It’s been said that people will look back with envy at us, because we live in the time of Bob Dylan. This is a bit like how one marvels at those who lived during Shakespeare’s time. People will wonder “What was it like?” and perhaps ask “Was he a real person?”
Comparing someone to Shakespeare is not done lightly, but similar to Shakespeare, you don’t have to experience Dylan’s work directly to have it become a part of your life. With Dylan, it’s impossible to think of the trajectory of post-Elvis pop music without him. No singer or performer was untouched by his influence. From folk to rock, heavy metal to reggae, country music to ballads – ever genre was influenced by Bob Dylan.
The voice of a generation and beyond
Dylan began his career in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene where he chronicled the social change that was beginning to sweep through the decade. Inspired by the folk singer and social activist Woody Guthrie, Dylan penned anthems for a generation like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are a Changin’” And yet when he felt the strain of expectations from a movement that increasingly saw him as their voice, he broke free. Writing songs with political messages to folk melodies on an acoustic guitar made Dylan famous, but it had become too restrictive. So at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival, Dylan plugged his guitar into an amplifier and played a set featuring new songs from his fifth album, Bringing it All Back Home. Many in the audience booed the performance which they felt betrayed the music that had come to represent their movement. This moment, however, marked Dylan’s declaration of independence as an artist.
Bringing it All Back Home featured some of Dylan’s most intriguing work lyrically with songs like “Love Minus Zero / No Limits” and “It’s Alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding).” The focus had turned inward but lost none of Dylan’s sharp talent for observation, buoyant sense of irony and the ability to portray highly complex emotions and situations through his poetry. The iconic albums Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde soon followed, each difficult to characterize, but full of melodic radio friendly hits such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35” and “I Want You.” Dylan’s also proved that his gift for the sort of observant cutting lyrics that made him a folk music sensation were still very much present. A more surreal twist had entered, however – part of the new Dylan who gained his freedom and was careful not to be pinned down again by his fans or even his lyrics. And Shakespeare, that other great artist, made a cameo appearance:
Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well
And I would send a message
To find out if she’s talked
But the post office has been stolen
And the mailbox is locked
Bob Dylan, a mystery and a survivor
Then came another break. In 1966, Dylan suffered severe injuries following a motorcycle accident. This caused him to take a break from his grueling schedule of interviews and tour dates. The abrupt media blackout regarding Dylan that followed led some to speculate that the accident never happened. The whole thing was thought to be a ruse to, once again, shake the growing burden of expectations off his back.
Whether his time out from the public eye was due to a medical emergency or self-imposed, when Dylan returned to creative life, the focus had again changed, this time to a more country-influenced sound. The result was The Basement Tapes, an album of music Dylan recorded with the musical group The Band. The Basement Tapes wasn’t released until 1975 but immediately took on a cult following among musicians and music lovers. With the 1969 album Nashville Skyline featuring duets with Johnny Cash, Dylan showed that country could be more nuanced and complex than what was becoming a cliché-riddled and mass marketed genre. In 1972, Dylan composed the soundtrack to Pat Garret and Billy the Kid in a similar vein. While the movie was not a success, the soundtrack is an enduring classic. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” went on to become an iconic song, although most people know it through the artists that cover it, most notably Eric Clapton and Guns N’ Roses, proving once again that even people who don’t think they like Dylan are influenced by him.
While most 60s performing artists disappeared in the 70s and 80s, Dylan returned to touring and come out with series of albums like Blood on the Tracks, Street Legal, Slow Train Coming, Infidels and Knocked Out Loaded which met with mixed reviews. During the late 70s, Dylan again shocked fans by becoming a born again Christian in the midst of the anything-goes disco era. He left an enduring record of this period in the popular song “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
Back to roots and new burst of creativity
In the 90s, Dylan returned to folk and roots music with the albums Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. But this was not the folk sound of Woody Guthrie or roots music a la Hank Williams. The songs featured on both albums went back much further into the 18th and 17th centuries, old enough to have their origins blurred by time. These two highly acclaimed albums were followed by Time Out of Mind in 1997, the first collection of original songs by Dylan to become a critical success is many years. Love and Theft in 2001 and Modern Times in 2006 were equally popular and proved that Dylan’s creative powers were still incredibly potent.
In recent years, Dylan has taken yet another surprising turn, this time towards The Great American Songbook. This is a term applied to the most popular and enduring American pop and jazz songs written roughly between 1920 and 1960, a time period that many consider to be America’s golden era of songwriting. In the 2015 album Shadows in the Night, Dylan covers the sorts of classic standards like “Autumn Leaves” and “Some Enchanted Evening” that one would expect to hear from Frank Sinatra or Mel Tormé.
Fallen Angels, released this year, again breathes new life into old standards like “That Old Black Magic”and “All the Way.” Dylan’s sensitive renderings are set to beautiful arrangements featuring steel guitars and gentle high hat and brush work on the drums. The result is an atmosphere that is much more stripped down than Sinatra’s Nelson Riddle arrangements. There is also none of Sinatra’s clear and strident vocals. Weathered and true, Dylan’s voice, which never had the range of a Sinatra in his prime, can still make you feel a lyric like no one else.
On this, his 75th birthday, Dylan is taking a break from his Never Ending Tour, the name that’s been applied to his continuous touring schedule since 1988. But hey, anyone who’s made 37 studio albums and been performing for nearly 60 years deserves a break. We salute this great artist and hope the Never Ending Tour lives up to its name.
Cover Photo by Rowland Scherman (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons