Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman May 24, 1941, Duluth, Minnesota, USA) is widely regarded as one of America's greatest living popular songwriters. Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams are among the few songwriters similarly revered for their enduring contributions to the American oeuvre.
Much of his best-known work is from the 1960s, when his musical shadow was so large that he became a documentarian and reluctant figurehead of American unrest. The civil rights movement had no more moving anthem than his song "Blowin' in the Wind." Millions of young people embraced his song "The Times They Are A-Changin'" during that era of extreme change. The radical insurgent group The Weathermen named themselves after a lyric in Dylan's song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" ("You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows").
More broadly, Dylan is credited with expanding the vocabulary of popular music, moving it beyond traditional boy-and-girl themes into the heady realms of politics/social commentary, philosophy, and a kind of stream-of-consciousness absurdist humor that defies easy description. This allows for a rich ambiguity and plurality of meaning uncommon in song up until his appearance. This lyrical innovation has occurred within the context of Dylan's steadfast devotion to the richest traditions of American song, from folk and country/blues to rock 'n' roll and rockabilly, to Gaelic balladry, even jazz, swing, and Broadway.
Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, to a Jewish family from Hibbing. He spent much of his youth listening to the radio, at first the powerful blues and country music stations beamed all the way from New Orleans, and later early rock and roll. He formed his first band, The Golden Chords, while still at high school. Around this time, Zimmerman chose the pseudonym Elston Gunn for himself, playing a few concerts as Bobby Vee's pianist under this name. An able but by no means brilliant student, he started university studies in 1959 in Minneapolis, during which time he was actively involved in the local Dinkytown folk music circuit. During his Dinkytown days Zimmerman began introducing himself as Bob Dylan. It has been suggested this choice was a tribute to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Dylan has often denied this, claiming in 1965 that he took the name from an uncle named Dillon. He added "I've read some of Dylan Thomas' stuff, and it's not the same as mine." In his 2004 biography, "Chronicles Vol.1", however, Dylan admits that Dylan Thomas was relevant to his choice of alias (although he still acknowledges no influence or tribute, saying only that "Dylan" sounds like "Allen," his middle name and original choice for a surname de plume). He quit formal studies in early 1961, eventually drifting to New York City to perform and to visit his ailing idol Woody Guthrie. Playing in small clubs for next to no pay, he soon gained some recognition after a review in the New York Times (September 29, 1961) by critic Robert Shelton, which led to John Hammond, a legendary music talent scout, signing him to Columbia Records.
At the time his voice, musicianship and songwriting were still raw. His performances, like his first Columbia album (1962's Bob Dylan), consisted of traditional folk, blues and gospel material interspersed with a few of his own songs. 1962 also saw Dylan recording some songs for Broadside (a folk music magazine that occasionally released recordings), under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt. By the time of his next record, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), he had begun to make his name as both a singer and composer, specialising in protest songs, initially in the style of Guthrie and soon practically developing his own genre. His songs of the time are typified by "Blowin' in the Wind", its melody partially derived from slave song "No More Auction Block", coupled with lyrics questioning the social and political status quo. With hindsight, the lyrics to some of these songs appear unsophisticated ("How many times must the cannonballs fly before they are forever banned"), but when compared to the largely anemic popular culture of the 1950s they were a breath of fresh air, and the songs caught the zeitgeist of the 1960s. "Blowin' In The Wind" itself was widely recorded and was an international hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, setting an enduring precedent for other artists to cover Dylan's songs. Somewhat overlooked among the protest songs on Freewheelin', however, was a mixture of finely crafted bittersweet love songs ("Don't Think Twice, It's Alright", "Girl From the North Country") and jokey, frequently surreal talking blues ("Talking World War III Blues", "I Shall Be Free"). This eclecticism would continue to inform his material for much of his career.
While a fine interpreter of songs, Dylan was not widely considered a beautiful singer, and many of his songs first reached the public through versions by other artists. Joan Baez, a friend and sometime lover, took it upon herself to record a great deal of his early material, as did many others including The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, The Hollies, Manfred Mann and Herman's Hermits. So ubiquitous were these covers by the mid-1960s that CBS started to promote him with the tag: "Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan". Whoever sang his songs, they were immediately recognizable as his and a good part of his fame rested not only on his lyrical excellence but on the underlying attitude -- a sort of po' boy adrift in the wide world posture that gradually changed to hipster arbiter of all things cool and uncool.
