Bob Dylan

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Bob Dylan born Robert Allen Zimmerman May 24 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota in the USA, is a truly great American popular songwriter and performer, at the very highest level, his only true peers the legends Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles. Like each of those men, Dylan has produced works of genius in more than one genre of music.

Most 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 has no more moving anthem than his song "Blowin' in the Wind." Millions of young people embraced his song "The Times They Are A-Changin'" 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").

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 highschool. An able, but by no means brilliant student, he started university studies 1959 in Minneapolis, during which time he was actively involved in the local "Dinkytown" folk music circuit. However, he quit studying in early 1961 moving to 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 (11/29/1961) by critic Robert Shelton, that led to (jazz legend) John Hammond signing him to Columbia Records.

At the time his voice, musicianship and songwriting were still raw. His performances, like his first Columbia album (1962's Bob Dylan), consisted of traditional folk, blues and gospel material interspersed with 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 "Blowing In The Wind": a simple folk melody coupled with lyrics questioning the social and political status quo. Whilst, with hindsight, the lyrics some of these songs appear naive and unsophisticated, compared to the largely anemic popular culture of the 1950s they were a bresh of fresh air, and the songs caught the zeitgeist of the 1960s. "Blowing 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 Its 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.

Whilst a fine interpreter of songs, Dylan was by no means a beautiful singer, and many of his songs first reached the public through versions by other artists. Joan Baez, a friend and sometime lover of Dylan, took it upon herself to record a great deal of his early material as did many others including The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, Jimi Hendrix, and The Hollies. (So ubiquitous were these covers by the mid-1960s that CBS started to promote Bob with the tag: "Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan".)

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 an 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 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 Nitemare", "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. Dylan's 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 its 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 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.

No one has summed up the transition in his work from 1963 to 1965 better.

However, his artistic development moved so fast that he frequently left both critics and fans behind. In 1965 (influenced by the folk rock of The Byrds) he angered folk music purists by performing with an electric rock and roll band and his new style of poetic, impressionistic lyrics were to have a lasting effect on the industry.

Soon after the release of the double album "Blonde on Blonde" in 1966 Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident and used his convalescence to escape the pressures of stardom. Retiring to Woodstock in New York and playing with the musicians who would later become The Band his output became more influenced by traditional US and country music, which can be heard on the albums John Wesley Harding (1968) and Nashville Skyline (1969), the latter of which is often considered to mark the beginning of an artistic decline. After some mediocre output in the early 1970s ("What the hell is this shit?" asked Rolling Stone magazine about "Self Portrait"), he returned to form with "Blood On The Tracks", an excellent and honest portrayal of his estrangement from his wife.

In the late 1970s he became a born-again Christian and released three records of primarily religious songs; of these three, some fans regard "Slow Train Coming" as most worth attention. He remained in the doldrums throughout the 1980s while crossing the world on his "Neverending Tour." He did take part in the Travelling Wilburys album project. 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've Been To You"(1992), "World Gone Wrong" (1993). In 1997, he released an album of original songs, "Time Out Of Mind"(1997) - for which he won a Grammy Award.

In 2001, his song "Things Have Changed", from the movie Wonder Boys, won an Academy Award for best original song in a motion picture.

Recommended albums:

Film : Renaldo and Clara (1978)

Play: Ho Shi Min in Harlem

The most famous songs :

  • Like a Rolling Stone
  • The Times They A-Changin'
  • Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
  • Mr. Tambourine Man
  • Only a Pawn in Their Game
  • Masters of War
  • Blowin' in the Wind
  • Slow Train Coming
  • It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
  • Chimes of Freedom
  • Ballad of a Thin Man
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues
  • Lay Lady Lay
  • Knockin' on Heaven's Door

See Columbia Records' BobDylan.com for a near complete list of lyrics and audio clips.


References: Dylan's speech to the NECLC: http://www.corliss-lamont.org/dylan.htm

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