Few musicians can be said to have changed the face of music. Bob Dylan did. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in May 1941, Dylan strode like a young colossus in the 1960s, and along with the Beatles, defined the zeitgeist of an era.
America was reeling from the turmoil of JFK’s assassination in 1965, the Cold War was at its height, the Vietnam War was escalating into a real war, and down south, internal turmoil flared as the burgeoning civil rights movement clashed with the conservative middle class. It was Dylan who would supply the musical backdrop to these troubled times.
Two things defined Dylan’s music throughout the 1960s: he deplored injustice, and he refused to be swayed by his populism, including his audience. During his seminal 1965 concert at the Newport Folk Festival, the cheers of young fans were almost drowned by jeers from detractors. A few members of Dylan’s band wanted to stop the concert but Dylan continued defiantly. At the 1966 Live at the Royal Albert Hall concert, one fan famously yelled ‘Judas’. Dylan’s response was to tell his band to turn up the amplifier.
He didn’t have the greatest voice by conventional standards, but that was a part of his appeal. Poetry was his strength. The young Dylan was greatly inspired by poets like Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Rimbaud and John Keats. His poetic bent is evident even in his name (after the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas).
The lyrics of his songs changed pop and rock music and earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 2016). Ginsberg called him the greatest poet of the second half of the 20th century. Bruce Springsteen wrote these words on the occasion of Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1988: “He had the vision and the talent to expand a pop song until it contained the whole world.” For his admirers, Dylan was he who showed how they could sing as though they were reciting a poem.
I present to you five of my favourite Dylan songs: Blowing in the Wind (1962), The Times They are a-Changin’ (1964), Like a Rolling Stone (1965), Mr. Tamborine Man (1965), and Knocking on Heaven’s Door (1973). All are gems, written by a Dylan who was not yet 30.