Here is Bob Dylan singing "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" in 2009
In 1941, the same year the United States entered the Pacific Theater of World War II, a child by the name of Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Hibbing, Minnesota. The son of a middle class Jewish family, Robert grew up writing poems, playing piano, guitar, listening to rock and roll and feeling somewhat isolated. He would often stay up half the night entranced by the sounds of early rock and blues musicians such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf played on the radio. While still in high school Robert was inspired to start a band, determined to eventually join his idol Little Richard.
In 1959, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota where he was exposed to a much larger world than he had known in the small town of Hibbing, and began listening to early roots rock and country musicians such as Hank Williams and most importantly, folk legend Woody Guthrie.
Folk music is a form of music that has been with us for a long time. In America, folk is based on early American and British music that was passed down through generations by oral tradition. Like the blues, it is a simple, acoustic music about common people and everyday events. Both Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger followed this tradition, but they began to add new material, which was often political, to the genre and both influenced Robert, who is credited with starting the modern era of folk. Robert's growing obsession with music and the pioneers of folk influenced his Guthrie-style of acoustic guitar and singing that was more like talking. It was at this time that Robert stopped going to class, started playing music in local cafes, and changed his name to Bob Dylan.
By adopting the new name, presumably after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan made a break from his past and soon after dropped out of college. In 1960 he moved to New York, to realize his dream of becoming a folk musician full time and meeting Woody Guthrie, who in the last several years of his life suffered from a rare nervous disorder. He would spend hours in the hospital room of his ailing hero, often playing traditional folk songs along with those that he'd written himself to an audience of one.
Dylan was also playing in Greenwich Village coffeehouses and clubs where within a short time he gained the attention of folk audiences, critics, and record companies. His nasal voice and song writing ability set him apart from other popular folk musicians of the early 1960's and led to a recording contract with Columbia Records.
In 1962, he released his first self-titled album, although his (or Columbia Record's) confidence in his writing talent was not yet established. The record consisted of only two original songs and a collection of traditional folk and blues songs. Although many found it hard to believe that the twenty-one year old from Minnesota had the course sincerity of an older black blues musician, they were deeply impressed with the young singer's ability. Dylan's second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" established him as one of the most important and poetic voices in rock history.
This album featured the trademark civil rights anthem "Blowin' in the Wind", that reinvigorated the folk movement and prepared both folk and pop audiences for what was to come. Although Dylan wrote the song in 1962 and recorded it in 1963, it only became a top 10 hit when recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1963.
The song's hard-hitting lyrics, clearly relating to the civil rights struggle, demonstrate a power rarely seen in popular music. When Dylan (or Peter, Paul and Mary, for that matter) sang "Yes, n' how many years can some people exist, before they're allowed to be free", he was hitting at the heart of struggle for equality that marked the civil rights movement. Dylan often called these political songs called "finger pointing songs."
What came next would forever change the content of pop music when "The Times They Are A-Changin'" was released in 1963. Reflecting the assassination of president Kennedy and the increasing momentum of the civil rights movement, Dylan's third album chronicled the chain of events shaping history in the 1960's. The title song from the album became an anthem for young people beginning to resist a government that was viewed as unresponsive and increasingly authoritarian. The words of this song were not only a call to arms for the counterculture but a warning to the older generation.
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don't criticize what you can't understand
Your sons and daughters are beyond your command
In the same year he refused to perform on the Ed Sullivan show, an exhibition of his commitment to noncommercial folk traditions. Dylan was on the front line of the protest movement and his lyrics deeply effected the consciousness of an increasing audience.
But Dylan, a restless and innovative artist more committed to music than politics, grew weary of his position as a musical leader in the civil rights movement as well as the counterculture and became tired of playing strictly acoustic folk music.
In 1965, he recorded an album that featured more rock inspired songs such as "Subterranean Homesick Blues", and "Mr. Tambourine Man." Additionally, he introduced folk-rock with half of the album's tracks recorded using an electric guitar.
In the same year he performed at the Newport Folk Festival where he was booed off stage for performing the new electrified material. His transition away from biting social commentary and from folk to rock was shaky because loyal Dylan fans weren't ready to see a new side of their folk hero. Many felt that he had sold out to the more popular rock genre and viewed him as something of a traitor. In retrospect, what appeared to be a sellout was in reality the creation of a new genre on music, Folk Rock.
The controversy continued in 1966, when Dylan performed at the legendary Royal Albert Hall Concert in May. The concert, which actually took place in Manchester, England has long been known to Dylan's fans through poor quality bootleg tapes. In 1998, newly discovered tapes of the concert were re-mastered and released as "Live 1966." This release, for the first time, gives us a very clear impression of the birth of Folk Rock. The first set of the concert was acoustic, with Dylan singing and playing the guitar and harmonica. Although Dylan sounded fine, rather than singing the "finger pointing songs" that the crowd expected, Bob emphasized the poetic nature of his recent work and many of the songs lacked social commentary.
The second set was very different. Dylan played an electric guitar as was backed by a group called "The Hawks," who later became "The Band", who played a heavily amplified electric rock. Near the end of the set, which has shocked the audience, he sang "Ballad of a Thin Man" with its antagonistic lyric:
"Something is happening but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"
After that song, one of the audience members yelled "Judas" at Dylan who replied with "I don't believe you" and "You're a liar." He then turned to the band and snarled "play fuckin' loud." They then played "Like a Rolling Stone" in what is considered by many to be the most intense and personal version of this much recorded song. Although there are many interpretations of this song, the lyrics in this version seem autobiographical in that he may very well be singing about himself and the radical change in his music.
How does it feel, how does it feel
To be on your own with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?
This was the last song in the second set. At the end he says "thank you", there is a bit of applause and the concert is over with no encore and no requests for an encore. The new music, folk-rock, that was so hard for this audience to accept, becomes the basis of much of the rock music which follows in the 1960's and to the present.
In 1967, Dylan withdrew to his Woodstock, New York home to recover from injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident. He reappeared in 1969 with a much more mellow voice and appeared with Johnny Cash on "Nashville Skyline". His career and personal life in the 1970's and 1980's had many ups and downs, but,throughout that time he produced important music, and in 1997 his CD, "Time Out of Mind" received great critical and commercial success, winning a Grammy.
It is nearly impossible to overemphasize the importance of Bob Dylan. His role in the history of rock music has been rivaled only by the Beatles, and his lyrics affected the consciousness of an entire generation in both a political and personal way.
Page authors: A.E. & C.F.