Bob Dylan is a highly influential American songwriter, musician, and poet.
Much of Dylan’s best known work is from the 1960s, when he became a documentarian and reluctant figurehead of American unrest. Many involved in the civil rights movement found an anthem in his song “Blowin’ In The Wind”. Millions of young people embraced “The Times They Are A-Changin'” as an icon of the decade.
Dylan expanded the vocabulary of popular music by incorporating politics/social commentary, philosophy, and literature. In doing so he created a style which combines lyrical stream of consciousness with often absurdist social and political moralizing, defying folk music convention and appealing widely to the counterculture of the time. While expanding and personalizing musical styles, Dylan has nonetheless shown devotion to 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 and spent his earliest years in Duluth, Minnesota. After his father Abraham was stricken with polio, the family returned to nearby Hibbing, his mother Beatty’s home town, as Robert neared his sixth birthday. His grandparents were Lithuanian, Russian and Ukranian Jewish emigrants, and his parents were part of the area’s small but close-knit Jewish community.
Dylan 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 made his earliest known recordings on Christmas Eve 1956, in a department store booth, singing verses of songs by Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, The Penguins, and others. Dylan formed several bands while in high school; the first, The Shadow Blasters, was short-lived, but the second, the Golden Chords, proved more durable and more successful. In 1959 he toured briefly, under the name of Elston Gunnn with Bobby Vee, playing piano and supplying handclaps.
An able but not outstanding student, he started university studies in 1959 in Minneapolis, where he was actively involved in the local Dinkytown folk music circuit. During his Dinkytown days Zimmerman began introducing himself as Bob Dylan. Dylan has never explained the exact source for the pseudonym, sometimes alluding to an apparently mythical uncle, sometimes to the hero of Gunsmoke, to its similarity to his middle name, and occasionally acknowledging some reference to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Dylan quit college at the end of his freshman year but stayed in Minneapolis, working the folk circuit there with temporary sojourns in Denver, Colorado, and Chicago, Illinois. In January 1961, en route to Minneapolis from Chicago, he changed course and headed to New York City to perform and to visit his ailing idol Woody Guthrie. Initially playing mostly in small “basket” clubs for little pay, he soon gained some public recognition after a review in the New York Times by critic Robert Shelton, while John Hammond, a legendary music business figure, signed him to Columbia Records.
At the time his voice, musicianship and songwriting were still raw. His performances, like his first Columbia album, consisted of familiar folk, blues and gospel material seasoned with a few of his own songs. As he continued to record for Columbia, 1962 also saw Dylan recording some of his lesser songs for Broadside, under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt. By the time his next record, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in which his girlfriend Suze Rotolo appeared on the cover, was released in 1963, he had begun to make his name as both a singer and composer, specializing in protest songs, initially in the style of Guthrie and soon practically developing his own genre.
His most famous songs of the time are typified by “Blowin’ In The Wind”, its melody partially derived from the traditional slave song “No More Auction Block”, coupled with lyrics challenging the social and political status quo. In hindsight, the lyrics to some of these songs may appear unsophisticated, but compared to the largely anemic popular culture of the 1950s they were a breath of fresh air, and the songs fueled the zeitgeist of the 1960s”.Blowin’ In The Wind” itself was widely recorded, an international hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, setting an enduring precedent for other artists to cover Dylan’s songs. While Dylan’s topical songs made his early reputation, Freewheelin’ also mixed in finely crafted bittersweet love songs and jokey, frequently surreal talking blues. The song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” occupies a plane perhaps above even “Blowin’ In The Wind”, with its hard-hitting imagery and almost God’s-eye perspective. It represents a nearly alchemical moment in modern songwriting in which time-tested folk structures are reworked into a latter-day idiom encompassing world events and deep personal reflection. The song gained even more resonance as the Cuban missile crisis developed only a few weeks after Dylan began performing it.
While undeniably a fine interpreter of traditional songs, Dylan was hardly a “good” singer under the narrow strictures of American popular-commercial music; 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 and perform his early material regularly; others who covered his songs included 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 rapidly changed to hipster arbiter of all things cool and uncool.
In the early 1970s Dylan’s output was of varied and unpredictable quality”.What is this shit?” notoriously asked Greil Marcus, Rolling Stone magazine writer and Dylan loyalist, about 1970’s Self Portrait. In general, Self Portrait, a double LP including few original songs, was poorly received. Later that year, Dylan released New Morning, something of a return to form. His unannounced appearance at George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh was widely praised, but reports of a new album, a television special, and a return to touring came to nothing.
In 1972, Dylan signed onto Sam Peckinpah’s film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, providing the songs and taking a minor role as “Alias” a minor member of Billy’s gang”.Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, among Dylan’s most covered songs, has proved much more durable than the film itself.
In 1973, after his contract with Columbia ran out, Dylan signed with David Geffen’s new Asylum label. He recorded Planet Waves with the Band; like New Morning, Planet Waves was initially viewed as a return to peak form, but in retrospect appears less substantial. Columbia almost simultaneously released Dylan, a haphazard collection of studio outtakes often termed a “revenge” release.
