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Sat, 05.24.1941

Bob Dylan, Singer, Composer, and Artistic Activist born

Bob Dylan

*Bob Dylan was born on this date in 1941. He is a white Jewish-American folk music singer, composer, artist, and activist.

He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in St. Mary's Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota, and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, on the Mesabi Range west of Lake Superior. Dylan's paternal grandparents, Anna Kirghiz, and Zigman Zimmerman, emigrated from Odesa in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) to the United States following the pogroms against Jews of 1905. His maternal grandparents, Florence, and Ben Stone, were Lithuanian Jews who arrived in the United States in 1902.

Dylan's father, Abram Zimmerman, and his mother, Beatrice "Beatty" Stone, were part of a small, close-knit Jewish community. They lived in Duluth until Dylan was six, when his father contracted polio, and the family returned to his mother's hometown, Hibbing, where they lived for the rest of Dylan's childhood. His father and paternal uncles ran a furniture and appliances store.

He listened to the radio in his early years—first to blues and country stations from Shreveport, Louisiana, and later to rock and roll when he was a teenager. Dylan formed several bands while attending Hibbing High School. In the Golden Chords, he performed covers of Little Richard and Elvis Presley's songs. In 1959, he performed on two dates with Bobby Vee, playing piano and clapping. In September 1959, Dylan moved to Minneapolis and enrolled at the University of Minnesota.

His focus on rock and roll gave way to American folk music, as he explained in a 1985 interview:  The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway, it wasn't enough. There were great catchphrases and driving pulse rhythms. But the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, and much deeper feelings. One weekend in 1962, folk singer Paul Clayton, Dylan, and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo celebrate Dylan’s 21st birthday. Soon afterward, Dylan adapted Clayton’s song Who’s Going to Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone) into Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, in which the influence of Etta Baker’s finger-picking guitar style can be recognized.

Living at the UMN Jewish-centric fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu house, he began to perform in the Dinkytown folk music circuit. He began to introduce himself as "Bob Dylan" during this period. In his memoir, he wrote that he considered adopting the surname Dillon before unexpectedly seeing poems by Dylan Thomas and deciding upon that less common alternative. In a 2004 interview, he explained his name change, "You're born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free." 

He has often cited Blind Willie McTell as a musical inspiration. “There’s a woman by the river with some fine young, handsome man. He’s dressed up like a squire, bootlegged whiskey in his hand. There’s a chain gang on the highway; I can hear them rebels yell. And I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

Following his self-titled debut album in 1962, which comprised mainly traditional folk songs, Dylan made his breakthrough as a songwriter with the release of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan the following year. The album features "Blowin' in the Wind" and the thematically complex "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall ."Many of his songs adapted the tunes and phraseology of older folk songs. Much of his most celebrated work dates from the 1960s when songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind" (1963) and "The Times They Are a-Changin'" (1964) became anthems for the American Civil Rights and antiwar movements.

His lyrics during this period incorporated various political, social, philosophical, and literary influences, defying pop music conventions and appealing to the growing counterculture. His song "Oxford Town" is about James Meredith and his attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi. Dylan devoted to the memory of Emmett Till, called "The Death of Emmett Till," a Black teenager (the same age as Dylan) killed in Money, Miss. In 1965 and 1966, Dylan drew controversy when he adopted electrically amplified rock instrumentation and, in the space of 15 months, recorded three of the most important and influential rock albums of the 1960s: Bringing It All Back HomeHighway 61 Revisited (both 1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966).

His six-minute single "Like a Rolling Stone" (1965) expanded commercial and creative boundaries in popular music. In July 1966, a motorcycle accident led to Dylan's withdrawal from touring. During this period, he recorded many songs with members of the Band, who had previously backed him on tour. These recordings were released as the collaborative album The Basement Tapes in 1975. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dylan explored country music and rural themes in John Wesley Harding (1967), Nashville Skyline (1969), and New Morning (1970). In 1975, he became aware of Ruben Carter’s plight after reading the boxer’s autobiography. He met and co-wrote “Hurricane,” which he performed on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975. That same year, he released Blood on the Tracks, which many saw as returning to form. In the late 1970s, he became a born-again Christian.

He released a series of albums of contemporary gospel music before returning to his more familiar rock-based style in the early 1980s. Dylan's 1997 album Time Out of Mind began a renaissance for his career. Since then, he has released five critically acclaimed albums of original material, the most recent being Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). He also recorded three albums in the 2010s comprising versions of traditional American standards, especially songs recorded by Frank Sinatra. Dylan has toured continuously since the late 1980s.

Since 1994, Dylan has published eight books of drawings and paintings, and his work has been exhibited in major art galleries. He has sold over 125 million records, making him among the best-selling musicians. He has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, ten Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and an Academy Award. Dylan is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

The Pulitzer Prize Board 2008 awarded him a special citation for "his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power ."In 2016, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "for creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition ."Often regarded as one of the greatest songwriters, Dylan has been a major popular culture figure for over 60 years.

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