Singer-songwriter, “voice of a generation,” controversial in his art and performances as well as in the multiple swerves of his personal life, Bob Dylan has been called one of the most influential figures in the world of late 20th-century popular music. After 50 years as a performer, he is still a galvanizing figure, although he has eschewed the spotlight outside of his performances and his most influential music belongs to a whirlwind stretch between his first appearance in Greenwich Village coffeehouses in the winter of 1961 and his legendary performance at the Newport Folk Festival four and a half years later when he played a set of songs accompanied by an amplified rock band and, according to many, alienated his core audience. He found new audiences, alienated more of them, and persisted as an artist pursuing his own vision. His work has been influential in shaping the forms of popular music for a half a century and Dylan has been honored for this on multiple occasions. His reputation as a verbal artist has brought him academic recognition alongside the major poets of the era, and a considerable bibliography of writings has accumulated explicating his lyrics with their cryptic and allusive images.
On a cold, snowy January day in 1961, a thin, beardless 19-year-old from Minnesota calling himself Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village. It was an unpropitious beginning for someone who would soon become a major figure in American popular music. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, and raised in a middle-class Jewish family in Hibbing in the northern tier of the state, the young man sought out the coffeehouses and bars where folk music was performed as he had done in the previous six months around the Dinkytown area of Minneapolis, where in a friend’s apartment, Dylan (who was then calling himself Bob Dillon, one of many noms de plume he had tried out, including variants on his given names: Bob Allen or Bob Allyn) discovered Woody Guthrie’s records. Oklahoma-born Guthrie had begun his career singing the songs he had learned and written as one of the itinerant men and women roaming the country in the Great Depression. He appeared on the radio, made a series of records, and traveled the country performing with Pete Seeger and others, but felled by a hereditary neurological disease, Guthrie had been silent for years, although his music was kept alive through Seeger’s performances with The Weavers and performances by others. Dylan set out for New York to find Guthrie.
As he had done in Minneapolis, in New York Dylan learned new repertoire from those he met on the coffeehouse circuit. But Guthrie’s work dominated Dylan’s playing and singing. Those who met Dylan or saw him perform in his early appearances around the village spotted the homage to Guthrie in his performance style and mannerisms. According to music journalist David Hajdu, he seemed even to be affecting Guthrie’s tremors, the symptoms of Huntington’s disease. Even in his earliest appearances, he was somewhat of a polarizing figure. His performance was rough-hewn and often eccentric. His voice was not polished or, for many, pleasant to listen to, and his guitar and harmonica playing were strident in the view of many. On the other hand, his energy attracted the attention, and he quickly became a recognized figure on the scene.
Soon he was singing songs he himself had written—a new trend in the genre, but one which harkened back to Woody Guthrie’s oeuvre (his first composition was “Song for Woody”). In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume I, Dylan credits some of his transformation from singer/performer to songwriter to his relationship with Suze Rotolo, a young woman he met backstage at a radio concert he was playing in. Although only 17 at the time, Rotolo introduced him to poets like William Blake and introduced him to left-wing politics. A performance he attended of Bertolt Brecht’s songs with Rotolo spurred him to composition. “I hadn’t done anything yet,” he writes in Chronicles, “wasn’t any kind of songwriter but I’d become rightly impressed by the physical and ideological possibilities within the confines of the lyrics and melody” (276).
In the fall of 1961, Dylan made the jump from itinerant musician to full-fledged professional, signing on with a commercial managing agent who arranged some highly visible performances for him, getting a major write-up in the New York Times, and signing a contract to record for Columbia Records, one of the major commercial labels (most folk music was being released on records from independent or specialty labels like Electra, Vanguard, and Folkways). By the late spring of 1962, Dylan had accumulated a small repertoire of his songs, many “ripped from the headlines,” including the song that became his first signature piece, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” popularized by Peter, Paul, and Mary, a group put together and developed by Dylan’s agent. Their pop-oriented styling of the song brought it into the public mainstream. The song’s success brought Dylan major recognition, and his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (released in May 1963), cemented his reputation by making it onto the Billboard chart of top sellers and remaining there for 14 weeks (his first album made little impression commercially but certainly enhanced Dylan’s standing in the folk community, as well as generating not a little envy). That same spring, Dylan began a relationship with Joan Baez, the most popular and highly regarded folk performer of her generation. Baez began singing Dylan’s songs at her concerts—previously given over to her primary repertoire of renderings of traditional songs—and Dylan made unbilled guest appearances to join her in duets. In the following months, Baez praised Dylan’s music at every opportunity and introduced Dylan to audiences at folk festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival, and to Martin Luther King’s March on Washington (August 1963) where he sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Pawn in Their Game,” his headline song about the death of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. He thus became fully identified with political songs and “protest” lyrics, although he seems to have been uncomfortable with being so labeled. (He later somewhat cynically claimed that he wrote them because that was what his audience wanted to hear and that he was seeking to make his reputation.)
