Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman May 24, 1941) 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
(with two friends) 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 (or Dillon). 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 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 (September 29, 1961) by critic Robert Shelton,
while John Hammond, a legendary music business figure, signed him to
At the time his voice, musicianship and songwriting were still raw.
His performances, like his first Columbia album (1962's Bob Dylan), 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 (a folk music magazine
and record label), 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
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 ("How many times must the cannonballs
fly before they are forever banned"), 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 ("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"). 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 citizen's
life "flashing before his eyes" under the apprehension of apocalypse).
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
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 (although "Forever
Young" has proved to be one of Dylan's most lasting songs). 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 (an eponymous 1971 tribute to George Jackson sank almost
unnoticed), championing the cause of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter
who he believed had been wrongfully imprisoned for a triple homicide
in Paterson, New Jersey. (Carter was retried and reconvicted in the mid-1970s;
he was released in 1985 when that conviction was overturned.) 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 (1976), 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
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 (attributed to his studio recording practices), 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 (1979), 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 (Rare & Unreleased)
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 ("When the Night Comes Falling from
the Sky" and "Dark Eyes") to Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
(with the long, clever "Brownsville Girl") to even Down in
the Groove (1988) (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
(often professionally known as Carol 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
(Fiona) leaves him for a jaded English synth-pop sensation (Rupert Everett).
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
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 (1989). 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 (1990), 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
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 (1992) and
World Gone Wrong (1993), 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 (he was one of numerous performers on The Concert
for Bangladesh, the 1972 winner). 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 (by some reports a facsimile) 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.