Dylan, Bob (1941—)

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Dylan, Bob (1941—)

The most influential musician to emerge out of the social unrest of the early 1960s, Bob Dylan dramatically expanded the aesthetic and political boundaries of popular song. Recognized almost immediately as the voice of his generation, Dylan began his brilliant career by performing blues, folk ballads, and his own topical compositions, many of which addressed issues of racial injustice and protested against the threat of nuclear war. By 1965 he transformed himself into a rock star, the first of many metamorphoses he would undergo over the next three decades. Mercurial, iconoclastic, and enigmatic, Dylan variously presented himself as a poet, gospel singer, bluesman, country musician, and minstrel, recording more than thirty albums that would make him one of the major popular artists of the twentieth century.

"Dylan has invented himself. He's made himself up from scratch," wrote playwright Sam Shepard. The point, Shepard suggested, "isn't to figure [Dylan] out but to take him in," to use him "as a means to adventure." Dylan began his extraordinary odyssey as Robert Zimmerman, the son of Jewish merchants from Hibbing, Minnesota, where he enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life. Although he was bar mitzvahed, Dylan listened to prophets who were unfamiliar to his parents. Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Hank Williams inspired the young guitar player, while the rebels James Dean and Marlon Brando shaped the attitude he carried to the University of Minnesota in 1959.

His days as a student were numbered. Having received an assortment of Huddie "Leadbelly" Leadbetter's recordings for graduation gifts, Dylan was more interested in music than his studies and promptly matriculated to Dinkytown, a hip section of Minneapolis renowned for its folk scene. It was here that he obtained a copy of Woody Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory (1943), a book that inspired him to learn the Dust Bowl balladeer's compositions and to perform them in local coffeehouses. By 1960, this nineteen-year-old changed his name and adopted Guthrie's nomadic ways, embarking on a cross-country trip that ended in New York City early in 1961.

Dylan immersed himself in the bohemian culture of Greenwich Village, where leftists old and new were participating in the folk music revival. Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Ralph Rinzler, and scores of other young people enamored with folk music attended jam sessions in Washington Square Park and gathered regularly to pay homage to Guthrie, the movement's patron saint. Hospitalized with Huntington's chorea, Guthrie made weekend visits to the East Orange, New Jersey, home of Bob and Sidsell Gleason, where Dylan temporarily resided. The two men established a warm relationship. Disease had nearly destroyed Guthrie's creative and communicative abilities, but he managed to express his enthusiasm for his admirer. When Dylan debuted at Gerde's Folk City in April, 1961, he donned one of his mentor's old suits for the occasion.

A self-described "Woody Guthrie juke box," Dylan recalled that he was "completely taken over by his spirit," a claim to which his self-titled album (1962), attests. Released soon after he was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond, this collection of folk standards and two originals established Dylan's credentials as an authentic traditional artist, and as a nasal-voiced, road-weary traveler who had hoboed for most of his young life. The album included the poignant "Song to Woody," a ballad written to the tune of Guthrie's "1913 Massacre" that musically, stylistically, and lyrically declared Dylan's intent to carry his hero's mantle. Cover versions of songs by bluesmen Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bukka White placed Dylan firmly in the folk tradition as did a 1961 press interview, during which he claimed to have played with Jefferson and the Texas songster Mance Lipscomb.

Bored with the predictability and sheltered nature of his middle-class life, Dylan fabricated a past full of hard traveling and hard living. If, like his fellow baby boomers, his life was smothered by relative affluence and haunted by the specter of nuclear war, his ersatz travels were filled with adventure and possibility. But if Dylan responded to his generation's ennui and malaise, he also began to absorb and shape its politics. "Whether he liked it or not, Dylan sang for us, " wrote the former president of Students for a Democratic Society, Todd Gitlin. "We followed his career as if he were singing our song; we got in the habit of asking where he was taking us next."

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) was born out of his emerging political consciousness. Perhaps the most stinging indictment of the United States government ever released by the commercial recording industry, "Masters of War" condemned the men who produce weapons of mass destruction and warned them that even the most benevolent God would not absolve their transgressions. The politics of Freewheelin' did not stop here. "Oxford Town" mocked segregation at the University of Mississippi; "A Hard Rain's AGonna Fall" imagined a stark and terrifying post-nuclear landscape; and "Blowin' in the Wind," which became a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, was a simple, though poetic, call for racial harmony. After becoming the star of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan actively supported a number of political causes, performing at a voter registration rally in Mississippi and at the March on Washington that summer. Meanwhile, the title track for his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964), furnished the anthem for a generation dedicated to transforming the social order.

Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) suggested, however, that the artist was moving in new directions. Bitter love songs such as "It Ain't Me Babe" replaced the moralism of Freewheelin' and Times, while "Chimes of Freedom" cloaked its social concerns beneath a virtuosic lyricism. Both the album and Dylan's promotion of it at the 1964 Newport Festival were poorly received by members of the folk press, many of whom opined that their hero's preoccupation with aesthetics forsook his political commitment. Their accusations were not unfounded. Unwilling to be shackled with the duties of generational spokesman, Dylan publicly renounced his involvement with the New Left and, after shedding his denim shirt for black leather and sunglasses, repackaged himself as a poet and rock star.