In the next two years, Dylan’s output of songs increased and he released two recordings in 1964, both of which made the Billboard charts. The title song and other compositions on his first album of 1964, The Times They Are A-Changing, solidified Dylan as the “voice of the new generation” as the college-age population seemed to rise up in protest in favor of civil rights for African Americans and other minorities, and for greater freedom on campus (the Berkeley Riots of 1964) and, later, in opposition to the U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. By 1965, he was growing restive in his role as spokesman for “his generation” and was veering in new directions in his music (actually returning to his roots in rock and roll, which he had played in high school) and breaking with Joan Baez. Bringing It All Back Home, released in March 1965, introduced the sound of Dylan the rocker. His appearance at the Newport Festival that summer has become a mythic event in popular music history: Dylan’s playing a set on electric guitar with members of the Paul Butterfield Band discomfited many in the audience and enraged some of the traditionalists. He was accused of selling out, of abandoning his calling and audience. Although there were written condemnations of Dylan from such traditionalists as the editor of Sing Out! magazine (dedicated to the traditional genres of folk music as well as to new material such as protest and topical songs; this open letter actually antedates Dylan’s Newport appearance, according to several sources), scholars still debate how negative the crowd’s reaction to Dylan was at Newport and what its cause was (some attributed it to the overamplified instruments that drowned out Dylan’s lyrics). On the evidence of later negative reactions to Dylan’s new persona and more rock-inflected songs, the music did bother many people and it would seem that there was a backlash against his abandoning the folk idiom. On the other hand, Bringing It All Back Home and his other 1965 album, the blues inflected Highway 61 Revisited, rose to numbers 6 and 3 on the Billboard charts (his most popular albums to date), and all his records through the early 1970s rose to the top 10.
In the wake of his 1965 Newport appearance, Dylan made a tour of England accompanied by the group that came to be known as The Band; there he hung out with the Beatles (he had first heard their music in the winter of 1964 when they made their American debut and was reportedly blown away by them; he went to meet them in New York and claims to have introduced them to smoking marijuana). The most popular British band and the controversial American “voice of a generation” mutually reinforced each other. The Beatles performed a number of Dylan-inflected tunes, and Dylan’s lyrics took on some of the same quality as the Beatles’ work of this period. His 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, a two-record set containing some of Dylan’s most intricate compositions to date including a full-side long song, preceded the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’ s Lonely Hearts Club Band by a year. They both set the standard for their contemporaries as new forms of rock, more literate and more highly produced than the classic rock and roll of the 1950s but capturing something of the spirit of folksong, emerged.
Dylan went into seclusion in the st near his home in Woodstock, New York. During this time, he married and raised four children. He thus was not much of a public presence during the most turbulent years of the 1960s. He did not appear at the Woodstock Festival, although his residence in the vicinity was part of the reason for the town’s becoming identified as a center of rock music, and his reappearance with his late 1960s albums puzzled his audience (one, John Wesley Harding contained dense and cryptic songs, some with a prophetic tinge; the other, Nashville Skyline Blues, was a lightweight piece of countrified pop; both sold well). And he continued to puzzle and entrance his audience for the balance of the decade as he emerged again as a public performer with his Rolling Thunder Review—a combination of rock-and-roll and minstrel show, with Dylan appearing in elaborate costumes and often in face paint alongside poet Allen Ginsburg and others (Dylan’s lyrics share some of the same surrealistic intensity as Ginsberg’s famous Howl and Dylan nodded in the direction of the Beats in his “Subterranean Homesick Blues”). In the late 1970s, Dylan stunned many of his fans by announcing his conversion to Christianity and by devoting much of his musical output to gospel-inflected songs with religious lyrics. While not attaining the sales of many of his earlier albums, and thus not reaching the top of the charts, the albums of these songs did reasonably well, which remained true of his work through the late 1980s when a series of albums received hostile critical reception and experienced weak sales. Nonetheless Dylan persisted. He downplayed his conversion (he has sometimes been associated with Hasidic Judaism) and he launched another touring show that has come to be known as the Never Ending Tour since it is still going on after nearly a quarter-century, experimented with new forms and old styles, and produced a series of albums starting in the late 1990s that vaulted him back into the top positions in the Billboard charts, a remarkable accomplishment for someone of his age. Martin Scorsese’s biographical film No Direction Home (2005), many albums of outtakes and bootleg recordings of his old material, his own memoir, and Todd Haynes’s 2007 film I’ m Not There, inspired by Dylan’s life, have kept the spotlight on him even as his reputation remains somewhat controversial—his work alternately praised as a culmination of American traditions (Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America) or disparaged as weak and derivative or at worst plagiarism. As Don McLean, a folksinger of the early 1970s, commented in his epic lament for the passing of good ol’ 1950s rock and roll, “American Pie,” Dylan (who appears in the song under the sobriquet of the “Jester”) had a voice that “came from you and me”—the folk, the people. Although in McLean’s worldview this has negative implications as does his name for Dylan, it does speak to perhaps the core of Dylan’s appeal—his music derives from a broad array of styles and traditions and his lyrics have captured a spirit of an age.
“Bob Dylan.” The Official Bob Dylan Web site. http://www.bobdylan.com/us/home .
Dettmar, Kevin J. H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles: Volume I. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Hajdu, David. Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001.
Nogowski, John. Bob Dylan: A Descriptive, Critical Discography and Filmography 1961–2007. 2nd ed. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, 2008.
Scorsese, Martin, director. Bob Dylan: No Direction Home. Spitfire Pictures; Grey Water Park Productions, 2005.
Wilentz, Sean. Bob Dylan in America. New York: Doubleday, 2010.