Spotlight Artist - Bob Dylan
There is no real introduction needed for Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan was and still is
an American music icon. The sixties would not have been the same without Bob Dylan. My personal opinion
is that he surely was a better songwriter and musician than a singer but there is no doubt he had a major
impact on the music of the sixties and beyond. His life was an up and down soap opera but an interesting
Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman May 24, 1941 in Duluth Minnesota, a son
of Jewish parents. He spent most of his childhood listening to the radio, mostly blues and country and
western. He formed several bands in high school: The Shadow Blasters was short-lived, but his next, The
Golden Chords, lasted longer and played covers of popular songs. Their performance of Danny and the Juniors'
"Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay" at their high school talent show was so loud that the principal cut the
microphone off. In 1959 he saw Buddy Holly in the Winter Dance Party tour and later recalled how he made eye
contact with him. In his 1959 school yearbook, Robert Zimmerman listed as his ambition "To join Little
Richard." The same year, using the name Elston Gunnn (sic), he performed two dates with Bobby Vee, playing
piano and providing handclaps.
Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis in September 1959 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota.
His early focus on rock and roll gave way to an interest in American folk music. In 1985 Dylan explained the
attraction that folk music had exerted on him: "The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough
... There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms ... but the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect
life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs
are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings." He
soon began to perform at the 10 O'clock Scholar, a coffee house a few blocks from campus, and became actively
involved in the local Dinkytown folk music circuit.
During his Dinkytown days, Zimmerman began introducing himself as "Bob Dylan." In a 2004
interview, Dylan explained: "You're born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call
yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free." In his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume
One, Dylan acknowledged that he was familiar with the poetry of Dylan Thomas.
Dylan dropped out of college at the end of his freshman year. In January 1961, he moved to New
York City, hoping to perform there and visit his musical idol Woody Guthrie, who was seriously ill with
Huntington's Disease in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. Guthrie had been a revelation to Dylan and was the
biggest influence on his early performances. Describing Guthrie's impact on him, Dylan later wrote: "The songs
themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them ... [He] was the true voice of the American spirit. I said to
myself I was going to be Guthrie's greatest disciple." As well as visiting Guthrie in the hospital, Dylan
befriended Guthrie's acolyte Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Much of Guthrie's repertoire was actually channeled through
Elliott, and Dylan paid tribute to Elliott in Chronicles (2004).
From February 1961, Dylan played at various clubs around Greenwich Village. In September, he
eventually gained public recognition when Robert Shelton wrote a positive review in The New York Times of a show at
Gerde's Folk City. The same month Dylan played harmonica on folk singer Carolyn Hester's eponymous third album,
which brought his talents to the attention of the album's producer John Hammond. Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia
Records in October. The performances on his first Columbia album, Bob Dylan (1962), consisted of familiar folk,
blues and gospel material combined with two original compositions. The album made little impact, selling only 5,000
copies in its first year, just enough to break even. Within Columbia Records, some referred to the singer as
"Hammond's Folly" and suggested dropping his contract. Hammond defended Dylan vigorously, and Johnny Cash was also
a powerful ally of Dylan. While working for Columbia, Dylan also recorded several songs under the pseudonym Blind
Boy Grunt, for Broadside Magazine, a folk music magazine and record label.
Dylan made two important career moves in August 1962. He legally changed his name to Robert
Dylan, and signed a management contract with Albert Grossman. Grossman remained Dylan's manager until 1970, and was
notable both for his sometimes confrontational personality, and for the fiercely protective loyalty he displayed
towards his principal client. Dylan would subsequently describe Grossman thus: "He was kind of like a Colonel Tom
Parker figure ... you could smell him coming." Tensions between Grossman and John Hammond led to Hammond being
replaced as the producer of Dylan's second album by the young African American jazz producer Tom Wilson.
From December 1962 to January 1963, Dylan made his first trip to the UK. He had been invited by
TV director Philip Saville to appear in a drama, The Madhouse on Castle Street, which Saville was directing for BBC
Television. At the end of the play, Dylan performed Blowin' in the Wind, one of the first major public performances
of the song While in London, Dylan performed at several London folk clubs, including Les Cousins, The Pinder Of
Wakefield, and Bunjies. He also learned new songs from several UK performers, including Martin Carthy.
