Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Robert Allen Zimmerman, 24 May 1941, Duluth MN) US singer-songwriter, the most important figure in white rock music: a profound influence on the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, David Bowie etc; songs widely covered. He came from a middle-class Jewish family, moving to the iron-mining town of Hibbing at age six, where his father operated an appliance store. Influenced by Johnnie Ray, Hank Williams, then rock'n'roll: like many growing up in the Midwestern USA in the 1950s, he heard R&B, country music, and rock'n'roll while the pop charts were dominated by pap. He formed groups in high school (his ambition was 'to join Little Richard!') and later tried to shroud his early life in myth; he once claimed to have been a member of Bobby Vee band, and maybe he did play piano with them once; his stories about the origin of his name 'Dylan' showed indifference to what interviewers think they want to know (his name was changed legally in 1962). Influenced by reading Woody Guthrie's Bound For Glory, he began singing at coffee houses during a brief stay at the U. of Minnesota; drifted across the country to visit Guthrie in hospital and was soon singing and playing guitar and harmonica in Greenwich Village folk clubs.

A review by Robert Shelton in the New York Times led to Dylan's signing to Columbia by John Hammond; his first LP Bob Dylan '62 was standard blues and folk covers, giving little warning of what was to follow: his voice seemed strange, album described by a Columbia record salesman in Chicago as a 'piece of shit'. Yet his folk singing was already informed by rock'n' roll attitude. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan '63 was very different: 13 songs almost all his own included 'Blowin' In The Wind', 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right' (top ten hits by Peter Paul and Mary '63); 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' became an anthem; 'Oxford Town' was about Mississippi racism; 'Girl From The North Country' with 'Don't Think Twice' were the first of many realistic love songs; 'Talking World War III Blues' was hard-edged surreal comedy with melting parking meters: Nat Hentoff's notes observed, 'There's no place to hide in the talking blues ... he is able to fill all the space ... with unmistakable originality.' Rockabilly 'Mixed-Up Confusion' was left off the album to foster 'folk' authenticity, and 'Talking John Birch Society Blues' because Columbia lacked moral fibre (Ed Sullivan would have allowed it on prime-time TV, but the network vetoed it); the floodgates were opened anyway: 'Masters Of War' and others announced the most important writer in the genre since Guthrie himself.

The Times They Are A-Changin' '63 had producer Tom Wilson replacing Hammond, another anthem in the title track (a hit single in the UK, but not in the USA), topical songs 'Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll', 'Only A Pawn In Their Game'; the lyrics were swiftly seized and analysed. He was the star of the Newport Folk Festivals '62-3-4 with Pete Seeger, and his early champion Joan Baez. Transitional Another Side Of Bob Dylan '64 began to shed the mantle of protest, his dislike of intense scrutiny manifest in disenfranchising songs 'My Back Pages', 'Chimes Of Freedom', 'It Ain't Me Babe'. His songs were soon covered by diverse acts from Marlene Dietrich to Manfred Mann; he was publicly impressed by the rock'n'roll sound and original material of the Beatles and by the Animals' version of 'House Of The Rising Sun' (which he had covered on his first LP); he acknowledged the influence of both on his decision to use a rock band (Wilson also encouraged it), leading to controversy which is comical now. An electric version by the Byrds of 'Mr Tambourine Man' '65 was a no. 1 hit both USA and UK; Dylan's crossover Bringing It All Back Home '65 had a brilliant acoustic side with 'Tambourine Man', 'Gates Of Eden', 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' and 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue', while the electric side put him streets ahead of his contemporaries, with savage comedy in 'Maggie's Farm' and 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', ballads 'She Belongs To Me', 'Love Minus Zero', etc.

('Tambourine Man' had been inspired by guitarist Bruce Langhorne [b 11 May 1938, Tallahassee FL; d 14 April 2017] who had worked and recorded with many of the Greenwich Village folkies, and who also played a large Turkish frame drum with bells on it.)

Folk purists were outraged when Dylan went electric; he was booed at Newport in '65. A UK solo tour '65 was filmed by Donn Pennebaker; Don't Look Back '67 is probably still the best rock film. Highway 61 Revisited '65 was all electric, including 'Like A Rolling Stone', 'Ballad Of A Thin Man' (famous line 'Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr Jones?'), epic eleven-minute 'Desolation Row'. His marriage in '65 was kept secret. He started a trend by recording in Nashville, and Blonde On Blonde '66 was one of rock's first double LPs; Dylan said in 1978, 'That's my sound. I haven't been able to succeed in getting it all the time.' Blonde On Blonde included hit singles 'I Want You' and 'Rainy Day Women #12 And 35' (widely taken to be a drug song); 'Just Like A Woman' was said to be inspired by the Andy Warhol druggie Edie Sedgwick.

