A Beginner's Guide to Bob Dylan

Since 1963, the name Bob Dylan has been a household one. Avid rock fans and die-hard folk musicians alike know his music. A superstar in the 1960s, Dylan kept company with the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Allen Ginsberg, and Andy Warhol. He has written hundreds of songs, his most famous being "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Like a Rolling Stone." In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine named "Like a Rolling Stone" the best rock and roll song in history. Dylan's star has undergone a resurgence recently, due to the documentary No Direction Home and the unusual biopic I'm Not There. Dylan released a Christmas album in October 2009. 

Childhood Years
Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, the first child of Abraham and Beatrice Zimmerman. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota, but raised in the nearby mining town of Hibbing. He has one younger brother, David Zimmerman, born in 1946. The family are of Russian/Lithuanian Jewish descent. Robert occasionally worked in his father's appliance store and spent most of his free time listening to country and blues radio stations. He began playing the guitar at age 12. In high school, his musical idol was Little Richard and he formed a handful rock bands. He graduated in 1959 and enrolled in the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. 

Early Music Career
Robert did not attend classes and quickly dropped out of university. While in Minneapolis, he read voraciously, loving Arthur Rimbaud and Jack Kerouac. He also discovered the music of Woody Guthrie, his most important musical influence. Guthrie was a folk singer from Oklahoma known for his Great Depression union songs. Robert emulated Guthrie; he began to play only acoustic guitar and write songs similar to Guthrie's. In the early 60s, Robert decided to leave Minnesota for New Jersey, where Guthrie was being treated for Huntington's Disease. He visited Guthrie and from there went to New York's Greenwich Village, the center of folk music at the time. By playing every night in clubs, Robert was soon discovered by a Columbia Records representative in 1962.

It is not known for sure when Robert changed his name and why. It is known that he often went by other names even in high school and was a fan of the poet Dylan Thomas. After being discovered by Columbia, "Bob Dylan" became his legal name.

His first album, "Bob Dylan," was a collection of acoustic cover songs and sold poorly. However, he was supported by many already famous folk musicians, such as his soon to be girlfriend, Joan Baez. In 1963 he released his second album called "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." It was a massive hit, particularly due to the very popular song "Blowin' in the Wind." For his riveting populist songs, he quickly earned the label "protest singer." Not happy with this image, Dylan began crafting a new one in 1965.

Going Electric
At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan unleashed his new electric songs, complete with a full backing band. His folk fans were shocked and angered, believing Dylan had betrayed them by becoming commercial with this rock group. 1965's "Bringing It All Back Home" was Dylan's first electric album and sold well, despite criticism. He began to wear black leather and boots, further indicating that he was no longer a vagabond folk singer. Between 1965 and 1966, he was touring constantly and put out two more albums: "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde." He married Playboy model Sara Lownds in 1965 and had his first child with her in early 1966. His fast-paced life, which was often fueled by amphetamine, began to take a toll on his health. In July 1966, he was in a motorcycle accident that left him with broken vertebrae in his neck. After the accident, he retreated from the public eye.

Country and Gospel Albums
While recuperating at home, Dylan began to write and record songs with friends. These songs were less hard rock and more country sounding. The first of these country albums was "John Wesley Harding", named after a famous Western outlaw, in 1967. His subsequent three albums are similar in sound. In 1973, Dylan played the part of Alias in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, for which he wrote the song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." In 1977, he and his wife Sara got divorced. Sara received custody of their five children. This began a series of personal problems for Dylan, which would result in him adopting Christianity. His first gospel album was "Slow Train Coming" in 1979. He married backup singer Carolyn Dennis in 1986 and had one daughter with her.

The 1990s
In the 90s, Dylan began what critics have called the "Never Ending Tour." Since 1990, Dylan has played roughly 100 venues a year. His 1990 album "Under the Red Sky" sold poorly, despite contributions from Beatles guitarist George Harrison, Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Crosby. In 1991, Dylan received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1997, he released "Time Out of Mind," his first critically acclaimed album in years. His tour for this album was cut short when he developed a life-threatening heart infection. He recovered and in December 1997 received a Kennedy Center Honor from President Bill Clinton.

Recent Career
In the 2000s, Dylan released three highly praised albums: "Love and Theft," "Modern Times" and "Together Through Life." In 2004, he released his autobiography Chronicles: Volume One. In 2005, Martin Scorsese directed the successful No Direction Home, a documentary about Dylan's life from childhood to 1966. In 2007, I'm Not There was released. Dylan has not authorized a biopic about his life, but directer Todd Haynes took an unorthodox approach, casting six people as different aspects of Dylan's personality, including actress Cate Blanchett, who won a Golden Globe for the role.

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