By the time Dylan's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, was released in May 1963, he had
begun to make his name as both a singer and a songwriter. Many of the songs on this album were labeled protest
songs, inspired partly by Guthrie and influenced by Pete Seeger's passion for topical songs. "Oxford Town", for
example, was a sardonic account of James Meredith's ordeal as the first black student to risk enrollment at the
University of Mississippi.
His most famous song at this time, "Blowin' in the Wind", partially derived its melody from the
traditional slave song "No More Auction Block", while its lyrics questioned the social and political status quo.
The song was widely recorded and became an international hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, setting a precedent for many
other artists who would have hits with Dylan's songs. "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" was based on the tune of the
folk ballad "Lord Randall". With its veiled references to nuclear apocalypse, it gained even more resonance when
the Cuban missile crisis developed only a few weeks after Dylan began performing it. Like "Blowin' in the Wind", "A
Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" marked an important new direction in modern songwriting, blending a
stream-of-consciousness, imagist lyrical attack with a traditional folk form.
While Dylan's topical songs solidified his early reputation, Freewheelin' also included a
mixture of love songs and jokey, surreal talking blues. Humor was a large part of Dylan's persona, and the range of
material on the album impressed many listeners, including The Beatles. George Harrison said, "We just played it,
just wore it out. The content of the song lyrics and just the attitude—it was incredibly original and
The rough edge of Dylan's singing was unsettling to some early listeners but an attraction to
others. Describing the impact that Dylan had on her and her husband, Joyce Carol Oates wrote: "When we first heard
this raw, very young, and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing, the effect was
dramatic and electrifying." Many of his most famous early songs first reached the public through more immediately
palatable versions by other performers, such as Joan Baez, who became Dylan's advocate, as well as his lover. Baez
was influential in bringing Dylan to national and international prominence by recording several of his early songs
and inviting him onstage during her own concerts.
Others who recorded and had hits with Dylan's songs in the early and mid-1960s included The
Byrds, Sonny and Cher, The Hollies, Peter, Paul and Mary, Manfred Mann, and The Turtles. Most attempted to impart a
pop feel and rhythm to the songs, while Dylan and Baez performed them mostly as sparse folk pieces. The cover
versions became so ubiquitous that CBS started to promote him with the tag "Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan."
"Mixed Up Confusion", recorded during the Freewheelin' sessions with a backing band, was
released as a single and then quickly withdrawn. In contrast to the mostly solo acoustic performances on the album,
the single showed a willingness to experiment with a rockabilly sound. Cameron Crowe described it as "a fascinating
look at a folk artist with his mind wandering towards Elvis Presley and Sun Records."
 Protest and Another Side
In May 1963, Dylan's political profile was raised when he walked out of The Ed Sullivan Show.
During rehearsals, Dylan had been informed by CBS Television's "head of program practices" that the song he was
planning to perform, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues", was potentially libelous to the John Birch Society.
Rather than comply with the censorship, Dylan refused to appear on the program.
Dylan said of "The Times They Are a-Changin'": "This was definitely a song with a purpose. I wanted to write a big
song, some kind of theme song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil
rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close and allied together at that time."
By this time, Dylan and Baez were both prominent in the civil rights movement, singing together
at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Dylan's third album, The Times They Are a-Changin', reflected a more
politicized and cynical Dylan. The songs often took as their subject matter contemporary, real life stories, with
"Only A Pawn In Their Game" addressing the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers; and the Brechtian "The
Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" the death of black hotel barmaid Hattie Carroll, at the hands of young white
socialite William Zantzinger. On a more general theme, "Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "North Country Blues" address
the despair engendered by the breakdown of farming and mining communities. This political material was accompanied
by two personal love songs, "Boots of Spanish Leather" and "One Too Many Mornings".
By the end of 1963, Dylan felt both manipulated and constrained by the folk and protest
movements. These tensions were publicly displayed when, accepting the "Tom Paine Award" from the National Emergency
Civil Liberties Committee shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an intoxicated Dylan brashly
questioned the role of the committee, characterized the members as old and balding, and claimed to see something of
himself (and of every man) in Kennedy's alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
His newest direction was signaled by two lengthy songs: the impressionistic "Chimes of Freedom",
which sets elements of social commentary against a denser metaphorical landscape in a style later characterized by
Allen Ginsberg as "chains of flashing images," and "My Back Pages", which attacks the simplistic and arch
seriousness of his own earlier topical songs and seems to predict the backlash he was about to encounter from his
former champions as he took a new direction.
