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Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota in the USA, is widely regarded as perhaps America's greatest popular songwriter born in the twentieth century. Of all American songwriters ever, only Stephen Foster and Irving Berlin are mentioned in the same breath.

Much of his best work is from the 1960s when his musical shadow was so large that he took on political influence. The civil rights movement had no more moving anthem than his song "Blowin' in the Wind." Millions of young people embraced his song "The Times They Are A-Changin'" during that era of extreme change. The radical political group The Weathermen named themselves after a lyric in Dylan's song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" ("You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows").

Bob Dylan in 1966

Dylan was raised in a Jewish family in Hibbing, Minnesota and spent much of his youth listening to the radio, at first the powerful blues and country music stations and later early rock and roll. He formed his first band, The Golden Chords, while still at high school. An able but by no means brilliant student, he started university studies in 1959 in Minneapolis, during which time he was actively involved in the local Dinkytown folk music circuit. However, he quit studying in early 1961 eventually landing in New York City to perform and to visit the ailing Woody Guthrie. Living in Greenwich Village and playing in small clubs, he gained some recognition after a review in New York Times (September 29, 1961) by critic Robert Shelton[?], that led to John Hammond[?], a legendary music talent scout, signing him to Columbia Records.

At the time his voice, musicianship and songwriting were still raw. His performances, like his first Columbia album (1962s Bob Dylan), consisted of traditional folk, blues and gospel material interspersed with a few of his own songs. By the time of his next record, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), he had begun to make his name as both a singer and composer, specialising in protest songs, initially in the style of Guthrie but later practically creating his own genre. His songs of the time are typified by "Blowin' In The Wind", a simple folk melody coupled with lyrics questioning the social and political status quo. Whilst, with hindsight, the lyrics to some of these songs appear naive and unsophisticated, compared to the largely anemic popular culture of the 1950s they were a breath of fresh air, and the songs caught the zeitgeist[?] of the 1960s. "Blowin' In The Wind" itself was widely recorded and a huge hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, and was later the subject of some controversy over its authorship. Somewhat overlooked among the protest songs on Freewheelin', however, was a mixture of 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"). This eclecticism would continue to inform his material for much of his career.

While a fine interpreter of songs, Dylan was not widely considered a beautiful singer, and 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 a great deal of his early material, as did many others including 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 attitude underlying them, a sort of po' boy adrift in the wide world attitude that gradually changed to hipster arbiter of all things cool and uncool.

By 1963, Dylan was becoming increasingly prominent in the civil rights movement, singing at rallies and performing at the same march at which Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech. Dylan's next album, The Times They Are A-Changin', reflected a more sophisticated, politicised and cynical Dylan. The bleak material, concerned with such subjects as the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers and the despair engendered by the breakdown of farming and mining communities ("Ballad of Hollis Brown", "North Country Blues"), was lightened only by a single anti-love song, "Boots Of Spanish Leather". By the end of the year, however, he started to feel both manipulated and constrained by the folk-protest movement. Accepting the "Tom Paine Award" from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee[?] at a ceremony shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a drunk and not-entirely-coherent Dylan questioned the role of the committee and claimed he saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald. The message, both from Dylan and the elements in the crowd that booed, was clear: Dylan and the civil rights movement were drifting apart.

Perhaps inevitably then, his next album -- the accurately but prosaically titled Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964) -- had a lighter mood than its predecessor. The surreal Dylan re-emerged on "I Shall Be Free #10" and "Motorpsycho Nightmare". "Spanish Harlem Incident" and "To Ramona" were touching love songs, while "Ballad in Plain D" and "I Don't Believe You" mourned his breakup with long-time girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who had been pictured with him on the front of Freewheelin'. Musically, he had changed too. His piano playing was featured on many of the tracks, with the beat and bass of his left hand presaging his return to rock music the next year. Perhaps more important to his later development, however, were two of the new songs. "Chimes Of Freedom" was the first of a new type of Dylan song: lengthy and impressionistic, it retains an element of social commentary but with the topicality of his earlier work replaced by dense metaphorical landscape, a style later characterised by Allen Ginsberg as "chains of flashing images". "My Back Pages", in a similar style, is even more personal, a scathing attack on the dichotomous simplicity and arch seriousness of his own earlier work. By way of excuse, or even apology, he offers only that

I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now.
and few have summed up the transition in his work from 1963 to 1965 better.

