Bob Dylan at 80: Forget about today until tomorrow
Eighty years ago, on May 24, 1941, Bob Dylan was born as Robert Allen Zimmerman to a middle-class Jewish family in Duluth, Minnesota. His parents, Abram & Beatrice, trace their roots from Ukraine, Lithuania and Kars in Northeast Turkey. When Dylan was six, his father contracted polio. The family moved to Beatrice's town in Hibbing. Dylan spent his childhood and teenage years there.
The family had a radio. A rich spectrum of white country music, Mississippi Delta blues, and black church music were silently tuning young Bob's ears. Bob learned the basics of the guitar, piano, and the harmonica. By the mid-1950s, rock n' roll was born. Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and others soon became icons, but it was Little Richard who caught Dylan's imagination. At 18, Dylan wrote in his high school yearbook that his ambition was to join Little Richard.
Dylan enrolled in the University of Minnesota in 1959. Rock n' roll and its electric guitars slept for some time. They gave way to American folk. The poetry of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, transformed Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan.
If there had to be a beginning, it may have been Woody Guthrie. In Guthrie's lyrics, Dylan discovered the missing link of a "sweep of humanity". It was no longer Little Richard. Dylan wanted to be Woody Guthrie's greatest disciple. However, by then, Guthrie was seriously ill with Huntington's disease. Dylan dropped out of university in mid-1960. He left for New York in January 1961 to meet Woody Guthrie.
When Dylan reached New York, he was swept into Greenwich Village which was then the melting pot of the American folk revival. From here, Dylan never looked back.
In 1961, Dylan signed to Columbia Records. In March 1962, he launched his self-titled Bob Dylan debut album. The album contained only two original songs ("Talkin' New York" and "Song to Woody"). The world would see the emergence of Bob Dylan as a songwriter in his next album in 1963, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
The opening track of The Freewheelin' was "Blowing in the Wind". The song asked open ended questions followed by an uncertain response of blowing in the wind. Dylan wrote the lyrics, but the tune was based on a 19th century anti-slavery song, "No More Auction Block", which had been covered by Paul Robeson and others. The second album also contained "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall".
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan became synonymous with protest songs. "Blowing in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" became anthems. Baez and Dylan were present at Martin Luther King Jr's March on Washington in August 1963. The albums between 1962 and 1964 (Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin', and Another Side of Bob Dylan) cemented Dylan in American folk music and protest songs of the times. Whether either of them liked it or not, Baez and Dylan soon became the "Voices of a Generation".
A change was to come in 1965. Dylan was to go back to his electric guitar as he was Bringing It All Back Home.
The Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965 is a night that remains a myth and a milestone in the history of Western popular music. Dylan went on stage with a Fender Stratocaster in place of an acoustic guitar. He wore a black leather jacket in place of a denim shirt. Michael Bloomfield, the Chicago blues guitarist, and Dylan went electric. To the 100,000 or so waiting for Dylan, this was heresy. Dylan plugged and sang "Maggie's Farm". The crowd booed. Dylan didn't hear them, or maybe he ignored. Next came "Like a Rolling Stone".
Dylan wasn't the first to go electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Muddy Waters had done it the previous year. Dylan was different; he had become a "Voice of a Generation". That generation thought he had sold out from the purity of American folk.
The audience went crazy that night, but Dylan signalled a transformation like Miles Davis did in his illustrious career more than once. Dylan was taking his poems and the art of storytelling in American folk to a new dimension. It was by his own confession year's later, "honest".
And why not? 1965-66 revealed a different Dylan with artistry in the trilogy albums: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. The last of the three is the first double LP album in Rock. It's said to be an encrypted version of Bob. The last song of that album, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", an 11-minute masterpiece, was for his future wife Sara Lownds who would later re-surface in another phase of Dylan's transformations.
After the release of Blonde on Blonde, Dylan had recorded seven studio albums between 1962 and 1966. He needed a break and he got one, but in an unpleasant way. On July 29, 1966, Dylan suffered a motorcycle accident. It was a watershed moment. It could well have been the end of a shooting star. Columbia was quick to issue a Greatest Hits in 1967. There was a ray of sunlight, though. This was a wonderful opportunity for Dylan to take a break, and re-discover and re-invent himself, again.
Not being able to tour, Dylan was confined at home. He became a family man. He had time to see his kids grow up, being away from the "rat race".
Dylan wasn't idle during this time. With "The Band" Dylan recorded numerous numbers. These were released as The Basement Tapes in 1975. Dylan's confinement days also saw the release of John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning. Each one of these albums was subtly different from the other.
Dylan had become comfortable with his confinement at home to such an extent that he was afraid to go back on stage. The Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971 got him back on stage at the Concert for Bangladesh.
The 70s was an interesting decade for Dylan. Back on the road with Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Dylan, and Planet Waves, he was exploring and experimenting with something new all the time. At home, however, a storm was brewing. Sara left Dylan. Devastated, he showered all his grief in the albums Blood on the Tracks and Desire. The closing track of Desire was aptly named "Sara", who was "easy to look at, hard to define".
In November 1978, a fan tossed a silver cross on stage. Dylan picked the cross up and gently put it into his pocket. Small wonder. Another transformation was ready. The next series of albums marked his Christian phase. Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love and Infidels are albums of the born-again Christian in Dylan.
Prophecy, mysticism, love, and judgement are founding features of all religions. Dylan explored them in his own way with honesty. The "religious" albums are a measure of the rich history that shaped Dylan's own sounds, creativity and belief. The albums blend rock, blues, gospel and folk with the American experience of white supremacy and the resilience of slavery – a forever troubled chapter in the combined psyche of the USA since the Civil War of the 1860s. All these experiences were essential in creating "new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". By the beginning of the 1990s, Dylan had become part of the musical tradition he had set out to study as a young man in the 1960s.
By the end of the 20th century, Dylan had not only made great songs, he invented and kept re-inventing a great way of making music. Some of his best songwritings were still ahead of him. Time Out of Mind, "Love and Theft", Tempest, and the latest Rough and Rowdy Ways. Each time you think he's done and dusted, Dylan appears, reincarnated.
In Dylan's own words at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "Songs are meant to be sung, not read" and "Lyrics [are] ... intended to be heard in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days."
Bob Dylan has given us more than an American song tradition or an American songbook. He's been instrumental in founding a poetry of popular music over the last six decades. He established a new way of creating songs, and making songs matter whatever the mood or the situation. He made songs a part of literature. As Dylan turns eighty, one can only wish Mr Tambourine Man will make us "forget about today until tomorrow".