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Biography and Music Career of Bob Dylan

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The most influential singer-songwriter of his era, Bob Dylan demonstrated that rock and roll lyrics, once known for their lightheartedness, could be rich, serious, and meaningful. Combining forms borrowed from folk ballad verse, blues, country and western, and gospel music and techniques gained from French symbolists and beat poets, Dylan revitalized the popular song and inspired other musicians to follow his lead in self-expression. Songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” endeared him to antiwar demonstrators and supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, and he was commonly referred to as the spokesman for his generation, a title he disavowed. As Dylan restlessly ventured from folk music to electrically amplified rock music to country music to gospel to blues to bluegrass, his audiences followed. In the course of a career that began professionally in 1961, Dylan has written more than three hundred songs, released more than forty albums, and performed live in more than two thousand concerts. Among his most celebrated songs are “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Subterranean Blues,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “Tangled Up In Blue.” Dylan has garnered widespread praise for the literary merit of his lyrical compositions; his merits as a poet have been repeatedly compared to the likes of such literary giants as Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Allen Ginsberg. Dylan has received numerous honors and awards, including an Academy Award, and was named by Life magazine as one of the one hundred most important Americans of the 20th century.

Biographical Information

Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941, into a Jewish family in Duluth, Minnesota. His father was co-owner of Zimmerman Furniture and Appliance Co. In 1947, the family moved to Hibbing, Minnesota. Dylan started writing poetry at age ten and taught himself the guitar at age fourteen. Inspired by Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, and Little Richard, Dylan formed several bands in high school, one called the Golden Chords, which played country music and rhythm and blues. Dylan won a scholarship to the University of Minnesota in 1959, and was introduced to Bound for Glory, the autobiography of Woody Guthrie. Dylan was greatly affected by the book and soon learned dozens of Guthrie’s songs. He performed many of them at local coffeehouses, appearing for the first time under the adopted name Bob Dylan (legally changed in 1962.) His renditions of folk songs were charged with the influence of his rock and roll background. After some months in Madison, Wisconsin, and later in Chicago, Dylan borrowed a ride to New York at the end of 1960. He played folk music in clubs and coffee houses in Greenwich Village and visited the ailing Woody Guthrie in the hospital. As an opening act Dylan received an ecstatic review from The New York Times. The next day, at a studio session as a harmonica player, he was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond. Although his debut album Bob Dylan (1962), sold a respectable 5000 copies, his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), gained him cult status because it included “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind” was phenomenally successful and popularized the socially aware folk song. Dylan became the favorite of the counterculture movement and gave them eloquent voice and an anthem with the title song of his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964). Dylan was quickly overwhelmed by his political status and turned inward with Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964). In one of its songs, “My Back Pages,” Dylan signals a break from his past: “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” Dylan further broke from folk purists and political activists when he performed a loud, electrically amplified set of new compositions at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Although he lost some of his fans in the transition, he gained many more and in the same year had a hit single with “Like a Rolling Stone,” which made him a pop superstar. Exhausted from international concert tours and the pressures of stardom, Dylan used a motorcycle accident in 1966 as an excuse to step back from his career. Although he continued to write and record new material, he would perform in public only a few times until 1974, when he held a record-shattering comeback tour. At the end of the year he recorded what is considered one of his finest albums, Blood on the Tracks (1975), followed by the chart-topping Desire (1976). Dylan’s conversion to Christianity brought more controversy in 1979. Many fans were outraged that Dylan refused to perform any of his classic songs written before his religious conversion and became even more offended by his on-stage proselytizing, but he had another hit single with “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which won him a Grammy Award in 1980. Dylan began performing his earlier classics again by the end of the year. In 1982 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Also in the early 1980s, Dylan converted from Christianity to Hasidic Judaism. In 1988 Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, with fellow music stars George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne, formed a group called the Traveling Wilburys; their debut album delighted both critics and the public. Dylan accepted a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. In 1993 he sang “Chimes of Freedom” as part of President Clinton’s inaugural celebration. In 1997 he performed for Pope John Paul II in Italy. Time Out of Mind (1997) received rave reviews and earned him three Grammy awards for Album of the Year, Male Rock Performance, and Contemporary Folk Album. Later that year Dylan was presented by the President with the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2001 Dylan received an Oscar for his song “Things Have Changed,” written for the film Wonder Boys. His latest album, “Love and Theft” (2001) received a rare five-star, immediate classic, rating from Rolling Stone magazine.

Major Works

Bob Dylan includes only two Dylan originals, one of which, “Song to Woody,” demonstrates the influence of his one-time idol. His second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan contains only two songs which are not Dylan originals, and includes such protest songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War,” which capture the mood and spirit of the counterculture of the early 1960s, as well as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” which remains one of his most popular songs of lost love. His third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, also contains many classic folk-protest and socially-conscious songs hailed as masterpieces, including “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “With God on Our Side,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The liner notes showcase his first widely circulated poetry, “11 Outlined Epitaphs.” The title of his next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, indicates his shift from political to more personal lyrics. This turning inward produced songs that demonstrate the influence of beat poetry and psychedelic drugs. “Chimes of Freedom” expresses his spiritual side, which eventually earned him the label of visionary. The first half of his next album, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), surprised everyone with its electric guitars. Again the songs express social and political alienation rather than activism. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” voices distrust of authority and sees convention as stifling and oppressive to the individual. “Maggie’s Farm” expresses the impulse to “drop out” of the workaday world with the assertion, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.” “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” which was included on the soundtrack to the quintessential counterculture film Easy Rider (1969), further expresses the cruelty of mainstream society. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” one of his most enduring songs, expresses the sense of freedom and joy which comes from renouncing social mores in favor of creativity and artistic release. In the liner notes Dylan offers an explanation of himself and his work: “my poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion / divided by pierced ears. False eyelashes / subtracted by people constantly torturing each other. With a melodic purring line of descriptive hollowness-seen at times thru dark sunglasses an other forms of psychic explosion. A song is anything that can walk by itself / i am called a songwriter. A poem is a naked person… some people say that i am a poet.”

