Bob Dylan: Biography, Songs & Facts

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will detail the career and legacy of Bob Dylan. Dylan's progression from protest folk singer to rock star will be assessed and his impact on future generations will be articulated.


Few American rock musicians have enjoyed the cultural significance and critical reverence of Bob Dylan. Emerging from the New York folk music scene of the early 1960s, Dylan would go on to be a genuine voice for his generation. His songs would be anthems for the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the baby boomer generation.

Although Dylan's roots can be found in blues, folk, and country music, he has consistently refused to be pigeonholed into any particular genre, style, or audience. Mercurial, challenging, and obtuse, Dylan's music has always reflected the restless, brilliant man who made it. As he has moved through different eras of his career and addressed different thematic concerns, Bob Dylan has remained one of the most important American musicians in rock music.

A Voice for the 1960s

Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman) was born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941. Young Zimmerman's family was Jewish, and the anti-Semitic persecution his grandparents suffered in Eastern Europe before immigrating to Minnesota likely influenced his political songwriting in the years to come.

In 1961, Zimmerman came to New York City and became involved with the blossoming folk and blues music scene in Greenwich Village. Robert Zimmerman started calling himself Bob Dylan and presented himself as a working class folk singer along the lines of Woody Guthrie, a hero of Dylan's, alongside more established folk musicians like Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton. The New York folk music scene of this period was focused on actual folk music, which is to say, traditional songs that were handed down from generation to generation, not original compositions.

Bob Dylan with collaborator Joan Baez at the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963

Bob Dylan's self-titled first record released in 1962 was very much part of the folk tradition of that era and contained mostly traditional songs. Gaining acclaim and respect within the New York scene for his intense, emotional live performances and unusual, rough singing voice, Dylan started writing more original songs. Dylan's second record 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' remains one of his most cherished albums and contains many of his most well-known songs. 'Blowin' in the Wind,' 'Masters of War,' and, 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall,' went on to become some of the most important protest songs of the 1960s, articulating the outrage and optimism of a generation. 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' would mark Dylan as one of the foremost lyrists, songwriters, and performers of the 1960s. Dylan's next release 'The Times They Are a-Changin' would cement his status and the title track would become the semi-official anthem of the 1960s counterculture.

For the rest of the decade, Dylan would move from strength to strength, while always moving in the opposite direction of where people expected him to go. Dylan's first several records would earn him recognition as the foremost acoustic, folk music-based, protest singer in America, but Dylan was becoming interested in electrified rock music. In 1965, a somewhat notorious incident occurred at the Newport Folk Festival. The crowd expected Dylan to play the acoustic protest songs that he was most famous for, but instead Dylan took to the stage wielding an electric guitar and backed up by a full rock band. The crowd revolted and Dylan was unable to finish his set. This incident marked an official break between Dylan and the backward looking folk music scene. Shortly thereafter, Dylan got his revenge by obtaining his first number one hit with the plugged-in, rocking track 'Like a Rolling Stone.'

Bob Dylan, 1984

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