April 24, 1961, is a landmark date in the musical career of Bob Dylan: the day he participated in his first professional recording session, playing harmonica on the song “Midnight Special,” with folk singer Harry Belafonte.
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Belafonte, who was born in New York in 1927, is the son of a Jamaican mother and a father from Martinique. In the 1950s, he reached musical superstar status in America with several albums of Calypso tunes, music that had its origins in Trinidad and Tobago. His most successful recording, the 1956 LP “Calypso,” which included the songs “Jamaica Farewell” and “Banana Boat Song,” spent 31 weeks atop the Billboard best-selling album chart.
“Midnight Special” was Belafonte’s 12th album; its nine songs were all traditional or well-known country numbers, including “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” The album’s title song is a traditional, thought to have had its origins among prisoners on a labor detail in the American South. The name refers to a train that would pass by in the night, shining “her ever-loving light on me.” Some of the words of the song appear in other prison work songs, and various music historians have disagreed on where and when the song had its origins.
By April of 1961, the 19-year-old Bob Zimmerman had not yet legally changed his last name to “Dylan,” but he was living in New York, picking up gigs at various folk clubs in Greenwich Village. When he was asked to participate in Belafonte’s album by the singer and his producer, Hugo Montenegro, he had not yet been signed to a record contract. That happened in October 1961, when John Hammond signed him to an exclusive contract with Columbia Records, which is why, when “Midnight Special” was released in March the following year, Dylan is credited as appearing “Courtesy Columbia Records.”
The title song opens the album “Midnight Special,” and the harmonica-playing is prominently featured in the production. But it turned out to be the only song of the album’s nine numbers that Dylan participated in. According to Anthony Scaduto, author of a 2001 biography of Dylan, he went off to the studio “estatic,” and left “dejected, annoyed, angry. Belafonte is a total professional … He will work on a song, do it again and again … until he has it exactly the way he thinks his record should sound. To Dylan … the perfection Belafonte sought was too much. He stamped back to the Smiths’ place [where he was staying at the time] afterward and announced that he had quit after one song.”
The same month that Belafonte’s “Midnight Special” was released, the eponymous “Bob Dylan” was released by Columbia. During the recording of its 13 songs, Dylan refused to do more than one take on a song, and the entire process was completed in three short sessions. In its first year, it sold only 2,500 copies in the United States.