By 1963, Dylan was becoming increasingly prominent in the civil rights movement, singing at rallies including the March on Washington in which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech. Dylan's next album, The Times They Are A-Changin', reflected a more sophisticated, politicised and cynical Dylan. The bleak material, concerned with such subjects as the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers and the despair engendered by the breakdown of farming and mining communities ("Ballad of Hollis Brown", "North Country Blues"), was lightened by a single anti-love song, "Boots of Spanish Leather". "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", a highlight of the album, describes a young aristocrat's killing of a maid. Never explicitly mentioning race, the song leaves no doubt that the killer is white, the victim black.
By the end of the year, however, he started to feel both manipulated and constrained by the folk-protest movement. Accepting the "Tom Paine Award" from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee at a ceremony shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a drunk and rambling Dylan questioned the role of the committee, insulted its many overweight and balding members and claimed he saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald. The messages, both from Dylan and those who booed him, were clear: Dylan and the civil rights movement were drifting apart. Some say this separation was not ideological, but rather an expression of Dylan's understandable reluctance to accept the title "Voice of His Generation".
Perhaps inevitably, then, his next album — the accurately but prosaically titled Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964) — had a lighter mood than its predecessor. The surreal Dylan re-emerged on "I Shall Be Free #10" and "Motorpsycho Nightmare" employing a sense of humor which would persist throughout his career. "Spanish Harlem Incident" and "To Ramona" were touching love songs, while "Ballad in Plain D" and "I Don't Believe You" mourned a breakup; perhaps Dylan's parting with long-time girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who had been pictured with him on the famous album cover of Freewheelin'. Musically he had changed, too. Another Side is the first album on which Dylan's piano playing is featured (though only on one track, "Black Crow Blues"), with the beat and bass of his left hand presaging his return to rock music the next year. Perhaps more important to his later development were two other tracks. "Chimes of Freedom" was the first of a new type of Dylan song: lengthy and impressionistic, it retains an element of social commentary but with the topicality of his earlier work replaced by dense metaphorical landscape, a style later characterised by Allen Ginsberg as "chains of flashing images". "My Back Pages", in a similar style, is even more personal, a scathing attack on the dichotomous simplicity and arch seriousness of his own earlier work. By way of excuse, or even apology, he offers only that "I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now" and few have summed up the transition in his work from 1963 to 1965 better.
Throughout this time Dylan's artistic development moved so fast that he frequently left both critics and fans behind. His March 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was a further stylistic leap. Influenced by The Beatles (whose artistic development had already been enhanced by Dylan's influence), and the rock and roll of his youth, the first side contained his first original uptempo rock songs. The music, provided by a full electric band of mainly session musicians, was a definite departure. Lyrically, however, the songs were pure Dylan, exhibiting his dry wit and inhabited by a sequence of grotesque, metaphorical characters. The raucous first single, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" owed much to Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business" and was provided with an early music video courtesy of D. A. Pennebaker's cinema verite presentation of Dylan's 1965 tour, Don't Look Back. Its opening lines were memorized by nearly the entire generation.
Side 2 of the album was a different matter, comprising lengthy acoustic songs whose undogmatic political, social and personal concerns are illuminated with the rich poetic imagery that would become another trademark. One of these songs, "Mr. Tambourine Man", had already been a hit for The Byrds, albeit in a truncated form, and would remain one of Dylan's most enduring compositions.
That summer, Bob Dylan guaranteed the mythological nature of his legacy by performing his first electric set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival, remembered ever since as a watershed event. Dylan had appeared at Newport twice before in 1963 and 1964. Two wildly divergent accounts of the crowd's response in 1965, each equally plausible, exist to this day. The agreed-upon fact is that upon receiving a mix of boos and cheers, Dylan left the stage after only a few songs. As one legend has it, the boos were from the outraged folk fans Dylan alienated with his electric guitars. According to this account, folk great Pete Seeger grabbed an axe, threatening to cut the power during the performance. Seeger insists there was no axe--he had merely joked about cutting the lines, and that due to excessive volume, not the music itself. When interviewed for the PBS Roots Music series, Seeger stated he was irritated that the lyric to "Maggie's Farm" (a song Seeger admired) was nearly incomprehensible due to the volume and musical arrangement. The other story says that the fans were upset by poor sound quality and a truncated set. Either way, Dylan re-emerged and sang a few solo acoustic numbers to everyone's satisfaction.