The so-called fans booed and threw things at concerts on a world tour '66, reacting violently to the new music; guitarist Robbie Robertson thought, 'This is a strange way to make a buck,' and later said, 'We'd go back to the hotel room, listen to a tape of the show and think, shit, that's not so bad. Why is everybody so upset?' The controversy about 'folk-rock' raged in Sing Out magazine; Dylan just called it music, and said, 'Folk music is a bunch of fat people.' In live performance he typically did an acoustic set and then introduced the band; in English concerts '66 (widely bootlegged) he said, 'It used to be like that, now it goes like this': Dylan and the Band poured energy and passion into reworkings of already classic songs against audience antipathy. He said that music was more important than boos, that those claiming to be his oldest fans were not: his oldest fans were friends who knew what he was doing. In a furious cycle of touring, recording, he wrote songs copiously in restaurants, hotel rooms; Richard Farina said, 'He wasn't just burning the candle at both ends -- he was taking a blowtorch to the middle!'

He suffered a neck injury and scars in July 1966 in a motorcycle crash; amid rumours that he was disfigured, dead or drying out from drugs, he rested in Woodstock NY at a house called Big Pink, rented by the men who were becoming the Band, who would name their first album after the house. There they recorded perhaps 150 songs in the basement. Some of them were bootlegged in two-disc set The Great White Wonder, probably the biggest-selling bootleg in history, commercially issued in slightly different form in 1975 as The Basement Tapes; many of the rest of the tracks surfaced on various other bootlegs; a few like 'Mighty Quinn' and 'This Wheel's On Fire' were covered for hits by other artists. Griel Marcus's book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes '97 makes the case that the mock-country ballads, sea shanties, blues jams and nonsense songs were made in 'a laboratory where certain bedrock strains of American cultural language were retrieved and reinvented'; a culmination of a line of almost forgotten figures in folk traditions, and through them even more obscure pioneers and mystics. In retrospect the basement tapes were thought by some to be a peak of Dylan's creative work; some critics argued that the rest has very slowly run downhill overall. But that underestimated the artist.

He made his first public gig in nearly two years at a Woody Guthrie memorial concert; then LP John Wesley Harding '68 was a shock: laid-back while psychedelia was the rage, his raw voice had turned smoother; the backing was low-key and acoustic, lyrics deeper than ever in 'Drifter's Escape', 'All Along The Watchtower' (covered by Jimi Hendrix) etc; also love song 'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight'. Nashville Skyline '69 included 'Lay Lady Lay', his first top ten single for three years, and the last to date (the song was intended for the film Midnight Cowboy but was too late for inclusion). There were several other love songs, benign 'Country Pie', informal duet 'Girl From The North Country' with friend/fan Johnny Cash (other duets were recorded but not then released). (The ace Nashville session men went on to form Area Code 615; Columbia had not wanted to use the word 'Nashville' in the title, showing once again ignorance of its own marketplace: 'country rock' was getting under way.) The two-disc Self Portrait '70 was the first Dylan set to receive overtly hostile criticism, and should have been edited to one disc. It had lacklustre covers of songs like Simon and Garfunkel's 'The Boxer', Rodgers and Hart's 'Blue Moon'; Dylan described it as 'my own bootleg record, so to speak', including live versions of 'Mighty Quinn' and 'Like A Rolling Stone' from the Isle of Wight Festival '69 (his first scheduled public appearance in three years drew 250,000). New Morning '70 was much tighter, including the widely covered 'If Not For You', also 'Three Angels' and 'Father Of Night'.

