Concert celebrates 50 years of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Photo courtesy of Columbia Records Steel wheelin’: An all-star roster fetes Dylan, on May 21.
Photo courtesy of Columbia Records
Steel wheelin’: An all-star roster fetes Dylan, on May 21.

Album’s anniversary feted by its contemporaries

Photo by Michael Lydon Bob Porco, grandson of legendary Gerde’s Folk City founder Mike Porco, is producing the upcoming Dylan tribute.
Photo by Michael Lydon
Bob Porco, grandson of legendary Gerde’s Folk City founder Mike Porco, is producing the upcoming Dylan tribute.

BY MICHAEL LYDON   | Fifty years ago this month, May 1963, Columbia Records released Bob Dylan’s second album: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Dylan had come to New York only two years before and, like countless young singers, actors, dancers, artists and writers before and since, he was bound and determined to make his mark on the world.

“I knew whatever I did had to be something creative,” he told an early interviewer, “something I could do just for me. I was about seventeen, eighteen. I knew there was nothing I ever wanted, materially, and I made it all up from that feeling.”

Dylan’s combination of Chaplinesque charm, political protest and driving ambition had already carried him far. In little more than a year in New York, he had become a friend and protegé of Woody Guthrie, headlined weeklong gigs at major clubs, gotten a rave review in the New York Times, been signed to Columbia by veteran producer John Hammond and recorded “Bob Dylan” — his first LP.

Yet “Bob Dylan,” a folk song collection released in early 1962, stiffed, as they say in the record biz, and Columbia executives whispered that Hammond’s boy genius had become “Hammond’s Folly.”

Through the rest of the year Dylan kept gigging and writing, coming up with his first masterpiece: “Blowin’ in the Wind.” His new manager, Albert Grossman, gave it to the newly minted pop-folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary — and while Dylan recorded the “Freewheelin’ ” tracks, the trio recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Their single, released right after “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” quickly became a million-selling pop chart-topper. Other covers by Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Marlene Dietrich and Trini Lopez soon followed.

“The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album had a gritty-romantic cover of Dylan and his girlfriend, artist Suze Rotolo, huddled against a wintry Manhattan wind on Jones Street near West 4th, and featured his solo version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” as the opening track.

Lacking Peter, Paul and Mary’s sweet three-part harmonies, “Freewheelin’ ” never sold at gold record volumes. But 11 of the album’s 13 songs were powerful and soon-beloved Dylan originals. With “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” the kid in the corduroy cap stepped out on his own — and through the five decades since the album’s release, Bob Dylan has remained a force to be reckoned with in popular music.

To celebrate the album’s 50th birthday, a baker’s dozen of contemporary folk singers will perform the album’s 13 songs (and more) in a special concert on May 21 at the Village Underground — a most fitting venue, because 130 West 3rd was the second site of Gerde’s Folk City, the club that launched Dylan’s career. Also fitting: Bob Porco, grandson of the legendary Mike Porco (who founded Gerde’s and booked Dylan to his first paid New York gigs) is producing the celebration.

“The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” is an album worth celebrating. At times Dylan’s voice sounds high and scratchy, at others warm and caressing. The puzzling riddles of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the winsome romance of “Girl from the North Country,” the dramatic guitar runs of “Down the Highway,” the antic comedy of “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” the Biblical imagery of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the ironic resignation of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” the howling harmonica of “Talking World War III Blues” — Dylan seeds every track with sounds and styles that have blossomed in the dozens of masterful albums he has recorded since.

“The [May 21] concert grew out of the folk revival nights I put on over several years at the old Gaslight,” said producer Porco, a trim personal trainer, “and now I’m making a documentary film about my grandfather Mike and his musician friends that he helped get started at Folk City. In March, around the fountain in Washington Square Park, we shot the film’s first interview with Izzy Young. He ran the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street where Dylan, Phil Ochs and the other protest singers hung out.”

Porco has put together a congenial group of Folk City alums for the May concert. Terre Roche, known both as a soloist and, with her sisters Maggie and Suzzy, as a member of the folk trio The Roches, will sing “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Judy Gorman, who describes herself as “An Analog Girl in a Digital World,” will perform “Masters of War.” Singer-humorist Willie Nininger, who has won numerous Bob Dylan imitator contests, will handle the stark “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” — and Erik Frandsen will sing “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” a nostalgic song that Dylan adapted from an old English folk melody, “Lord Franklin.”

“I’ve always loved how Dylan made traditional tunes his own,” says Frandsen, adding with a chuckle, “or you could say, Bob Dylan knows how to steal!”

Samoa Wilson, a singer with a richly romantic alto voice who came to prominence with the Jim Kweskin band, will sing the bittersweet love ballad “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Paul Mills, better known as the spoken word artist Poez (who, in the 70s, busked in Washington Square, reciting poetry and wearing a black stovepipe hat), will deliver Dylan’s black comedy song, “Talking World War III Blues.”

“When I started out, poets imitated Allen Ginsberg’s sing-songy, ‘Dah-dah, dah-dah’ style of reading poetry,” says Poez, now a lawyer who has defended many Occupy Wall Street protestors. “I wanted to get the drama, the music, out of poetry. I’ve always been a huge Dylan fan, especially of the Freewheelin’ album. Dylan’s songs are in the long American tradition of honesty, compassion and simplicity. He’s up there with Dashiell Hammett, John Huston and Ernest Hemingway.”