Throughout this time Dylan's artistic development moved so fast that he frequently left both critics and fans behind. His March 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was a further stylistic leap. Influenced by the The Beatles, the folk rock of The Byrds and the rock and roll of his youth, the first side contained his first original uptempo rock songs. The music, provided by a full electric band of mainly session musicians, was a definite departure. Lyrically, however, the songs were pure Dylan, exhibiting his dry wit and inhabited by a sequence of grotesque, metaphorical characters (the raucous first single, "Subterranean Homesick Blues"—which owed much to Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business"—was also provided with an early music video courtesy of D. A. Pennebaker[?]'s film of his 1965 tour, Don't Look Back). Side 2 was a different matter, comprised of lengthy acoustic songs whose undogmatic political, social and personal concerns are illuminated with the rich poetic imagery that would become another trademark. One of these songs, "Mr. Tambourine Man", had already been a hit for The Byrds, albeit in a truncated form, and would remain one of Dylan's most enduring compositions. Later that summer he angered folk music purists by performing an electric set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival. Where in previous years he had received a rapturous reception, he was now met with a mix of boos and cheers and left the stage after only a few songs. Legend has it he was too upset to continue, but band members insist they had only rehearsed those songs and had no others to offer. Legend also has it that folk great Pete Seeger grabbed an axe, threatening to cut the power during the performance. Seeger insists there was no axe—he had merely joked about cutting the lines, and that due to excessive volume, not the music itself. At the urging of the festival promoter and most of the crowd, Dylan re-emerged and sang a few solo acoustic numbers.

Ignoring the occasional negative criticism, Dylan's rapid output (some say fueled by drug use) continued unabated through 1965 and 1966. The single "Like A Rolling Stone", was a US hit, cementing his reputation as a lyricist amongst the general public and, at over six minutes, helping to expand the limits of hit radio. Its signature sound, with a full, jangling band and a simple organ riff, would characterise his next album release, Highway 61 Revisited (titled after the road that led from his native Minnesota to the musical hotbed of New Orleans). The songs were in the same vein, more surreal litanies of the grotesque, flavoured by Bloomfield's blues guitar, a tight rhythm section and Dylan's obvious enjoyment of the sessions. The closing song, "Desolation Row", a lengthy—and not entirely successful—apocalyptic vision of society, wore its poeticism and influences on its sleeve, self-consciously referring to both Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. A large subset of aficcionados, however, feel it is among his very best.

In support of the record, Dylan was booked for two US concerts, and set about assembling a band. Finding what he was looking for in "The Hawks", then backing R'n'B singer Ronnie Hawkins, he persuaded the group to join him on tour. In August/September 1965 at Forest Hills Auditorium and the Hollywood Bowl the group were heckled by the audience who, Newport notwithstanding, still expected the acoustic troubadour of previous years. Undaunted, Dylan returned to the studio that October to begin work on his next album, the double Blonde On Blonde. In the studio, the musicians, who would slowly metamorphose into The Band, perfected their sound, ("that thin wild mercury sound" Dylan called it, and it defies any other description). The result was another classic record. The surrealism now seemed tempered with more humanity, and the record more coherent than its predecessors, with knowing nods to The Beatles, amongst others. In his personal life, Dylan secretly married Sara Lowndes on November 22, 1965.