By the end of 1965, perhaps the most important year in Dylan's career, the transformation was complete. Following the release of Bringing It All Back Home that March, Dylan embarked on a tour of England where he was met by transfixed crowds, screaming girls, and adoring musicians. D.A. Pennebaker's documentary film Don't Look Back (1967) chronicles the tour, presenting an increasingly arrogant artist who sounded more like an existentialist than a proponent of civil rights. In his interactions with the press, an irreverent Dylan attacked those who tried to categorize and explain his art. In fact, his most recent material seemed to question the ability of language to convey a sense of reality. Rather than writing topical songs, he assailed the social order by intimating that it was unreal, absurd, a mere construction of language. Home' s "Mr. Tambourine Man" (which the Byrds successfully covered in 1965) suggested that drugs may have been helping Dylan alter his own private reality, but the apocalyptic images encountered by the bizarre characters who traveled Highway 61 Revisited (1965)—Napoleon in rags, Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, and Mr. Jones—insinuated that an unjust present could only be transcended by the act of artistic creation itself.

To be sure, Dylan's complex, poetic lyrics altered the face of pop music and legitimated the genre as an art form. When Bruce Springsteen inducted Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, he recalled that when he first heard "Like a Rolling Stone," it "sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind." The six-minute single redefined the limits of popular song, declaring, Springsteen later recalled, that "everything"—aesthetics, politics, power, and perhaps reality itself—"was up for grabs."

Those who followed Dylan's career closely should not have been surprised when he turned his back on the folk revival at Newport in 1965. The breaking off of his romantic relationship with Joan Baez, his work on a collection of poems entitled Tarantula (eventually published in 1971), his arcane lyrics, and his interest in the musical arrangements of the Beatles, whom he had met on his British tour, all pointed to his intention to leave the movement. Nevertheless, his followers were shocked when Dylan appeared with an electric guitar. Among the stalwarts who suggested that rock-and-roll musicians had sold out to commercial interests, Seeger was rumored to have been so outraged that he tried to cut the power supply. The audience nearly booed Dylan from the stage. Although shaken, Dylan remained resolute about his artistic decision. After meeting The Band (then the Hawks) in the summer of 1965, he took his electric show on a tour of England, during which he continued to incur the wrath of folk purists. This reaction—as well as the stunning music that Dylan and The Band produced—is documented on Live 1966 (released in 1998). Recorded at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, this concert included a riveting acoustic set which ultimately yielded to a full-blown rock show, where Dylan's voice and the masterful playing of his musicians soared above the audience's cries of betrayal.

Exhausted from the tour, Dylan returned to the United States, where, after sustaining serious injury in a motorcycle accident, he repaired to his home in Woodstock, New York. The silence of his convalescence ended in the summer of 1967, when he and the Band initiated a five-month jam session, most of which was released as the critically acclaimed Basement Tapes (1975). The search for personal redemption ("I Shall Be Released"), a sense of disillusionment and abandonment ("Tears of Rage"), and a persistent existential angst ("Too Much of Nothing"), remained prominent themes, but if the Dylan of 1966 was trying to inter the musical past, the BasementDylan exhumed it. Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, and Jefferson, traditional musicians whom Dylan encountered on the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, seemed to have a palpable presence on these recordings.

The Basement Tapes provide a segue between the modernism of Blonde on Blonde (1966) and John Wesley Harding (1968), the first album to appear after the accident. Replete with Biblical allusions, Harding was a largely acoustic collection of parables and allegories, one of which, "All Along the Watchtower," became a standard in Jimi Hendrix's repertoire. But if the children of Woodstock continued to embrace one of upstate New York's most famous residents, the artist himself seemed to be far removed from the Summer of Love. In the same year that flower children frolicked in the rain and mud, Dylan traveled south to record Nashville Skyline (1969), a collection of country-tinged love songs that included a duet with Johnny Cash. The man who began his career with protest songs ended the turbulent 1960s by embracing the form that such artists as Merle Haggard used to condemn the anti-war movement.

The albums that carried Dylan into the 1970s showed little of the genius that characterized his earlier work. The soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), a film in which Dylan played a bit part, was notable for the inclusion of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," a song later covered by Eric Clapton and Guns 'n' Roses. Before the Flood (1974), a live album recorded with The Band, suggested that Dylan was perhaps undergoing a creative renaissance, an assessment that Blood on the Tracks (1975) confirmed. Here again were songs of love, but crisp acoustic guitar, wailing harmonica, and a voice filled with doubt and disappointment convey the pain, anguish, and longing of "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Shelter from the Storm" with remarkable weight and precision.

