On May 24, 1941, Bob Dylan was born. For almost sixty years, Dylan has been a major force in American musical and cultural life. While he is most broadly remembered for his 1960s albums, he has continued to make major contributions to the American songbook, and every phase of his career has its strong advocates.
Dylan was raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, and played in several bands during high school. But in 1959-1960, during his year as a student at the University of Minnesota, he was drawn to folk music. He later said that rock songs “weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way;” the appeal of folk was that “the songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumphs, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
When he left school, Dylan moved to New York. He began playing local clubs, and doing session work as a guitarist and harmonica player. During one of those recording sessions, producer John Hammond recognized his talent and signed him to Columbia Records.
His first album, called Bob Dylan, was mostly a collection of folk standards with only two original songs. The album barely broke even, and within Columbia, some referred to Dylan as “Hammond’s Folly” and urged the label to drop him.
Hammond stuck by Dylan, and his patience was rewarded in 1963 with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. This album was almost all Dylan originals and had this been the end of his career, we’d probably still think of Dylan as a major songwriter. Freewheelin’ included “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “Girl from the North Country,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”—an astonishing collection of songs for a writer in his early twenties.
Throughout his career, Dylan has been a prolific songwriter, and he doesn’t give himself much credit for that part of his talent. “The songs are there,” he says. “They exist all by themselves just waiting for someone to write them down. I just put them down on paper. If I didn’t do it, somebody else would.”
On his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan performed with electric instruments for the first time. “Like a Rolling Stone” was released as a single that June; it became his biggest hit, reaching #2 on the pop chart. A few days later, Dylan performed with electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, and the performance was booed. “Dylan goes electric” became a major controversy within folk music. Today, those who were in attendance disagree on the reason for the booing. Some say that the audience was angered by the electrification of the music; some say they were angry because Dylan performed for only 15 minutes when most acts were playing longer sets.
In 1966, shortly after the release of Blonde on Blonde, Dylan was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident, and he didn’t tour again for eight years. He kept recording, though, including some long sessions with his backup band, The Hawks in 1967. The Hawks eventually changed their name to The Band, and were quite successful in their own right. Those recordings were released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes; an even longer version came out in 2014 as The Basement Tapes Complete.
Dylan spent much of the late 1960s in Nashville, where he recorded 1967’s John Wesley Harding which includes “All Along the Watchtower” and 1969’s Nashville Skyline, which is so firmly a country album that it features a duet with Johnny Cash.
By the early 1970s, Dylan had largely faded from the pop-star spotlight, and his 1970s albums got more mixed reviews. There was usually at least one classic song to be found on each album, though; among the highlights of this era are “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” from Dylan’s soundtrack to the movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and Forever Young from the album Planet Waves.
In the late 1970s, Dylan converted to Christianity, and from 1979 to 1981, he recorded three albums of contemporary gospel songs. The first of the three, Slow Train Coming, got the best critical reception and included “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Dylan’s biggest hit single in several years.
The critics generally like Dylan’s 1980’s albums even less than they had liked his 70’s work, and the 1989 Dylan and the Dead, a document of Dylan’s tour with the Grateful Dead, was described by one critic as “quite possibly the worst album by either Bob Dylan or the Grateful Dead.”
Things began to turn around in 1988. Dylan was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and began what became known as the “Never Ending Tour;” Dylan has played about 100 concerts each year ever since. He teamed with Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and George Harrison to form the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys; they recorded two successful albums, somewhat confusingly called Vol. 1 and Vol. 3.
And Dylan’s 1989 album Oh Mercy got the best reviews he’d gotten in a long time, followed by a successful run in the 1990s. Dylan returned to his roots on Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, two collections of traditional songs, featuring just voice and acoustic guitar. In 1997, Dylan’s Time Out of Mind won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
In the 21st century, Dylan has made more unlikely departures. He published the first volume of his memoirs, Chronicles: Volume One in 2004, and hosted the “Theme Time Radio Hour” for Sirius XM from 2006-2009. He released a Christmas album, and published his complete lyrics in 2014, a massive book of 960 pages and 13 pounds.
Between 2015 and 2017, he released three albums of songs from the Great American Songbook—Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, and the 3-CD set Triplicate. His 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is due to be released next month.
It has been an extraordinary career, and Dylan has received every honor a musician might receive—ten Grammy Awards, and a share of an eleventh for his participation in The Concert for Bangla Desh, induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Kennedy Center Honors, five albums and three songs added to the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the Polar Music Prize, sometimes referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Music”. And in 2016, Dylan received the actual Nobel Prize for Literature, the first musician ever to be so honored. Although he was unable to attend the awards ceremony, he did deliver the traditional Nobel lecture a few months later.
And he’s not done yet. In March, he released “Murder Most Foul,” a teaser single for the upcoming new album. It’s a 17-minute song about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and it went to #1 on the Billboard Digital Rock Downloads chart, giving Dylan his first #1 song on any chart.
Dylan’s albums are available for streaming at Freegal, including several live albums, and fifteen volumes of “The Bootleg Series,” collections of outtakes live recordings, and previously unreleased songs. He’s also contributed single songs to various movie soundtracks, multi-artist compilations, and tribute albums, and we’ve gathered several of those into a Freegal playlist.
Dylan has been the subject of many biographies. OverDrive has a large selection of books on Dylan, his life, and his music.
And of course, there have been numerous tribute albums of Dylan’s songs recorded by other artists. There are single-artist tributes, from artists you might expect Odetta, Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, and artists you might not, the easy-listening Golden Gate Strings. There’s an all-reggae tribute, and two different collections of blues artists. Gotta Serve Somebody is devoted exclusively to Dylan’s late-70s gospel songs. Largest of all is the 2014 4-CD set Chimes of Freedom, with a remarkably eclectic assortment of performers; you don’t often find Johnny Cash, Maroon 5, Diana Krall, Mariachi El Bronx, and the Kronos Quartet on the same album.