In early 1974, Dylan and the Band staged a high-profile, coast-to-coast tour of North American; promoter Bill Graham claimed he received more ticket purchase requests than any prior tour by any artist. The tour is documented on the Before the Flood album, but Dylan refused to allow a tour film to be made.
After the tour, Dylan and his wife became publicly estranged. He filled a small, red notebook with songs springing from the breakup and in September, with the help of John Hammond, quickly recorded the album Blood on the Tracks in the New York City studio where his recording career began. Word of Dylan’s efforts soon leaked out, and expectations were high, but Dylan delayed the album’s release, then rerecorded half the songs in Minneapolis at year’s end. Released early in 1975, BOTT was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, although Dylan’s fans still debate the relative merits of the ultimate release and the original recordings.
That summer, Dylan wrote his first successful “protest” song in 12 years, championing the cause of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who he believed had been wrongfully imprisoned for a triple homicide in Paterson, New Jersey. After visiting Carter in jail Dylan wrote “Hurricane”, a sympathetic presentation of Carter’s situation. Despite its length, the song was released as a single and performed at every 1975 date of Dylan’s next tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue. The tour was something different: a varied evening of entertainment featuring many performers drawn mostly from the resurgent Greenwich Village folk scene, including T-Bone Burnett; Steven Soles; David Mansfield; former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn; Scarlet Rivera, a violin player Dylan discovered while she was walking down the street to a rehearsal, her violin case hanging on her back; and a reunion with Joan Baez. Joni Mitchell added herself to the Revue in November, and poet Allen Ginsberg accompanied the troupe, staging scenes for the film Dylan was simultaneously shooting.
Running through the fall of 1975 and again through the spring of 1976, the tour also encompassed the release of the album Desire, with many of Dylan’s new songs featuring an almost travelogue-like narrative style, showing the influence of his new collaborator, playwright Jacques Levy. The spring 1976 half of the tour was documented by a TV concert special, Hard Rain, and...
an LP of the same title; no concert album from the better-received and better-known opening half of the tour would be released until 2002, when Live 1975 appeared as the fifth volume of Dylan’s Bootleg Series.
The fall 1975 tour with the Revue also provided the backdrop to Dylan’s three hour and fifty-five minute film Renaldo and Clara, its sprawling, improvised and frequently baffling narrative mixed with striking concert footage and reminiscences. Released in 1978, the movie received generally poor, sometimes scathing, reviews and had a very brief theatrical run. Later in that year, Dylan allowed a two-hour edit, dominated by the concert performances, to be more widely released.
In November 1976, Dylan appeared at The Band’s “farewell” concert, along with other guests including Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, and Neil Young. Martin Scorsese’s concert film The Last Waltz, including about half of Dylan’s set, was released in 1978.
Dylan’s 1978 album Street-Legal was generally well reviewed. Lyrically one of his more complex and absorbing, it suffered, however, from a poor sound mix, submerging much of its instrumentation in the sonic equivalent of cotton wadding until its remastered CD release nearly a quarter century later.
Dylan’s work in the late 1970s and early 1980s was dominated by his becoming, in 1979, a born-again Christian. He released two albums of exclusively religious material and a third that seemed mostly so; of these, the first, Slow Train Coming, is generally regarded as the most accomplished. When touring from the fall of 1979 through the spring of 1980, Dylan refused to play secular music, delivered increasingly long sermonettes on stage, and often discussed the apocalyptic predictions of Hal Lindsey.
Hard-working elder statesman.
In the fall of 1980, Dylan briefly resumed touring, restoring songs from prior to his Christian trilogy to his repertoire, for a series of concerts billed as “A Musical Retrospective”. Shot of Love, recorded the next spring, featured Dylan’s first secular compositions in more than two years, mixed with explicitly Christian songs and material that resisted pigeonholing.
After composing and recording proselytical Christian songs over the course of his prior three albums, on 1983’s well-received Infidels Dylan returned to writing predominantly secular songs, with a few songs that obliquely suggest Christian themes, but without a proselytical tone.
However, doldrums set in through much of the 1980s, with his work varying from the well-regarded Infidels to the poorly received 1988 Down in the Groove. The Infidels recording session included “Blind Willie McTell”, as well as “Foot of Pride”, “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart” and “Lord Protect My Child”, which were later released on the boxed set The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 1961-1991. Many Dylan devotees consider an early version of the Infidels, prepared by producer/guitarist Mark Knopfler, to be superior to the final version both in performance and in song selection.
Although less consistent, the decade’s later albums each contain gems, from 1985’s Empire Burlesque to Knocked Out Loaded to even Down in the Groove (containing the catchy “Silvio”, with lyrics written by Grateful Dead collaborator Robert Hunter. Dylan made a number of music videos during this period, but only “Political World” found any regular airtime on MTV.
In late 1985, Dylan married his longtime backup singer Carolyn Dennis. Their daughter, Desiree, was born early in 1986. The couple divorced in the early 1990s.
