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 trip.
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
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
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 wonderful."
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
 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
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
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
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 years.
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 their own.
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 become rare.
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
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, such as:
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 temperament."
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
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
Bob Dylan continues to perform and record today.