There are few people in pop culture who achieve the status of national treasure. Bob Dylan is one of them. In the history of Rock and Roll, Bob Dylan is likely its most prolific voice with a seemingly never ending basket of song.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, MN., he spent his youthful years in Hibbing, nearly 100 miles northwest of his birthplace. His grandparents immigrated from Russia and Lithuania, in the early 1900s.
In 1955 Zimmerman was a freshman at Hibbing High School. He spent most of his spare time listening to radio stations out of the south that played delta blues and early rock & roll. Popular songs of the year included Chuck Berry’s Maybellene, Fats Domino’s Ain’t That a Shame, Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, and Earth Angel by The Penguins.
By that time Zimmerman already knew what he wanted to do in life. During high school he formed several bands including the Golden Chords who did covers of popular songs. At their high school talent school, the principal deemed their performance of “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” too loud and immediately turned off the microphone.
As a senior, he listed in the Hemming HS yearbook as his ambition, “To follow Little Richard.”
Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis and enrolled in the University of Minnesota in 1959. It was there his love of Rock & Roll evolved into a deeper embrace of folk music. Some years later he would talk of this time saying, “The thing about rock’n’roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough … There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms … but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.” (Liner notes of his Biograph 1985 compilation set)
Zimmerman began playing at the 10 O’clock Scholar, a coffee house a few blocks from campus, and became actively involved in the local Dinkytown folk music circuit. It was around this time when he began performing as Bob Dylan. In his autobiography, Dylan acknowledged he had been influenced by the poetry of Dylan Thomas.
Explaining his change of name in a 2004 interview, Dylan remarked: “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
Dylan dropped out of college in his freshman year and moved to New York City where he hoped to perform and meet his idol, Woody Guthrie, who had recently taken ill and hospitalized with Huntington’s Disease.
He did meet Guthrie and came away from that face-to-face with a refreshed attitude about the direction of his music. Over the next few months, playing coffee shops and bars in Greenwich Village, Dylan made a name for himself as a voice of civil rights and protest. He signed with Columbia Records in October of ’61. His first album titled simply, Bob Dylan, had little commercial success, selling only 5,000 copies, just enough to break even. There were factions at Columbia that believed Dylan had little future in the business and encouraged producer John Hammond, to release him from his contract. Boy, were they wrong.
Dylan’s second LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in May of 1963. On the strength of his “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the album rapidly climbed the Billboard charts topping out at #22 (and eventually going Platinum) on the U.S. list and #1 on the U.K. list. Blowin’ in the Wind eventually became an international hit for Peter, Paul and Mary.
On a personal note, my first real introduction to Bob Dylan came through his 1965 hit single, “Like a Rolling Stone.” In reflection this six minute song changed me in ways I could not fathom. The lyrics touched every fabric of rebellion boiling within me. At the time I didn’t understand the depth of the song. I believe few of us really did.
But Dylan understood. Like a Rolling Stone changed him at his foundation. In an interview with CBC radio, Dylan related the, “breakthrough”, he experienced because of this song. He was at a crossroads in his career and on the precipice of quitting the business. He said he found himself writing “this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that was what I should do … After writing that I wasn’t interested in writing a novel, or a play. I just had too much, I want to write songs.”
In the years since Bob Dylan has compiled a catalog of music unrivaled in the short span of popular music history. No other artist has been covered as much by so many. He has been elevated well above the place most musicians aspire to. He has been called, the voice of a generation, a master poet, a social critic, and a guiding spirit. In a field of millions he has modestly separated himself as a giant among his peers. At 70 years old Dylan is still touring. His music will endure for generations to come, long after you and I are blowing in the wind.
On a sad side note, The Greenwich Village Coffee Bar, the Fat Black Pussycat, where Dylan penned, Blowing in the Wind, lost its iconic sign to a can of red paint a few days ago. Local historians were outraged. The times… they are a changin’…