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) solidified his transition from political folksinger to alienated rock musician, still critical of society but without any specific political agenda. The double album Blonde on Blonde (1966), often considered his finest work, contains mostly songs of love or of the bitterness of failed relationships, including the hit “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Visions of Johanna” and “Just Like a Woman.” The Biblically-inspired John Wesley Harding (1968), Dylan’s first album of new songs to be released after his motorcycle accident, returns to acoustic material. Quiet and thoughtful, the album is widely considered a response to the excesses of rock music as typified by the Beatles with their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band release. Dylan’s next two albums were heavily influenced by country music: Nashville Skyline (1969), which includes a duet with Johnny Cash, and Self Portrait (1970), a double album, largely consisting of covers, which was panned by critics. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1971) started a trend in the music industry with its inclusion of several previously unreleased songs. Dylan wrote the soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah’s western film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and accepted a bit role in the movie. Also in that year Dylan released Writings and Drawings; he had never included the lyrics to his songs in his albums and thus this large hardback book containing all of his published songs and many unpublished ones was met with great acclaim and became a bestseller. (It was updated in 1985 with the publication of Lyrics, 1962-1985.) Planet Waves (1974) was released in conjunction with Dylan’s highly anticipated return to touring across America, a tour represented by the double album Before the Flood (1974). Blood on the Tracks is widely considered his best or second best album. Its impact on listeners was indicated by Rolling Stone’s devotion of their entire record review section to this one album, with numerous essayists expressing their individual assessments. The same magazine awarded it album of the year, tied with another album of the year, also by Dylan, The Basement Tapes. Although The Basement Tapes was not released until 1975, it dates from 1967 when he was recuperating. Desire includes, as Allen Ginsberg states in the liner notes, “songs of redemption,” and remains Dylan’s biggest seller upon initial release, at some two million copies. Street Legal (1978) was released during his return to world touring and featured a saxophone player and three female backing vocalists. The three albums of Dylan’s Christian phase include Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981). Infidels (1983) continues with expressions of faith in God, although more subtly and with the influence of Hasidic Judaism, then favored by Dylan.

Biograph is a five-LP or 3-CD box set containing not only dozens of his greatest hits but a dozen and a half previously uncirculated works from recording studios and concert halls. It spawned dozens of similar sets by other artists. After the seemingly career-capping release of Biograph, Dylan faltered with Knocked Out Loaded (1986), generally considered one of his weakest efforts and Down in the Groove (1988). Although The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One (1988) and Oh Mercy (1989) were viewed as returns to fine form, the release of Under the Red Sky (1990) and the follow-up Wilburys album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (1990) showed a drifting and disengaged Dylan. The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 (1991) was comprised of 3 CDs of previously unheard songs and performances, but with its necessary emphasis on the past, some critics were eager to interpret it as evidence of Dylan being a has-been. The following years gave more fodder to Dylan’s detractors. Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993) were solo acoustic albums of mostly traditional songs, with no Dylan originals, and neither Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1994) or MTV Unplugged (1995), gathered from two live performances, could take the place of new, original material. Not until 1997 with the release of Time Out of Mind, were fans treated to an album of all new songs. 1998 saw the release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Live 1966, a 2-CD recording of a legendary performance in England, often considered the finest rock concert ever given by any artist. “Love and Theft” continued to build Dylan’s reputation as a vital, creative force in popular music.

Critical Reception

As early as 1965 media critics were acknowledging Dylan’s status not only as a popular music star but as a poet of substantial literary merit. Dylan has generally treated his critics with derision, stating that they do not understand what he is trying to express. Dylan has always confounded reviewers by refusing to explain the meaning of his songs, however, insisting that they stand for themselves. Because many of his songs hold up well as poetry, separated from their music, they are natural choices for study by critics specializing in contemporary language arts, who compare them to the works of Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg himself proclaimed Dylan to be among the greatest poets of the century. Dylan usually avoids discussion of his works as poems or talk of himself as anything but a performing songwriter: “Poets drown in lakes,” he told Paul Zollo in a 1991 interview. Zollo explains that Dylan “broke all the rules of songwriting without abandoning the craft and care that holds songs together.” Such well-crafted songs include “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” which are examined for their visionary symbolism and imagery. “Like a Rolling Stone” is praised for its lyrical qualities and the emotional force of the repeated refrain, “How does it feel?” and its powerful expression of alienation. “Desolation Row” which portrays a dark, apocalyptic vision of the fate of human society, is another favorite of critics. Dylan’s work fell below his own classic standard during parts of the 1980s and 1990s. Not until Time Out of Mind did critics once again overwhelmingly praise Dylan’s lyrics as startlingly fresh compositions, equal to his most critically acclaimed songs from the 1960s and 1970s. Music writer Bill Flanagan was present at a party held in 1985 to honor Dylan’s accomplishments. When television reporters asked him to explain Dylan’s significance, he explained that Dylan refused to accept any limits on rock and roll and thus showed everyone else that the form could expand to include all sorts of ideas. Flanagan relates a conversation he had with musician Pete Townshend, who also attended the party. “He joked about the futility of trying to offer a concise explanation of Dylan’s significance. ‘They asked what effect Bob Dylan had on me,’ he said. ‘That’s like asking how I was influenced by being born.’” Dylan’s popular base continues to increase as he performs worldwide in live concerts more than one hundred times per year. 

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