In the latter half of 1964 and 1965, Dylan’s appearance and musical style changed rapidly, as he
made his move from leading contemporary songwriter of the folk scene to folk-rock pop-music star. His scruffy jeans
and work shirts were replaced by a Carnaby Street wardrobe, sunglasses day or night, and pointy "Beatle boots".
Dylan's March 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was yet another stylistic leap, featuring his
first recordings made with electric instruments. The 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
cinéma vérité presentation of Dylan's 1965 tour of England, Dont Look Back. Its free association lyrics both harked
back to the manic energy of Beat poetry and were a forerunner of rap and hip-hop.
In July 1965, Dylan released the single "Like a Rolling Stone", which peaked at #2 in the U.S. and at #4 in the UK
charts. At over six minutes in length, the song has been widely credited with altering attitudes about what a pop
single could convey. Bruce Springsteen, in his speech during Dylan's inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of
Fame said that on first hearing the single, "that snare shot sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your
mind". In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine listed it at #1 on its list of "The RS 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". The
song also opened Dylan's next album, Highway 61 Revisited, titled after the road that led from Dylan's Minnesota to
the musical hotbed of New Orleans.
On November 22, 1965, Dylan secretly married 25-year-old former model Sara Lownds. Some of
Dylan’s friends (including Ramblin' Jack Elliott) claim that, in conversation immediately after the event, Dylan
denied that he was married. Journalist Nora Ephron first made the news public in the New York Post in February 1966
with the headline “Hush! Bob Dylan is wed.”
Dylan undertook a world tour of Australia and Europe in the spring of 1966. Each show was split
into two parts. Dylan performed solo during the first half, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica.
In the second half, backed by the Hawks, he played high voltage electric music. This contrast provoked many fans,
who jeered and slow handclapped. The tour culminated in a famously raucous confrontation between Dylan and his
audience at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in England. (A recording of this concert, Bob Dylan Live 1966, was
finally released in 1998.) At the climax of the evening, one fan, angry with Dylan's electric sound, shouted:
"Judas!" to which Dylan responded, "I don't believe you ... You're a liar!". Dylan turned to his band and said
"Play it fucking loud!", and they launched into the final song of the night with gusto—"Like a Rolling Stone".
After his European tour, Dylan returned to New York, but the pressures on him continued to
increase. ABC Television had paid an advance for a TV show they could screen. His publisher, Macmillan, was
demanding a finished manuscript of the poem/novel Tarantula. Manager Albert Grossman had already scheduled an
extensive concert tour for that summer and fall.
On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his 500cc Triumph Tiger 100 motorcycle on a road near his home
in Woodstock, New York, throwing him to the ground. Though the extent of his injuries were never fully disclosed,
Dylan said that he broke several vertebrae in his neck. Mystery still surrounds the circumstances of the accident
since no ambulance was called to the scene and Dylan was not hospitalized. Dylan later expressed concern about
where his career and private life were headed up until the point of the crash: "When I had that motorcycle accident
... I woke up and caught my senses, I realized that I was just workin' for all these leeches. And I didn't want to
do that. Plus, I had a family and I just wanted to see my kids." Many biographers believe that the crash offered
Dylan the much-needed chance to escape from the pressures that had built up around him. In the wake of his
accident, Dylan withdrew from the public and, apart from a few select appearances, did not tour again for eight
Once Dylan was well enough to resume creative work, he began editing film footage of his 1966
tour for Eat the Document, a rarely exhibited follow-up to Dont Look Back. A rough-cut was shown to ABC Television
and was promptly rejected as incomprehensible to a mainstream audience. In 1967 he began recording music with the
Hawks at his home and in the basement of the Hawks' nearby house, called "Big Pink". These songs, initially
compiled as demos for other artists to record, provided hit singles for Julie Driscoll ("This Wheel's on Fire"),
The Byrds ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere", "Nothing Was Delivered"), and Manfred Mann (Quinn the Eskimo ("The Mighty
Quinn"). Columbia belatedly released selections from them in 1975 as The Basement Tapes. Over the years, more and