Touring to promote the record remained hectic, however, taking him to Europe and Australia through the summer of 1966, including a famously raucous confrontation with an audience at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in England, scene of the famous "Judas!" catcall. At the same time, he was pressured to produce his first novel (the largely unreadable Tarantula) and it appeared that something would have to give. The pace of his private and professional life seemed unsustainable. On July 30 of that year, whilst riding his Triumph 500 motorcycle in New York State, Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident. The extent of his injuries was never fully disclosed and, whether through necessity or opportunism, Dylan used his convalescence to escape the pressures of stardom. Retiring to Woodstock in New York with The Band and recording for their own entertainment, they produced the widely bootlegged The Basement Tapes (officially released in 1974) playing traditional US and country music. Unsurprisingly his official output was strongly influenced by these, which can be heard on his next two albums. The first, John Wesley Harding (1968), was a contemplative record influenced by the Old Testament, which included "All Along The Watchtower", later immortalised by Jimi Hendrix. The second, Nashville Skyline (1969), was a more mainstream country record, featuring a mellow voiced, contented Dylan and a duet with Johnny Cash, and is often considered to mark the beginning of an artistic decline, though a simple need for a new direction after reaching the imagist summit may be closer to the mark. The same year, Dylan returned to live performance at the Isle Of Wight[?] rock festival (having made a brief appearance at Woody Guthrie's memorial concert in 1968).

In the early 1970s Dylan's output was of variable quality. ("What is this [expletive]?" asked a Rolling Stone magazine writer about 1970s Self Portrait). He occasionally reached undoubted heights on New Morning (1970) and the movie soundtrack album Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid included "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", amongst his best known songs. In 1973 he left Columbia Records for David Geffen[?]'s newly formed Asylum records, for whom he recorded Planet Waves (1974) with The Band. Columbia's revenge release of studio outtakes and cover versions on the appalling Dylan (1973) did not stop him returning to his old label the next year.

Following a US tour with The Band, which would be captured on the live, surprisingly lucrative Before The Flood (1975), he re-entered the studio with a clutch of new songs inspired, if that is the word, by his recent estrangement from his wife. Each song, from the slow blues "Meet Me In The Morning" to the lengthy "Idiot Wind," offers an insight into their relationship, and Dylan's talent is to stretch the personal until it appears universal and use the universal to elucidate the intensely personal (a plausible explanation for the album title describes the "blood" as his emotional outpouring on the "tracks" of the record). The resulting album, Blood On The Tracks (1974), was widely heralded as a return to form. The lyrics are as innovative as the pre-Basement Tapes songs, but in a different way—confusing on a conscious level as the listener tries to keep track of shadowy characters and tricks of time, but just beneath consciousness one seems to inhabit a consistent though threatening world (most of all in the well-known "Tangled Up In Blue"). At a time when many other artists, including Bruce Springsteen, were lumbered with the tag "the New Bob Dylan", it was evident that it was too early to count out the old Bob Dylan.

In 1975 Dylan wrote his first explicit "protest" song in 10 years. Angered by an apparent miscarriage of justice, he championed the cause of boxer Ruben "Hurricane" Carter[?], who had, in Dylan's opinion, been wrongfully imprisoned for a triple homicide. After visiting Carter in jail, Dylan wrote "Hurricane", a straight retelling of Carter's version of the events. Despite its length, the song was released as a single and performed at every date of Dylan's next tour, the "Rolling Thunder Revue". The tour was a departure, an open ended evening of entertainment featuring performers picked up on the way, including T-Bone Burnett, Steven Soles, David Mansfield, former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn and a reunion with Joan Baez. Running through the winter of 1975/76 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[?]. Rolling Thunder also provided the backdrop to his film "Renaldo and Clara", a sprawling, improvised and frequently baffling record of the tour.

