He has been described as the voice of a generation, but he has been much more. His songs beat to the pulse of our country. His tears of rage are tempered with the truest patriotism and vigilance, his acid humor with a disarming sweetness. His music is always drenched in the colors of hope. Bob Dylan has been an unlikely pop icon, a shy superstar and reluctant rebel, the sincerest social activist and the most distinctive of poets. He has been controversial, iconoclastic, charismatic, and impossible to ignore, perhaps the most influential figure in American popular music in our time. His songs have become so inextricably woven into American culture that it is sometimes difficult to remember that anthems such as "Blowin’ In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A-changing" are not folk songs, that one inimitable poet from the heartland created them out of his own confrontation with turbulent times.
Bob Dylan has been an inspiration to singers and songwriters as well as to lovers of song everywhere. "He made us feel at a certain time that it was good to be smart, good to be observant, that it was good to have a social conscience," said Paul Simon, Dylan’s brilliant contemporary. Bruce Springsteen, who grew up listening to Dylan hits like "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right" and "Like A Rolling Stone," spoke for an entire generation when he noted that "Elvis may have freed our body, but Dylan freed our soul."
He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth and grew up in the mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota. His family owned a hardware store. He formed a high school band called the Golden Chords, then struck out solo during his freshman year as he began to sing in coffee houses around the University of Minnesota. He changed his name as a tribute to his favorite poet, Dylan Thomas, and headed for Greenwich Village, New York, where the folk-rock revolution awaited just his sort of natural genius. He sought out and befriended the dying Woody Guthrie, who anointed the young troubadour with his blessing. Dylan was discovered in the Village by the visionary John Hammond of Columbia Records, who made possible his 1962 debut Bob Dylan and the surprise 1963 hit The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. By the time Dylan sang at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, he was already being hailed as the very definition of the new protest singer, a standard bearer for what was to come. Certainly his songs of the time justify the acclaim: "Song to Woody," "Blowin’ in the Wind," "Masters of War," "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right," "A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall." He fulfilled that promise and surpassed expectations with The Times They Are A-Changin’ in 1964 and also showed there was more than protest in his agenda with the bittersweet "Mr. Tambourine Man"--a hit he gave to The Byrds.
He brought about a fusion of folk and rock and roll--and caused a stir at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival--by taking up the electric guitar and surprising fans not for the last time with a swift change in direction. From "Like A Rolling Stone" to "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," from the epic "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" to the ecstatic "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine," from the resignation and bitterness of "Spanish Boots of Spanish Leather" to the heartbreaking simplicity of "I Want You," Bob Dylan has been defined only by his public’s inability to define him at all. He led triumphant tours with The Band, with Tom Petty and later with the Grateful Dead. He presaged Russia’s glasnost by taking his message of protest and love to Moscow, at the invitation of the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, in 1984. In 1985 he generously participated in We Are The World, a benefit to aid famine in Africa, and later took part in Farm Aid. He has published poems and drawings, made movies, laid low and come back refreshed more than once just to make us take notice of ourselves.
For all the surprises, the virtues of his songs have not changed all that much from the time he wrote "Blowin’ in the Wind." That was in 1962. Bob Dylan is a little older now, but his songs remain forever young, irresistibly touching reflections of the American soul.