A long period of silence followed, broken only by cameos; he received an honorary doctorate from Princeton U. '70. 'George Jackson' '71 was a one-off protest at the death of the black activist. He was rapturously heard at George Harrison's Concert For Bangla Desh '71; the live triple album had a whole side of Dylan. He co-starred in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid '73, also writing the atmospheric soundtrack including 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'. His Columbia contract in doubt, two albums appeared on Asylum/Island, since reissued on Columbia (CBS, then Sony, then Columbia again). His first official LP with the Band Planet Waves '73 of very high quality was made in a 72-hour blitz including two takes of 'Forever Young', written with his son in mind: as a lovely ballad, then laden with humour; beautiful acoustic solo 'The Wedding Song'. First full tour in eight years sold out in hours '74; the two-disc Before The Flood was the first official Dylan live album, including vigorous reworkings of 'Like A Rolling Stone' and 'All Along The Watchtower'. Back on CBS, Blood On The Tracks '74 is still regarded by some as his best album, caustically examining love, marriage, and relationships in 'Idiot Wind' and 'Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts'. The low-key tour Rolling Thunder Review early '75, playing small local venues, was an ad hoc affair including Baez, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, T-Bone Burnett, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and others, and the filming of Renaldo And Clara; the four-hour home movie released '78 starred Dylan and Baez and lost $2 million. Desire '75 was his best seller to date, featuring Scarlet Rivera on violin; it followed the introspective mood of the last LP with personal songs 'Sara', 'O Sister'; also 'Hurricane' (plea for release of jailed boxer Ruben Carter), 'Mozambique' (impishly jolly lyric about a country which then had a brutal dictatorship). Hard Rain '76 was a disappointing souvenir of Rolling Thunder (a concert film Hard Rain was made by NBC in Colorado). His wife filed for divorce '77. A hiatus in studio recording ended with Street Legal '78: songs, a band, and arrangements of high quality included 'Changing Of The Guard', 'Senor' and 'Where Are You Tonight?'. A world tour '78 culminated at disused Blackbushe aerodrome south of London, supported by Joan Armatrading, Eric Clapton, and 250,000 fans; Bob Dylan At Budokan '79 was a souvenir of the tour, issued in the West as the Japanese import sold well, and said to have been prematurely recorded (the rest of the tour was better). He was the Band's special guest at their Last Waltz finale '78, appearing in the three-disc album and film.

He announced that he'd become a born-again Christian: Slow Train Coming '79 was hailed as his best-sounding album, produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett, with Mark Knopfler on guitar; the low-key album also sold well, but many fans were disappointed by the religious emphasis (though his songs had always been loaded with basically religious questions): 'Precious Angel' and 'When He Returns' merited attention. 'Gotta Serve Somebody' won his first Grammy. Saved '80 was his poorest seller to date, victim of a complete lack of sympathy with his new religious expression, though 'Solid Rock' e.g. is just that, while gospel music is one of the roots of rock. Dylan's remarks about snotty college-kid audiences in the notes to Biograph (see below) are revealing; he concluded 'Maybe people need time to catch up with it', but it was the beginning of a downward curve in his sales, which had never been those of a superstar (in 39 albums '63-95 only three reached no. 1 on the Billboard chart). Concerts of this period were marked by heckling as he refused to perform pre-Christian material. The patchy Shot Of Love '81 attempted to balance religion and craft, the title track co-produced by Bumps Blackwell; 'In The Summertime' and 'Every Grain Of Sand' were fine songs. Infidels '83 included Sly and Robbie rhythm section, the 'comeback' album produced by Knopfler; only 'Jokerman' seemed to recover power. A world tour was followed by Real Live '84, another collection of updated versions: 'Tombstone Blues', 'It Ain't Me Babe', etc; Empire Burlesque '85 was produced by Arthur Baker, hailed by some critics as his best since Street Legal, but then lots of them hadn't liked Street Legal. Knocked Out Loaded '86 continued to disappoint compared to his earlier work, including an 18-minute 'Brownsville Girl'. His one-off single with Tom Petty 'Band Of The Hand' was an undistinguished blues. He toured with the Grateful Dead for the first time '87; Dylan And The Dead tour recordings were issued '89. Down In The Groove '88 had only four Dylan songs, two co-written by the Dead's Robert Hunter.

If he had been still trying to do what he was doing 20 years ago we would have a right to complain about that; as it is, Oh Mercy '89 was his best album in a decade: the songs did not recover his startling originality but focused his introspection; he'd been so much older then, he was younger than that now. Under The Red Sky '90 had guests Don Was, George Harrison, David Crosby, Elton John, Slash of Guns N' Roses and others; Good As I Been To You '92 went to the other extreme: just Dylan, guitar and harmonica, and of course the critics didn't like that either. None of the tunes was his; 'Frankie And Albert', 'Sittin' On Top Of The World' etc were all traditional, or generally accepted to be so, but Folk Roots magazine complained that he did not acknowledge earlier versions which were similar to his (but it was a legitimate complaint against an artist of his stature that the album contained nothing at all in the way of annotation). World Gone Wrong '93 was similar; MTV Unplugged '95 with a small band was good value, 'Dignity' recovering the old spellbinder; then after hospitalization '97 with histoplasmosis, an infection caused by airborne fungal spores, he released his first album of new material since '90: Time Out Of Mind included Jim Keltner, Duke Robillard and Augie Myers among the sidemen and was hailed by fans and critics as a return to form. Later he seemed to be determined to do everything, making a Christmas album like the pop stars of old, and making albums of standards, like Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney. Live At The Gaslight 1962 came out in 2005. Tempest 2012 was an album of new material.

