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Humanities LibreTexts

9.12: Bob Dylan

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    55945
  • Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, singer/songwriter/poet Bob Dylan is the most influential popular folk singer in the post – WW II years. After a year of college Dylan dropped out of the University of Minnesota and in early 1961 arrived in Greenwich Village where he became a rising star in the burgeoning folk music scene. His gruff voice and wailing harmonica on his first recording of traditional ballads, blues, and gospel songs made for Columbia Records in 1962 became his trademark. On his second album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), he demonstrated his prowess as a brilliant songwriter with such pieces as “Blowing in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice Its All Right.” The former established Dylan as a national figure when the popular folk trio Peter Paul, and Mary made the song a hit in 1963. Over the next two years Dylan turned out a number of topical songs in the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger tradition. Pieces such as “Masters of War,” “It’s a Hard Rain Gonna Fall,” “The Times They Are a Changing,” “With God on Our Side,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “Oxford Town” were seething indictments of war and racism in America. These protest songs earned him the title of “the voice of the new generation,” a role he would soon reject. As he matured, his lyrics began to become more abstract and surreal in songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “My Back Pages.”

    In 1965 Dylan shocked the folk music world by appearing at the Newport Festival with a loud, raucous electric backup band. Accused of “selling out” the acoustic folk music revival with his electric rock-influenced arrangements, Dylan nonetheless went on to forge a new sound that critics dubbed “folk rock.” In 1965 and 1966 he released three albums of original songs backed by an electric band that today are considered his most creative work. His overt protest songs had evolved into more subtle and poetic critiques of modern society and individual alienation with compositions such as “Maggie’s Farm,” “Subterranean Home Sick Blues,” “Mr. Jones,” “Desolation Row,” and his anthem-like “Like a Rolling Stone,” which charted number two in summer of 1965 and established Dylan as a bona fide rock star.

    Following a motor cycle accident in 1966 Dylan became reclusive and did not tour again until the mid-1970s. He continued to write enduring songs that demonstrated his genius for transforming elements of traditional country, blues, and spiritual songs into fresh, modern-sounding compositions.

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