Bob Dylan’s influence as a singer-songwriter on the development of 20th century popular music is indisputable. His achievements encompass over five decades of constantly changing modes of creativity, and exhibit continual innovation, while remaining firmly rooted in American musical traditions. Bob Dylan’s ability to combine poetry, harmony and melody in a meaningful, often provocative context, has captivated millions across all age groups, cultures and societies. Through his modest and persuasive approach to music, he has demonstrated an impressive ability to question the most determined political forces, to fight all forms of prejudice, and to offer unflinching support for the less fortunate.
From Hibbing to New York
Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota on May 24, 1941. Growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota from age 6, the young Dylan had an early interest in music, listening avidly to blues, country and rock & roll on the radio and eventually taking up piano, guitar and harmonica. In high school he formed The Golden Chords and played covers of Little Richard and other popular songs of the time at local gigs. In 1959 he moved to Minneapolis where he enrolled at the arts college of the University of Minnesota. It was during these years that his interest in American folk music grew and he began to perform solo at coffeehouses under the name Bob Dylan.
In January 1961 he moved to New York City, where he began performing around Greenwich Village. It was at a concert at Gerde’s Folk City in September of that year that Dylan got his break after a positive review of the gig by New York Times’ critic Robert Shelton. It led Columbia A&R man John Hammond to sign Dylan and produce his first album, which was released in March 1962. In January 1961 he moved to New York City where he began performing around Greenwich Village.
From acoustic to electric
Bob Dylan’s first album was comprised almost entirely of folk and blues standards and included only two originals. Over the course of 1962 he began writing more original material, and stirred up the Greenwich Village folk scene with his caustic humor and gift for writing political protest songs.
The culmination of this period of songwriting was 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; the album made a huge impact on the American folk scene with many performers covering Dylan’s songs. The most significant were Peter, Paul and Mary, whose version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” became a hit in the summer of 1963. It was not long before Bob Dylan had made a name for himself, and by 1964 he was playing 200 concerts a year.
He released The Times They Are A-Changin’ in 1964, an album that mixed protest songs with more personal lyrics. Later that year he was introduced to Roger McGuinn from The Byrds to whom he gave “Mr Tambourine Man” – the song went on to become the band’s first hit in 1965, kicking off folk rock.
Beginning on the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, and fully implemented on Highway 61 Revisited later that summer, Dylan was backed by a rock & roll band, something that came as a disappointment to fans of his folk songs, but also made his music more appealing to a broader audience.
Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind
Bruce Springsteen speaking at the induction of Bob Dylan to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame , 1988“
“When I was a kid, Bob’s voice somehow – it thrilled and scared me. It made me feel kind of irresponsibly innocent. And it still does. But it reached down and touched what little worldliness I think a 15-year-old kid, in high school, in New Jersey had in him at the time. Dylan was – he was a revolutionary, man, the way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind. And he showed us that just because the music was innately physical, it did not mean that it was anti-intellect. He had the vision and the talent to expand a pop song until it contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound. He broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and he changed the face of rock and roll forever and ever.”
In 1965 Bob Dylan hired The Hawks as his touring band. The Hawks changed their name to The Band in 1968 and would go on to become Dylan’s most famous backing band, primarily because of their intuitive chemistry and “wild thin mercury sound.” His albums through the late ’60s and early ’70s, however, were more country and folk influenced – to many people’s surprise.
1975’s Blood on the Tracks was hailed as a return to form by critics, and in the fall Dylan launched The Rolling Thunder Revue tour with an extensive list of supporting musicians, including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn and poet Allen Ginsberg. In the fall of 1976, he appeared in The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz, which was filmed by Martin Scorsese.
A period of searching
In 1979 Dylan announced that he was a born-again Christian and released a series of albums – Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) – with a strong Christian message.
He returned to more secular recordings with Infidels in 1983, a much appreciated album from this period, and Empire Burlesque in 1985, an odd mix of dance tracks and rock & roll.
In 1986 he hit the road with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and in 1987 with the Grateful Dead. It can be said that the ‘80s were a period of searching for Dylan. Together with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, Dylan co-founded The Traveling Wilburys in 1988, who released two successful studio albums. In 1989 Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and later that year he released what would be his best received album during the 1980s – Oh Mercy. Produced by Daniel Lanois in New Orleans, the album was a coherent collection of songs that showcased a reenergized and engaged Dylan.
A return to folk roots
After the creative success of Oh Mercy, Dylan’s time during the ’90s was divided between live concerts, painting and studio projects. October 1992 marked the 30th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s first album, and Columbia marked it with “Bobfest,” an all-star concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden featuring more than 30 artists, including Neil Young, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed and Dylan himself. Broadcast live on pay-per-view, it was released as an album and video the following year. As if to bring his career full circle, Dylan then recorded two solo guitar and vocal albums of traditional folk songs and covers: Good As I Been To You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993).
“Master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation.”
- Time Magazine
“He so enlarged himself through the folk background that he incorporated it for a while. He defined the genre for a while.”
- Paul Simon
“He’s laid down the template for lyric, tune, seriousness, spirituality, depth of rock music.”
- Joe Strummer
“The people I revered in the late ‘60s´and the early ‘70s, their motivation was to do great work and great works creates revolution. The motivation of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan or The Who wasn’t marketing, to get rich, or be a celebrity.”
- Patti Smith
“They asked me what effect Bob Dylan had on me. That’s like asking how I was influenced by being born.”
- Pete Townshend
The Dylan repertoire
Other artists’ covers and interpretations of his songs have always been an important part of Bob Dylan’s musical career – not only for spreading his music far and wide, but also for helping audiences discover Bob Dylan the artist. After his breakthrough in 1963-64, the hundreds and subsequently thousands of Bob Dylan covers are evidence of both the originality and the universality of his songs – not to mention his renown among other musicians and artists. In the Spotify list you will find some of the best known and most important covers, as well as some of the lesser known.
New Millennium, new success
In a way Bob Dylan’s new millennium started already in 1997. That year he released Time Out of Mind, his first album of original material in seven years. It received his strongest reviews in years, debuted in the Top Ten and received platinum certification. It sparked a revival of interest in Dylan, who appeared on the cover of Newsweek and began selling out concerts again. The album received three Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Male Rock Vocal.
In 2001 he won his first Oscar for the song “Things Have Changed” in the film Wonder Boys. Later that year he released another new album of original material, Love and Theft, recorded with his touring band and produced by himself under the pseudonym Jack Frost. The album featured a wide array of genre influences, including rockabilly, Western swing, jazz and even lounge ballads, and was a success with critics. In the decade that followed, Dylan kept as artistically busy as ever: he wrote screenplays and an autobiography, acted, painted, hosted some 100 radio shows, and released two more studio albums – Modern Time (2006) and Together Through Life (2009).
The new millennium, Bob Dylan’s fifth and sixth decade as an artist, has proven to be the most intense and creatively diverse period of his whole career. The Never-Ending Tour he started in 1988 keeps going. He has re-invented old material, recorded new studio albums, released live records, and continued painting and writing at a level of productivity we have not seen for a long time, if ever. In 2009 he even recorded a traditional Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart, with standards like Little Drummer Boy and Here Comes Santa Claus.
Proceeds from the album were donated to various charities around the world. In 2011 Dylan’s label, Egyptian Records, released an album of previously unheard Hank Williams songs – The Lost Notebook of Hank Williams. Dylan helped curate the project, in which songs unfinished when Williams died in 1953 were completed and recorded by a variety of artists, including Dylan himself. On September 11, 2012, Dylan released Tempest, his 35th studio album since the debut in 1962.