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The reluctant hero of many, an outspoken leader of a generation through his words and music what does the great Bob Dylan mean to you? Most likely people remember him as a famous singer-songwriter but others will be familiar with his work as a painter and a poet but in truth it was the combination of these that made him an icon for several generations.
Without meaning to his songs became the anthems for the growing social unrest the youth of the day felt. Born Robert Allen Zimmermann he found the roots of his music in folk. His early works pushed the political boundaries of the time and songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They Are a-Changing became campaign songs for the US Civil Rights movement and anti war campaigns.
It wasn’t just the content Dylan came under attack for, his use of electric guitars and instruments was something the people within folk music were set against. On many levels he was too progressive for his peers and that’s what captures the imagination of generations to follow.
If your message can stand the test of time and people can look back and see you as a visionary they follow even some 30 to 40 years later simply because they believe in the same things you do. When you look at the political, philosophical and social words to his songs you can’t help feeling a little closer to him and to the people of that time.
It’s that ability to tell a story in a short space of time with music and words and capture the feeling of the world at that moment that makes his work so important. Who were his major influences in this anti-culture style? Some say Hank Williams inspired or Woody Guthrie and that he watched the performances of Little Richard and Buddy Holly and he drew something from them but really it’s Bob Dylan’s own unique style that makes him incomparable with other artists.
High School and College came and whilst Dylan showed a talent for music he was more interested in Rock and Roll to begin with. The energy of youth always goes hand in hand with the rock instinct; it felt like such a rebellious and powerful tool.
His 1959 School Yearbook listed his ambition to ‘follow in the footsteps of Little Richard’ and later that year under a different name Elston Glunnn he actually performed two dated with Bobby Vee on the piano to a health round of applause.
It wasn’t until he attended the University of Minnesota that things were to take a slightly different turn, he became heavily influenced by the poetry of Dylan Thomas and could be the reason he started to introduce himself as Bob Dylan.
Thereafter he became involved with the local folk scene and his affair with Rock and Roll effectively ended with this quote
“The thing about rock’n’roll for me anyway was that it wasn’t enough....the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a serious way. I know 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”
Dylan dropped out of college in his freshman year and headed straight for New York, his hope was to play there whilst being able to visit his music idol Woody Guthrie how had become seriously ill with Huntington’s Disease and what was to happen between the two was change his life forever.
After meeting Guthrie he befriended his long term buddy Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and soon found a lot of the musical influence of Guthrie was channelled through Elliot, he would soon declare that he wanted to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple and the only tribute to match that was the declaration from Dylan that Guthrie was the ‘true spirit of America’
Dylan began the club scene and gained early notoriety when he received a glowing review from the influential New York Times. John Hammond was closely watching the scene at the time and the producer moved quickly to sign Dylan to the label Columbia Records.
His first album entitled Bob Dylan was pretty much a flop selling just 5,000 copies and Hammond came in for some criticism for signing him with talk of dropping him completely from the record label. So sure was Hammond if his talent he fought tooth and nail to keep Dylan on the label.
Several small spots on record came along with Dylan recording under different names such as Bob Landy or Blind Boy Grunt but two important musical changes were about to take place that would shape his career forever.
In 1962 he legally changed his name to Bob Dylan and he signed a management contract with Albert Grossmann, who would remain his manager for the next 5 years. Dylan likened the combative personality of Grossman to ‘A Colonel Parker style figure’ and naturally tensions would grow between Grossmann and Hammond leading to the latter being replaced as produce for the second album and that position being taken by the young talented African American producer Tom Wilson.
His second album Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was clearly influenced by Tom Wilson, several of the songs were labelled ‘protest’ songs as it took a more reflective personality, commenting on society as it stood. Oxford Town was based around the ordeals of the first black student to enrol at the University of Mississippi James Meredith.
There was definitely something ere that would last, the tales of students hardships of any race will always carry on. Often it’s the time in person’s life where they’re most passionate for change, ideals slowly start to form and their energy and youth makes them believe they can change the world and in some ways Dylan did.
The album was such a success even The Beatles were proclaiming a musical work f art it in with George Harrison claiming they simply couldn’t put the album down and wore it out. It was his voice that a lot of people seemed bewitched by. One person described as like if sandpaper could sing, but sing well this would be it.
The gritty, almost rough sound was something people were not use to with the voices of the day classically trained in the art of tone and pitch, yet here was a young man prepared for the world to hear him as he was not how they wanted him to be and that’s true of many of his traits.
His views and character was to suffer a small test of will in 1963 when appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show but it was also to raise his political profile dramatically. His song Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Views the show claimed could leave them open to libellous retribution from the John Birch Society so told him to censor this song.
Dylan rather than comply with their order of censorship instead walked out on the show completely. Dylan was at this time heavily involved in the civil rights movement and whilst the walk out was never planned or intended to raise his political profile it did though not the effect you’d expect.
By the end of 1963 he was disillusioned with some parts of it. He felt as though he was being manipulated and held back by the folk and protest movements. The next album was Another Side of Bob Dylan and many see it as a partial rejection of the role that had been thrust open him.
It certainly has a lighter feel, even humorous in parts and is much more surreal and with the song ‘My Back Pages’ he even pokes fun at his own seriousness in his previous work. A bold move given how many important figures had placed so much importance on his earlier work, for him to reject it himself was a risky one but one Dylan made with a clear conscience.
So much was to alter in Dylan’s life it would be hard to note down everything. There were changes from folk to electric styles that shocked and inspired a lot of his audience. There were periods of work that were varied in quality and received mixed reviews and there was of course the controversy surrounding the Motorcycle crash he had.
Under pressure from his label to produce another album the circumstances surrounding the accident were unclear. He wasn’t hospitalised and no ambulance was called and later in his autobiography we spoke of a need to get out of the ‘rat race’ at this moment in time and like most of his life and work this incident is open to interpretation.
If that doesn’t surprise by the time the 1970’s were drawing to a close Dylan had become a born again Christian and produced two albums of Gospel Music in Slow Train Coming and Saved and the won a Grammy for the Best male Vocal for Gotta Serve Somebody
Since then it has been a rollercoaster of success and failure but that’s why he’s loved, an Oscar has come his way with several critical review of his work but that’s the strength of him. He’s never afraid to try something new criticism isn’t something he fears praise isn’t something he longs for and in modern society that seems an almost alien concept.
That’s why perhaps he’s loved by the youth of today as much as the youth back then only they’ve a generation of fans older who can share that passion and love for his music. He was never the prophet he was made out to be, a visionary sure, a progressive thinker definitely and an idol absolutely but he’s exactly what is missing in music today, a voice. Something or somebody who will speak out with exactly how they feel with such passion it’s heard, right or wrong.