Perhaps no living American has had a deeper impact on American popular culture than Bob Dylan: singer, songwriter, icon and iconoclast. At various times during his half-century career, Dylan has been a folk singer, rock superstar, poet, author, “born again” bard and, always, an enigma.
Dylan may be most famous for his 1961 anti-war anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but he has produced more than 50 live and studio albums since that time, many of them iconic in their own right.
The man the world knows simply as Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman to middle class Jewish parents in Hibbing, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941.
As a teen, Dylan was an ardent fan of the blues, country music and early rock and roll, which he played in his high school band “The Shadow Blasters.” He especially idolized folk legend Woody Guthrie of “This Land is Your Land” fame, whom he later characterized as “embodying the American spirit.”
Dylan dropped out of college and moved to New York City in 1959, hoping to make his mark on Greenwich Village’s burgeoning folk music scene.
Folk musicians of that time mostly performed songs from America’s past. However, Dylan began to write his own music. After his classic “The Times They are A-Changin'” from 1963, the public increasingly associated Dylan with the left wing social movements of the time.
Critic and social commentator Greil Marcus, who has written extensively about the artist, says Dylan songs often transcend their genre, expressing the tension between the topical and the mythical, the ancient and the everyday.
“And sometimes, when that tension is held in perfect balance, you get work of extraordinary - not just depth, not just beauty, not just allure - but uniqueness. When you hear it, you say ‘I can’t imagine anyone else coming up with this.’”
Blending poetry and music
Dylan was an innovator in other ways, too. In “Tambourine Man,” for example, his imagery becomes personal and inward looking, an approach nearly unheard of in the pop music of the era.
Michael Gray, who wrote “The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia,” says Dylan was one the first songwriters to marry great poetry with the primal power of rock and roll.
”So that after him... you were free to be as creative and as serious as you wished to be, and as you were capable of being within popular music," says Gray. "It was no longer necessarily an intrinsic part of the form to be trivial or shallow.”
Even John Lennon once remarked that Dylan’s lyrics made it possible for the Beatles to evolve from a boy band to something far more adult.
Evolving musical style
Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Pop Festival, infuriating many of his folk admirers. He soon released “Like A Rolling Stone,” a confrontational song in free verse that some consider to be the greatest rock song of all time.
“When you listen to the young Bob Dylan, anything he recorded...there is this extraordinary combination of calm center of self and an absolute confidence that he needn’t be hurried," says Gray, "that he needn’t shout, and at the same time, a complete biting, focused grip on whatever kind of material he was doing."
Critics agree that Dylan has always said exactly what he wanted to say in whatever musical style interested him. His many personas have included Dylan the rap pioneer, Dylan the country singer, Dylan the romantic, Dylan the American everyman and Dylan the outlaw. It may have been Dylan's “Born Again” Christian phase in the late 1970s and early to mid 1980’s that many secular fans found most difficult to accept.
Dylan himself has not publically explained why his life and music have taken so many turns. But critic Greil Marcus believes Dylan’s mystery is part of the message.
“I think that’s what artists do. They tell us that there is more to life than we thought there was and that means that you have to be able to continually surprise people. That’s a way of not being put into a box."
For his efforts, Dylan has received nearly every major award in American music including eight Grammies, the National Medal of Arts, a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award. Who can say where his life will take him next? The answer, surely, is “blowin’ in the wind.”
Dylan Musical Montage