For those of a certain age it’s hard to believe, but Bob Dylan is 70 years old on May 24th, 2011. Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Duluth, where he grew up listening to blues and country music broadcast out of Louisiana. At school he formed several bands, at least one of these bands, The Golden Chords, would make an impression – their performance of Rock and roll is here to stay at his High School’s talent show was so loud that the Principal cut the power to the microphone.
After a short period at the University of Minnesota, Dylan dropped out in 1961 and moved to Greenwich Village, New York, which had a lively folk scene. Here he was spotted by Time magazine, who were running a feature on folk. Described as “a promising young hobo”, he only rated a paragraph but did at least get a mention between Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.
Although his first album released in 1962 sold just 5,000 copies in its first year, his star was rapidly rising. Heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie, Dylan started to write protest songs such as Blowing in the wind which would later become a chart topper for Peter, Paul and Mary. A hard rain’s a-going to fall became unexpectedly popular owing to its fortuitous release just a few weeks before the Cuban missile crisis. Dylan’s political profile was further raised when he sang during the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington.
Musically he moved further away from his folk roots when he “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Folk purists were horrified, but it endeared Dylan to a generation eager to protest and raised on rock ‘n’ roll. It would not be right to say that Dylan started a trend, but his use of an electric guitar for what had primarily been seen as an acoustic medium would encourage other musicians to break conventional bonds, and would give others the freedom to cross over into other genres. Following the reaction to the 1965 gig Dylan wouldn’t play Newport for another 37 years, when he would appear there in a wig and false beard.
Controversial, and seen variously as a figurehead for his generation and as one of the most difficult men in rock, Dylan has been admired both for his music and his lyrics. Lyrics range from the inscrutable to the simple but powerful, and reams of paper have been spent analysing each nuance of Dylan’s lyrics. You can even read some of these analyses in the UL : try Do you, Mr. Jones? or investigate his lyrics for yourself Lyrics : 1962-2001, and there’s always the Cambridge companion to Bob Dylan.
He has written a phenomenal number of songs, and, like Lennon and McCartney, there have been some memorable cover versions, notably Jimi Hendrix’ version of All along the watchtower, Eric Clapton‘s reggae influenced Knockin’ at Heaven’s door, and Adele’s gentle bluesy Make you feel my love.
Since the 1960s Bob Dylan has been a central figure in popular music, and continues to be an influence 50 years after his arrival in Greenwich Village. One of my dogs is called Dylan, perhaps not unnaturally people assume that he is named after THE Dylan “why, you’ve even named your dog after him,” in fact my Dylan is named after the hippie, guitar-playing rabbit of The magic roundabout, but then he in turn was named after Bob, such is his ubiquity that love him or hate him you can’t ignore this major force in twentieth-century popular music. Happy birthday Mr. D.
For more birthday specials check out The Rolling Stone’s tribute.