundamentally recast. And anyone who has ever burned with the sense that their time will come can’t help but respond to the bitter defiance of “When the Ship Comes In” (which Dylan himself wrote after being snubbed by a hotel clerk while touring with the then much more famous Joan Baez). But it’s the more personal moments of this album that endure for me now.
Whereas the relationship songs on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan have a kind of pro-forma quality, the real feeling behind “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “One Too Many Mornings” is obvious and moving. As is the sound of the man beginning to struggle against the constrictions of his own public image in “Restless Farewell”. On “North Country Blues” the politics is still there, but subsumed by the personal in the story of the bleak lives of those left behind in a small mining town when the business moves south of the border. And then there’s the “Ballad of Hollis Brown”. The spareness, poetry and driving power of the song that ends with seven shots ringing out “like the ocean’s pounding roar” wowed me when I was twenty and continues to do so today.