Bob Dylan has been influencing music for nearly half a century. Perhaps best known for giving a voice to the civil rights movement through his early folk music in the ‘60’s, Dylan should also be appreciated as a songwriter who has reinvented his style many times in the following decades, often persevering with his musical vision despite sometimes being poorly reviewed by the press or hesitantly received by the public. As a result, he has influenced a wide variety of musical genres, from the folk singing that initially brought him recognition, to rock and roll, country and even Christian music.
Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941, and it wasn’t long before music became a major part of his life. As a child he taught himself to play the piano and the acoustic guitar, and as a teenager he formed several bands. Influenced by his idol Woody Guthrie, he took a road trip across the United States and it was then that he renamed himself Bob Dylan, a name rumored to be a tribute to the poet Dylan Thomas. A few years later the bluesman Jesse Fuller introduced him to the harmonica and he arrived in New York City to play small venues in Greenwich Village. It was the start of a long and prolific career.
Dylan’s first incarnation as a musician was a folk singer. Incited by the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s, he concentrated mainly on political protest songs that had a great impact on the progressively-minded folk community. His albums The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’ introduced legendary songs such as “Blowin’ in The Wind,” and also spoke to the people about specific race killings and injustices in songs like “The Death of Emmett Till” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” In these protest songs he used many literary and musical techniques to transform his songs into a method of mass communication that inflamed a generation.
The song “It Ain’t Me Babe,” the final cut on Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Dylan is sometimes considered to be his good-bye to the folk movement, and soon after its release Dylan began experimenting with electric rock. Influenced by British acts like The Animals, the vocals on his next album Bringing It All Back Home were backed by a rock band complete with electric guitars and drums, and even though half of the songs were acoustic like the tracks on his previous albums, his fans didn’t immediately respond to the new Dylan sound. When he performed live at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 he was booed off stage. Though at the time his old fans weren’t very willing to let go of Dylan as a folk singer, his song “Like a Rolling Stone” eventually gained him immense fame with the pop audience, and consequently over one hundred artists covered Dylan’s songs in only a two year period, most notably The Byrds and The Turtles.
In 1967 and ‘68 Dylan even dabbled in the country music genre. The sound of his ‘67 release John Wesley Harding hinted at the controversial country-pop shift that was to come in the next year’s Nashville Skyline. The material on this album was so thoroughly country that Dylan’s singing voice had even morphed from his well-known raspy wail into a velvety croon, a phenomenon he attributed to his giving up cigarettes. The first cut of the album was a duet with the legendary Johnny Cash called “Girl From The North Country,” and he and Cash recorded many more duets during this time that were never officially released. Although the public was once again stunned by Dylan’s musical shift, the album and its venture into the country genre ended up being surprisingly well received. In fact, some contemporary country artists continue to cover many of Dylan’s songs today, convinced that country was his perfect venue.
Dylan continued to explore more musical genres in the following decades, recording many new albums in many different styles, and even returning to his protest song roots in ‘76’s “Hurricane”. A few years later he declared himself a born-again Christian and released a series of Christian music. The trend was short-lived and he returned to secular music in the next decades, most notably forming a band called The Travelling Wilburys with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in ’88.
Though many artists attempts at drastic musical change has led to the decline of their careers, Bob Dylan’s sincere voice, inspiring song topics, and literary lyrics have leant a credibility and stability to his music that have allowed it to remain vital and fresh through all its metamorphoses. He has earned the respect of critics and fans alike not only as a musician and songwriter, but as a poet.
Further Information on Bob Dylan and his music:
· Chords and lyrics to Dylan's songs
· Footage of performances and interviews
· Alphabetized list of songs with lyrics
· Biography of Bob Dylan
· Album reviews
· Interactive discography
· Biblical Allusion in Dylan's lyrics
· Info on The Travelling Wilburys
· Famous Bob Dylan quotes
· Bibliography of works by and about Dylan
· Original lyrics to Dylan's songs
· Unofficial/pirated disc list
· Guitar tabs and chords of many Dylan songs· Ambiguity and Abstraction in Dylan's lyrics
· Bob Dylan's poetry in The New Yorker