His 1978 album Street Legal was well reviewed and lyrically one of his most complex and absorbing, although it suffered from an unaccountably poor studio mix. Its use of Steve Douglas on saxophone reminded many of the work of Clarence Clemons in Bruce Springsteen's band. The remainder of Dylan's work in the late 1970s was dominated by his becoming, in 1978, a born-again Christian. He released three albums of primarily religious songs; of these, some fans regard Slow Train Coming (1979) as most worth attention. Because of their religious content, many listeners overlook the masterpieces on these albums, which received harsh critical receptions that may have contributed to Dylan's loss of interest in creating high-quality albums in the mid-Eighties. Ranking among his best work are songs such as the sincere "Precious Angel," the syncopated "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," the devotional "When He Returns" and the powerful "I Believe In You" from Slow Train Coming, as well as "Solid Rock," "Saving Grace," "Pressing On" and "In the Garden" from Saved (1980), plus "Every Grain of Sand" and the title song from Shot of Love (1981), along with the Shot of Love outtakes "Caribbean Wind" and "Angelina." Dylan's current religious convictions are the subject of a running debate among Dylanphiles, some maintaining that he shed his Christian beliefs as completely and rapidly as he picked them up, others insisting that he still hews to them in a less fiery form.

Doldrums set in through much of the 1980s, with his work varying from the adequate (1983s Infidels) to the dreadful (1988s Down In The Groove), all the while crossing the world on his "Neverending Tour". Infidels was more noteworthy for what it did not include than for what it included, as Dylan left off the album what many consider to be some of his best work ever: "Blind Willie McTell," "Foot of Pride," "Someone's Got a Hold of My Heart" and "Lord Protect My Child." Later in the 80s he took part in the Traveling Wilburys album project, working with good friend George Harrison on lighthearted, well-selling fare. The 1990s again saw something of a renaissance, first with Oh Mercy (1989) and later 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, led by a stunning version of "Lone Pilgrim". In 1997, he released an album of haunting original songs, Time Out Of Mind—for which he won the top Grammy Award for the year. Two songs, "Not Dark Yet" and "Cold Irons Bound", were especially well received. In general, his later work (approximately 1980 to present) is often dismissed as below par or irrelevant by mainstream critics and fans (even the Grammy was viewed by many as more a reward for past glory than current quality), but the discerning listener will find many true gems in these albums, some of them representing a certain artistry and control of atmospherics not to be found in his more heralded earlier work.

In 2001, his song "Things Have Changed", from the movie Wonder Boys, won an Academy Award for best original song in a motion picture. Dylan later received further critical praise for 2001's Love and Theft, an album that explores divergent styles of American music and revisits his own creative roots.

Recommended albums:



  • Ho Chi Minh in Harlem "A while back I started writing a novel called Ho Chi Minh in Harlem. He was a shortorder cook there in the '20s before he went back to Viet Nam--it's a documented fact. That excited me there for a minute."
  • Tarantula[?]

The most famous songs (in approximate order of fame) :

  • Blowin' in the Wind
  • Like a Rolling Stone
  • The Times They Are A-Changin'
  • A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
  • Mr. Tambourine Man
  • Tangled Up In Blue
  • All Along The Watchtower
  • Gotta Serve Somebody
  • Knockin' on Heaven's Door
  • Lay Lady Lay
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues
  • Forever Young
  • Hurricane
  • Don't Think Twice It's Alright
  • Masters of War
  • Chimes of Freedom
  • It's Alright, Ma I'm Only Bleeding
  • Ballad of a Thin Man
  • Highway 61 Revisited
  • Desolation Row
  • Visions of Johanna

The best songs (according to perceived consensus of rec.music.dylan Usenet group, in order)

  • Tangled Up In Blue (Blood On The Tracks, 1975)
  • Like a Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
  • Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisted, 1965)
  • Blind Willie McTell (outtake, Infidels, 1983, released on The Bootleg Series 1-3, 1991)
  • A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963)
  • Not Dark Yet (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
  • Visions of Johanna (Blonde On Blonde, 1966)
  • Every Grain of Sand (Shot of Love, 1981)
  • Senor (Street Legal, 1978)

External links

  • See Columbia Records-sponsored site for a list of some lyrics (http://search.bobdylan.com/lyricsearch/) and audio clips from his released albums.
  • Dylan's speech to the NELC (http://www.corliss-lamont.org/dylan.htm)

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