more of the songs recorded by Dylan and his band in 1967 appeared on various bootleg recordings, culminating in a
five-CD bootleg set titled The Genuine Basement Tapes, containing 107 songs and alternate takes. In the coming
months, the Hawks recorded the album Music from Big Pink using songs they first worked on in their basement in
Woodstock, and renamed themselves The Band, thus beginning a long and successful recording and performing career of
In October and November 1967, Dylan returned to Nashville. Back in the recording studio after a
19-month break, he was accompanied only by Charlie McCoy on bass, Kenny Buttrey on drums, and Pete Drake on steel
guitar. The result was John Wesley Harding, a quiet, contemplative record of shorter songs, set in a landscape that
drew on both the American West and the Bible. The sparse structure and instrumentation, coupled with lyrics that
took the Judeo-Christian tradition seriously, marked a departure not only from Dylan's own work but from the
escalating psychedelic fervor of the 1960s musical culture. It included "All Along the Watchtower", with lyrics
derived from the Book of Isaiah (21:5–9). The song was later recorded by Jimi Hendrix, whose version Dylan himself
would later acknowledge as definitive. Woody Guthrie died on October 3, 1967, and Dylan made his first live
appearance in twenty months at a Guthrie memorial concert held at Carnegie Hall on January 20, 1968, where he was
backed by The Band.
Dylan's next release, Nashville Skyline (1969), was virtually a mainstream country record featuring instrumental
backing by Nashville musicians, a mellow-voiced Dylan, a duet with Johnny Cash, and the hit single "Lay Lady Lay",
which had been originally written for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, but was not submitted in time to make the
final cut. In May 1969, Dylan appeared on the first episode of Johnny Cash's new television show, duetting with
Cash on "Girl from the North Country", "I Threw It All Away" and "Living the Blues". Dylan next travelled to
England to top the bill at the Isle of Wight rock festival on August 31, 1969, after rejecting overtures to appear
at the Woodstock Festival far closer to his home.
n the early 1970s critics charged Dylan's output was of varied and unpredictable quality.
Rolling Stone magazine writer and Dylan loyalist Greil Marcus notoriously asked "What is this shit?" upon first
listening to 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, which some considered a return to form. In November 1968,
Dylan had co-written "I'd Have You Anytime" with George Harrison; Harrison recorded both "I'd Have You Anytime" and
Dylan's "If Not For You" for his 1970 solo triple album All Things Must Pass. Dylan's surprise appearance at
Harrison's 1971 Concert for Bangladesh attracted much media coverage, reflecting that Dylan's live appearances had
Between March 16 and 19, 1971, Dylan reserved three days at Blue Rock Studios, a small studio in
New York's Greenwich Village. These sessions resulted in one single, "Watching The River Flow", and a new recording
of "When I Paint My Masterpiece". On November 4, 1971 Dylan recorded "George Jackson" which he released a week
later. For many, the single was a surprising return to protest material, mourning the killing of Black Panther
George Jackson in San Quentin Prison that summer.
In 1972 Dylan signed onto Sam Peckinpah's film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, providing songs
and backing music for the movie, and playing the role of "Alias", a member of Billy's gang who had some basis in
history. Despite the film's failure at the box office, the song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" has proven its
durability as one of Dylan's most extensively covered songs.
Dylan began 1973 by signing with a new record label, David Geffen's Asylum Records, when his
contract with Columbia Records expired. On his next album, Planet Waves, he used The Band as backing group, while
rehearsing for a major tour. The album included two versions of "Forever Young", which became one of his most
popular songs. Christopher Ricks has connected the chorus of this song with John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn",
which contains the line "For ever panting, and for ever young." As one critic described it, the song projected
"something hymnal and heartfelt that spoke of the father in Dylan", and Dylan himself commented: "I wrote it
thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental." Biographer Howard Sounes noted that Jakob
Dylan believed the song was about him.
Columbia Records simultaneously released Dylan, a haphazard collection of studio outtakes
(almost exclusively cover songs), which was widely interpreted as a churlish response to Dylan's signing with a
rival record label. In January 1974 Dylan and The Band embarked on their high-profile, coast-to-coast North
American tour. A live double album of the tour, Before the Flood, was released on Asylum Records.