Ignoring the occasional negative criticism, Dylan's rapid output (some say fuelled by rapid amphetamine intake) continued unabated through 1965 and 1966. The single "Like a Rolling Stone" was a US hit, cementing his reputation as a lyricist; at over six minutes, devoid of a bridge, "Like a Rolling Stone" also helped to expand the limits of hit radio. Its signature sound, with a full, jangling band and a simple organ riff, would characterise his next album release, Highway 61 Revisited (titled after the road that led from his native Minnesota to the musical hotbed of New Orleans; and also referencing any number of blues songs; i.e. Mississippi Fred McDowell's "61 Highway."). The songs were in the same vein as the advance single, more surreal litanies of the grotesque flavoured by Bloomfield's blues guitar, a tight rhythm section and Dylan's obvious enjoyment of the sessions. The closing song, "Desolation Row", a lengthy apocalyptic vision, wore its poeticism and influences on its sleeve, self-consciously referring to both Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.
In support of the record, Dylan was booked for two US concerts, and set about assembling a band. Finding what he was looking for in The Hawks, then backing R&B singer Ronnie Hawkins, he persuaded the group to join him on tour. In August/September 1965 at Forest Hills Auditorium and the Hollywood Bowl the group were heckled by the audience who, Newport notwithstanding, still expected the acoustic troubadour of previous years. Undaunted, Dylan returned to the studio that October to begin work on his next album, the double Blonde on Blonde.
Musicians in the studio, including The Hawks (who would slowly metamorphose into The Band), honed Dylan's sound. "That thin wild mercury sound," Dylan called it, obviating further description. The result was another classic record, often included in the top 5 on 'best albums of all time' lists. The record eclipsed Dylan's earlier works with masterpieces "Visions of Johanna" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again." The earlier surrealism now seemed tempered with more humanity and the record more coherent than its predecessors, with knowing nods to The Beatles, amongst others. In his personal life, Dylan secretly married Sara Lowndes on November 22, 1965.
Touring to promote the record remained hectic, however, taking him to Europe and Australia through the summer of 1966, including a famously raucous confrontation with an audience at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in England. At this show, long bootlegged and officially released in 1998, a folk fan loudly shouts "Judas!" from the restless audience, to which Dylan responds, "I don't believe you. You're a liar." Turning to his band, Dylan urges them to "play fucking loud!" In fact, the audiences' negative reactions resulted in drummer Levon Helm quitting the band.
Meanwhile, Dylan was being pressured to produce the book length poem Tarantula, and, by many accounts, had stepped up his drug and alcohol intake to dangerous levels. The pace of his private and professional life seemed unsustainable. On July 29, 1966, near his home in Woodstock, New York, the brakes of his Triumph 500 motorcycle locked, throwing him to the ground. The extent of his injuries was never fully disclosed and, whether through necessity or opportunism, Dylan used an extended convalescence to escape the pressures of stardom.
After convincing Levon Helm to rejoin them, The Band moved into a nearby big, pink house. Once Dylan was well enough, he began editing footage into Eat the Document, an as-yet unreleased sequel to Don't Look Back. More importantly, he began recording music with The Band in the basement of "Big Pink". The relaxed atmosphere yielded renditions of many of Dylan's favorite folk songs, and some newly written songs. These originals, at first compiled as demos for other artists to record, began to circulate on their own merits. Columbia released selections from them in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.
Unsurprisingly his official output was to be strongly influenced by the relaxed lifestyle which led to The Basement Tapes. His first release after the accident, John Wesley Harding (1967), was a contemplative record, heavily influenced by the Bible, which included "All Along The Watchtower", later immortalised by Jimi Hendrix. Dylan intended for the album's sparse arrangements to be filled in by later Band overdubs. Upon hearing it, The Band decided to let it stand. The sparse structure and instrumentation, coupled with lyrics firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, marked a departure not only from Dylan's own work, but from the escalating psychedelic fervor of the 1960s musical culture. This departure was underscored by Dylan's conspicuous absence from the Woodstock festival in 1969.
The second release after the motorcycle accident, Nashville Skyline (1969), produced by Bob Johnston, was a mainstream country record featuring a mellow voiced, contented Dylan and a duet with Johnny Cash. It also garnered Dylan new fans with the hit single "Lay Lady Lay". The same year, Dylan returned to live performance at the Isle of Wight rock festival (having made a brief appearance at Woody Guthrie's memorial concert in 1968).