Desire (1976) indicated a renewed interest in politics. "Hurri-cane," the lengthy centerpiece, was the angriest song Dylan had recorded since "Masters of War." Co-written with Jacques Levy, this fierce narrative impugned the American justice system by considering the murder trial of former professional boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Contending that Carter's trial had been conducted unfairly, Dylan publicized the jailed athlete's case by marshaling the forces of his Rolling Thunder Revue, a melange of some seventy artists—Baez, Shepard, Elliot, and Allen Ginsberg among them—that toured the States under Dylan's direction. Dylan, who performed most of the shows with his face covered in white pancake make up, designated appearances in Madison Square Garden and the Astrodome as bene-fits for Carter. Although the Revue's efforts may have played a part in convincing a New Jersey court to throw out Carter's first conviction, the boxer was found guilty a second time. Hard Rain (1976) provides a sampling of the dramatic ways that Dylan rearranged his music during the tour.

After the unremarkable Street-Legal (1978), Dylan chose a path previously untrodden: the artist who spent much of the early 1970s exploring his Jewish roots suddenly became a born again Christian. Fans and critics had little tolerance for the musician's choice, particularly when he proselytized at concerts and refused to play his better-known songs. The dogmatic lyrics may have made audiences uneasy, but the music on Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981) was triumphant and exhilarating. Backed by powerful gospel arrangements, Dylan sings with a passion that convinces the congregation that he had finally found his direction home. "Gotta Serve Somebody," the single from Train, earned Dylan his first Grammy Award.

Infidels (1983) explored both political and spiritual issues, but perhaps because it eschewed the religious fanaticism of his previous efforts, it received warm praise from critics. Indeed, when such songs as "Jokerman," "License to Kill," and "I and I," are heard alongside "Blind Willie McTell" and "Foot of Pride," both of which were released on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (1991), these sessions rate among the most innovative of Dylan's career.

If Dylan's commitment to Christianity had not faded on Infidels, it was clear he had change a of heart when, on Empire Burlesque (1985), he proclaimed that he "never could learn to drink that blood and call it wine." That same year he released Biograph, a retrospective of his career that included much previously unreleased material and initiated the "boxed-set" format to the recording industry. With his popularity again peaking, he participated in efforts to alleviate famine in Ethiopia, joining the chorus of U.S.A. for Africa to record "We Are the World" and issuing a ragged performance at the Live Aid Concert in Philadelphia. Political commentary extended into the 1990s. When he accepted a Grammy for lifetime achievement during 1991 Gulf War, he performed "Masters of War."

Although Dylan released lackluster studio albums in the mid-1980s, he launched separate but noteworthy tours with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead. Perhaps his most interesting work from this period came as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, a group comprised of Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. Released in 1988, the first of the Wilburys two albums included the foot-tapping singles "Handle Me with Care" and "End of the Line." Dylan capped the 1980s with the critically acclaimed Oh Mercy (1989), which included the socially conscious "Political World" as well as "What Was It You Wanted," a song that recalled the bitterness of such earlier compositions as "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."

His fourth decade of recording brought accolades and continued success. In October 1992, a panoply of artists including Harrison, Cash, Petty, Lou Reed, and Neil Young assembled at Madison Square Garden to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Dylan's first album. When the honoree opened his own set with "Song for Woody," he indicated that his career had come full circle. To be sure, his next two albums returned to his roots: Good As I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993) were both collections of traditional folk songs. Because these releases contained no new material, critics opined that Dylan's creative powers were again on the wane. Their diagnosis was premature. In 1997, this man who once issued a resonant challenge to the American political system was recognized as one of the nation's most important artists when he was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors. Soon thereafter he experienced a life-threatening illness and responded with the Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind (1997). Here the aging Dylan tried to come to terms with the emptiness of love and the limits of his own humanity. "The shadows are falling and I've been here all day," he sings in "Not Dark Yet." "It's too hot to sleep and time is running away." The hobo's travels had not yet ended, but he was now worried about "Tryin' to get to heaven before they closed the door."

Dylan's career had not yet ended, but the photograph that appeared on the inside cover of the Time Out of Mind compact disc box proclaimed a sense of closure. Shot from the shoulders up, a corpse-like Dylan stares into the camera, the soft focus connoting an elusiveness, his pale, worn face suggesting a weariness, his eyes glistening with the sadness of experience yet not devoid of hope, his riverboat minstrel costume, complete with string tie, underscoring the timelessness so powerfully communicated by the soulful and battered vocal performance rendered on the album. As a new generation embraced him, as his son, Jacob, began his own recording career with the Wallflowers, Dylan had, like the hard-traveling minstrel he emulated, become the progenitor of the cultural and musical traditions he so carefully studied. His remarkable body of work and enigmatic persona had, in effect, delivered him out of time, had elevated him to the status of national myth. Nearly forty years after his first record, Dylan continued to provide audiences with a "means to adventure."

—Bryan Garman

Further Reading:

Cantwell, Robert. When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996.

Garman, Bryan. A Race of Singers: Making an American Working Class Hero. Forthcoming.

Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York, Bantam, 1987.

Heylin, Clinton. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades: A Biography. New York, Summit Books, 1991.

Marcus, Greil. Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. New York, Henry Holt, 1997.

Shelton, Robert. No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. New York, Beech Tree Books, 1986.

Shepard, Sam. Rolling Thunder Logbook. New York, Limelight Editions, 1987.

Thomson, Elizabeth, and David Gutman, editors. The Dylan Companion. New York, Delta, 1990.