After the tour, Dylan and his wife became publicly estranged. He filled a small red notebook with songs about
relationships and ruptures, and quickly recorded a new album entitled Blood on the Tracks in September 1974. Dylan
delayed the album's release, however, and re-recorded half of the songs at Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis with
production assistance from his brother David Zimmerman. During this time, Dylan returned to Columbia Records which
eventually reissued his Asylum albums.
That summer Dylan wrote his first successful "protest" song in 12 years, championing the cause
of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who had been imprisoned for a triple murder in Paterson, New Jersey. After
visiting Carter in jail, Dylan wrote "Hurricane", presenting the case for Carter's innocence. Despite its 8:32
minute length, the song was released as a single, peaking at #33 on the U.S. Billboard Chart, and performed at
every 1975 date of Dylan's next tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue. The tour was a varied evening of
entertainment featuring about one hundred performers and supporters drawn from the resurgent Greenwich Village folk
scene, including T-Bone Burnett, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell. David Mansfield, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson,
Joan Baez, and violinist Scarlet Rivera, whom Dylan discovered while she was walking down the street, her violin
case hanging on her back. Allen Ginsberg accompanied the troupe, staging scenes for the film Dylan was
simultaneously shooting. Sam Shepard was initially hired to write the film's screenplay, but ended up accompanying
the tour as informal chronicler.
In the late 1970s, Dylan became a born-again Christian and released two albums of Christian
gospel music. Slow Train Coming (1979) featured the guitar accompaniment of Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) and was
produced by veteran R&B producer, Jerry Wexler. Wexler recalled that when Dylan had tried to evangelize him
during the recording, he replied: "Bob, you're dealing with a sixty-two-year old Jewish atheist. Let's just make an
album." The album won Dylan a Grammy Award as "Best Male Vocalist" for the song "Gotta Serve Somebody". The second
evangelical album, Saved (1980), received mixed reviews, although Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone declared the album
was far superior, musically, to its predecessor. When touring from the fall of 1979 through the spring of 1980,
Dylan would not play any of his older, secular works, and he delivered declarations of his faith from the stage,
Dylan's embrace of Christianity was unpopular with some of his fans and fellow musicians.
Shortly before his murder, John Lennon recorded "Serve Yourself" in response to Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody". By
1981, while Dylan's Christian faith was obvious, Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times that "neither age (he's
now 40) nor his much-publicized conversion to born-again Christianity has altered his essentially iconoclastic
In the fall of 1980 Dylan briefly resumed touring for a series of concerts billed as "A Musical
Retrospective", where he restored several of his popular 1960s songs to the repertoire. Shot of Love, recorded the
next spring, featured Dylan's first secular compositions in more than two years, mixed with explicitly Christian
songs. The haunting "Every Grain of Sand" reminded some critics of William Blake’s verses.
Dylan sang on USA for Africa's famine relief fundraising single "We Are the World". On July 13,
1985, he appeared at the climax at the Live Aid concert at JFK Stadium, Philadelphia. Backed by Keith Richards and
Ronnie Wood, Dylan performed a ragged version of "Hollis Brown", his ballad of rural poverty, and then said to the
worldwide audience exceeding one billion people: "I hope that some of the money ... maybe they can just take a
little bit of it, maybe ... one or two million, maybe ... and use it to pay the mortgages on some of the farms and,
the farmers here, owe to the banks." His remarks were widely criticized as inappropriate, but they did inspire
Willie Nelson to organize a series of events, Farm Aid, to benefit debt-ridden American farmers.
In 1991, Dylan was honored by the recording industry with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The event coincided with the start of the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, and Dylan performed his song "Masters of
War". Dylan then made a short speech which startled some of the audience.
In December 1997 U.S. President Bill Clinton presented Dylan with a Kennedy Center Honor in the
East Room of the White House, paying this tribute: "He probably had more impact on people of my generation than any
other creative artist. His voice and lyrics haven't always been easy on the ear, but throughout his career Bob
Dylan has never aimed to please. He's disturbed the peace and discomforted the powerful."
Bob Dylan continues to perform and record today. He has just released a Christmas