In 1987 he starred in Richard Marquand’s movie Hearts of Fire, in which he played a washed up rock star turned chicken farmer whose teenage lover leaves him for a jaded English synth-pop sensation. The film was a critical and commercial dud. When asked in a press conference if he had anything to do with writing this movie Dylan replied, attempting to stifle his laughter, “I couldn’t have possibly written anything like that”.
Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Later that spring, he took part in the first Traveling Wilburys album project, working with Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and his good friend George Harrison on lighthearted, well-selling fare. Despite Orbison’s death, the other four Wilburys issued a sequel in 1990.
Dylan finished the decade on a critical high note with the Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy. Lanois’s influence is audible throughout Oh Mercy, especially in the ambience provided by reverb-heavy guitar tracks”.Ring Them Bells” seems to call for Christians to maintain a visible presence in the world, perhaps adding fuel to the debate over Dylan’s religious orientation. The track “Most of the Time”, a ruminative lost love composition, was later prominently featured in the film High Fidelity while “What Was It You Wanted?” was a love song that doubled as a dry comment on the expectations of fans.
1990s and beyond.
Dylan’s 1990s began with Under the Red Sky, an odd about-face from the serious Oh Mercy. This album, dedicated to Gabby Goo Goo, puzzlingly included several apparently childish songs, including “Under the Red Sky” and “Wiggle Wiggle”, all recorded straight-on without any of the studio wizardry of “Oh Mercy”. The dedication can be explained as a nickname for Dylan’s four-year-old daughter, but the story that the album’s songs were written for her entertainment is plainly apocryphal.
The next few years saw Dylan returning to his folk roots with two albums covering old folk and blues numbers: Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, featuring nuanced interpretations and ragged but highly original acoustic guitar work. His 1995 concert on MTV Unplugged, and the album culled from it, marked Dylan’s only newly recorded output during the mid-1990s. Essentially a greatest hits collection, it also included “John Brown” an unreleased 1963 song detailing the ravages of both war and jingoism.
With the quality of his output taking a turn for the better, and a stack of songs reportedly begun while snowed-in on his Minnesota ranch, Dylan returned to the recording studio with Lanois in January 1997. That spring, before the album’s release, Dylan was hospitalized with a life-threatening heart infection, pericarditis, brought on by histoplasmosis. His scheduled European tour was cancelled, but Dylan made a speedy recovery and left the hospital saying, “I really thought I’d be seeing Elvis soon”. He was back on the road by midsummer, and in early fall performed before the Pope at the World Eucharistic Conference in Bologna, Italy.
September saw the release of the new Lanois-produced album, Dylan’s first collection of original songs in seven years. Time Out of Mind, with its bitter assessment of love and morbid ruminations, was highly acclaimed and achieved an unforeseen popularity among young listeners, particularly the song “Love Sick”, later covered by The White Stripes. This collection of complex songs won him his first solo Album of the Year Grammy Award. The ballad “To Make You Feel My Love”, covered by both Garth Brooks and Billy Joel, generated more royalties than any song he had written since the 1960s. Black humor is present throughout Time Out of Mind but comes out most on the 16-minute blues “Highlands”, his longest track to date.
In 2001, his song “Things Have Changed”, penned for the movie Wonder Boys, won an Academy Award for Best Song. For reasons unannounced, the Oscar tours with him, presiding over shows perched atop an amplifier.
Love and Theft, an album that explores divergent styles of American music and revisits Dylan’s own creative roots, emerged as an uplifting piece of art amidst a great tragedy, having been released on September 11, 2001. Lyrically adventurous and musically unprecedented in his long career, Love and Theft, by many accounts, stands among the greatest of his work. Even those quite familiar with his earlier work may have trouble imagining Bob Dylan crooning, as he does on “Bye and Bye” and “Moonlight”. Many believe the album’s lyrical strengths are as pronounced as in his most famous earlier work. Though Dylan produced the record himself under the pseudonym Jack Frost, the record’s fresh sound is owed in part to the accompanists. Tony Garnier, bassist and bandleader, had played with Dylan for 12 years, longer than any other musician. Larry Campbell, one of the most accomplished American guitarists of the last two decades, played on the road with Dylan from 1997 through 2004. Guitarist Charlie Sexton and drummer David Kemper had also toured with Dylan for years. Keyboard player Augie Meyers, the only musician not part of Dylan’s touring band, had also played on Time Out of Mind.
2003 saw the release of the film Masked & Anonymous, largely a joint creative venture with television producer Larry Charles, featuring one of the largest ever assemblages of top Hollywood stars in a single film. Dylan and Charles cowrote the film under the pseudonyms Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov. As difficult to decipher as some of his songs, Masked & Anonymous was panned by most major critics and had a limited run in theaters.
In 2005 preproduction began on a film entitled I’m Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan. The movie makes use of seven characters to represent the different aspects of Dylan’s life. The movie is to be directed by Todd Haynes, and the cast currently includes Cate Blanchett, Adrien Brody and Richard Gere.