Don't think twice, it's all right.
It took even longer for me to figure out what it was about Dylan's music that had scared me as a child, but these days I'm pretty sure I know what it is. Dylan first got famous as a result of obviously political folk songs like "Blowin' In the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'", but stuff like that never gets played on classic rock radio, probably because of its minimalist instrumentation. I had heard those songs as a kid, but the ones that really stuck out for me were songs like "The Ballad of a Thin Man", "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and above all others, "Like a Rolling Stone." People made out like Dylan was a political protest guy, but all I got out of his music when I listened to him was surreal and ominous imagery that I didn't understand. Nonetheless, lines like "You ask, 'Is this where it is?'/And somebody points to you and says, 'it's his'/And you say, 'what's mine?', and someone else says, 'Well, what is?'" made me want to hide under my bed in terror.
I'm thinking about this now after so much time has passed because I've been reading "Chronicles Volume One", Dylan's recently released memoir, which has inspired me to pull out a lot of his music and listen to it. I was surprised to learn that I have almost everything he released between the beginning of his career and 1975's "Blood On the Tracks", most of it on cassette. I had no idea I owned that many Dylan albums, but I guess he's always been one of those artists whose work I couldn't turn down if I found it for a good price. This is undoubtedly why I bought "The Times They Are A'Changin", "Another Side of Bob Dylan", and "Basement Tapes"--they were in Tower Records's 3 for $10 bin. The first two I mentioned, along with his self-titled debut and "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", have been the ones I've played the most during this recent Dylan binge, probably due to the fact that they've all been played maybe twice or three times (except "Freewheelin'", I've had that one for a lot longer than the rest, and I played it a lot when I first got it).
My relative unfamiliarity with those albums has led me to discover a lot of stuff I've never really heard before. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "Only A Pawn In Their Game", both from "Times", have gotten stuck in my head lately, and led me to read up on William Zantzinger and Medgar Evers. Meanwhile, "All I Really Want To Do", off "Another Side", will undoubtedly make the next mix tape I make for some girl I like. There's some of that later scary surrealism here too, especially on "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," from "Freewheelin'." I can't tell you why the line "I met a white man who walked a black dog" gives me chills, but it does.
Really, though, this all just goes back to what I talked about with the early rock n' roll stuff I wrote about last week, the way it's really cool to hear things that are obviously from another era, that couldn't be created now without having a completely different feel. It's true, the early pre-electric Dylan stuff is probably the last music I can think of in the history of music leading up until now that came from a different place than where our society is now. Dylan came along at the tail end of the 50s/early 60s folk movement, and was pretty much responsible for bridging the gap between that stuff and the psychedelic/garage rock scene. This paved the way for the entire late 60s protest rock movement, by which time Dylan was disgusted with it all and hiding out in the countryside of upstate New York. To this day I bet he'd hate getting credit for leading anything, but it happened.
The early records predate all of that, though, and speak of the roots and history of the idiom in which Dylan was working at the time. His simple guitar playing and debatably musical vocals, alone and unaccompanied in an empty room, could be coming from a spot next to a train track 50 years before. And of course, plenty of people had done it plenty of times before, but the reason Dylan's contributions still matter is that you can hear him, on these early records, striving to find something new to say, some new ways to work with the form. Even on his first record, mostly filled with covers and old standards as it is, "Song To Woody" speaks of the direction in which he'd progress, and this direction is magnified ten times by the epochal "Blowin' In the Wind", from "Freewheelin'," which came less than a year later. It's really obvious why everyone saw these records as so great back then.