Monday, March 27, 2017

The Soundtrack of the '60s

I have several Bob Dylan albums on CD today, but when I was a teenager the first vinyl Dylan recording I ever owned was his first greatest hits collection, which hit the music stores 50 years ago today.

It had been in stores for many years by the time I added it to my collection, but I knew I would like it before I ever played it. I was familiar with every song on it.

Lots of folks must have felt the same way. Dylan has released more than three dozen albums in his remarkable career. The greatest hits collection that arrived in music stores on this day in 1967 is his top–selling album.

Perhaps it set a standard in my impressionable mind for all greatest hits albums to come — a standard that no other greatest hits album could hope to match, although I will admit that one or two have come close.

Even today I will look at that CD and think to myself that it is the perfect collection of Dylan's early music. (Two other volumes of his greatest hits have been released, but even three volumes — and one was a double album — weren't comprehensive accounts of Dylan's career.)

I mentioned that once to my friend Brady, who is probably Dylan's greatest admirer among my friends, and he seemed kind of amused by that. Maybe he could think of a song or two that he felt should have been included — he didn't say — but I can't. I still think it is a perfect collection of Dylan's best from the '60s — and I say that knowing that "John Wesley Harding" and "Nasvhille Skyline" had not yet been released.

Apparently, I am not the only person who feels that way about this album. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of wrote that "[a]t just 10 songs, it's a little brief" — if you're familiar with recordings from the '60s, you know that was probably unavoidable since most songs tended to be two, three, at most four minutes long most of the time. Yes, it is a little brief by modern standards — just under 40 minutes.

"[B]ut that's actually not a bad thing," Erlewine wrote, "since this provides a nice sampler for the curious and casual listener."

Indeed it does. If I was going to introduce someone to Dylan, the "Greatest Hits" album would be the first album I would recommend. I would tell my friend that he/she should listen to individual Dylan albums, not just a greatest hits package, but the greatest hits album would be a good starting point.

Chances are that, like me, that person already would be familiar with every song on the album. It wasn't just a document of the early years of Dylan's career — although it certainly was that. It was a time capsule, a collection of the most socially relevant songs of probably the most socially explosive time in our history (which was still unfolding when the album first arrived in music stores). Songs like "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A–Changin'," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Just Like a Woman" punctuate the album. They form the soundtrack of their time.

The soundtrack of the '60s.

Oh, sure, you could throw in some other songs by other artists to get a true soundtrack for the '60s — but you can find a lot of it on this one album. The selections are like next–generation versions of "This Land Is Your Land."

My favorites from the album are probably "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues."

That reminds me of a story.

From time to time in my life, I have taught journalism to students in four–year and two–year colleges. A few years ago, I was in the classroom a few minutes before the start of a class, and some of my students were there as well. One of them asked me what my favorite rap song was. I kid you not.

I told him that the closest thing to rap in my collection was Dylan singing "Subterranean Homesick Blues."

A girl in the class piped up. "That's the original rap song!"

I was impressed that she knew the song, considering that it was recorded about 30 years before she was born.

"You get an A!" I told her. Then I looked at the other students. "See how easy it is?" I asked.

In fact, that girl did receive an A in that class. But it wasn't because of what she said that day. She was a good student and deserved the grade she got.

But what she said sure didn't hurt.