Compilation LPs included Greatest Hits '67, More Greatest Hits '71 (two-disc set had a side of unreleased songs including 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time', the only Dylan song covered by Elvis Presley, his own favourite among covers), Dylan '73 (embarrassing scrapings from '69-70, issued while he was between contracts). The Best Of Dylan with 18 tracks was announced to coincide with UK tour '97. Biograph '85 had 52 tracks, 18 previously unreleased, digitally remastered and copiously documented mostly with his own words; the five-LP set reached the top 40 albums in Billboard. The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 '61-91 was a similar three-CD set of alternates, early versions, previously unheard songs, again with a good booklet, and also charted well. Dylan released The Songs Of Jimmie Rodgers -- A Tribute on his Egyptian records '97 and wrote the sleeve notes, marking the Blue Yodeler's centenary, songs performed by Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, John Mellencamp, Jerry Garcia etc as well as Dylan. The string of official bootlegs continued (2-CD The Witmark Demos 1962-64 in 2010 was Volume 9): there seemed no end to his back pages.

Dylan books included the first biography, Anthony Scaduto's valuable Bob Dylan '72; Michael Gray's Song And Dance Man '72, later revised, good on the lyrics; A Retrospective '72 is a compilation of major reviews and interviews edited by Craig McGregor; Darker Shade Of Pale '85 by Wilfrid Mellers is densely critical. No Direction Home '86, the critical biography by Robert Shelton, eagerly awaited after 20 years, had been on the boil too long; All Across The Telegraph: A Bob Dylan Handbook '87 edited by Gray and John Bauldie was a collection from Bauldie's Telegraph fanzine. At last came a biography as good as definitive: Behind The Shades '91 by Clinton Heylin was intelligent, well-written and down to earth, by a fan not a fanatic, soon accompanied by Heylin's valuable Behind Closed Doors '95 on the recording sessions, fascinating on the abandoned versions of albums, the bootlegs etc (see also Griel Marcus's Invisible Republic '97, mentioned above). Dylan's 'novel' Tarantula '71 was received without much enthusiasm (contrary to ravings of grad students in '60s-70s he did not write great poetry but great songs); his Writings And Drawings '72 was updated to Complete Lyrics '86, light on drawings, and has been updated again since. He has long since been a superstar, yet only twelve albums went top 40 in the USA '65-79; they make the charts but peak quickly (on the other hand, they are all still selling). If he had written only his love songs he would be famous, but his lyrics are steeped in literary and religious allusion, beautiful and surreal imagery. He ignored his appointed role as a spokesman, though his words were scrutinized for secret significance and 'Dylanologists' picked through his garbage, while white middle-class terrorists in the '70s named themselves from a line in 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' ('You don't need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows'). He had no intention of telling anybody what to think, but the Weathermen/bombers, like some of the critics, missed the point and remained part of the problem.

Dylan's youngest son Jakob led a rootsy band called Wildflowers and was a promising lyricist; his first album '92 flopped on Virgin but Bringing Down The Horse '97 on MCA was said to sell in the millions. In early '98 father and son won five Grammys between them; incredibly, his father's first for Album of the Year, for Time Out Of Mind.

Dylan published a memoir, Chronicles Vol. 1 in 2005, revealing about the early days in Greenwich Village and on some later recordings sessions; fans hope for more; and in May 2006 he began doing the Theme Time Radio Hour on XM Satellite radio. Both as his own biographer and as a disc jockey he sounds like your old college chum you haven't seen for years, telling you what it's all been really like. In April 2008 Bob Dylan was awarded a special musical citation by the Pulitzer committee. In 2016 he received the Nobel prize for literature, which surprised everybody, including Dylan; yet the quality of his lyrics had long transcended popcrock. At first he ignored the prize, then he acknowledged it but said he could not go to Sweden; later he went to Sweden and received it in private, still as secretive as ever. 

In 2020 he sold his catalogue to Universal, including over 600 copyrights.