He’s Jewish and was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota and has a younger brother named David. His paternal grandparents fled Russia because of growing anti-Semitic sentiments. His father, Abram Zimmerman owned an electric appliance shop and they lived in a close-knit Jewish community. When he was six, his father became ill so he closed his business and the family moved to his mother’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota and this is where he grew up.
He was a bright student but early on his passion was music. When he should’ve been doing homework his ear was often stuck to the radio tuned into blues and country stations in Louisiana. As a teenager he switched to rock and roll music and put together a band. He taught himself how to play several instruments but the guitar and harmonica were his fortes. His band got their first gig at their high school where they played some of Little Richard’s and Elvis’ music. The principal pulled the plug when they began rocking out too loud. The band became good enough to play at various venues around town.
Bob was hooked on performing but had to leave his band to attend the University of Minnesota. While in college he began to move away from rock music and towards folk instead. In his words this is why he went the direction he did with his music:
“The thing about rock n'roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough... There were great catch-phrases 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, much deeper feelings.” His comment definitely provides insight into the musician he became.
While in college he joined a Jewish fraternity called: Sigma Alpha Mu. He already had written many songs and played them along with other popular songs at a coffee house near campus where he began to play regularly as a solo artist. There was an area in the city called “Dinkytown” which was a business district that had a great music scene so Robert decided to play there and this is when he changed his name to Bob Dylan. He got the name Dylan from some poetry he had read by Dylan Thomas.
In May of 1960, Dylan quit college after his freshman year to try and make a living in New York City. One of his music idols, Woody Guthrie, was seriously ill with Huntington's disease and was staying at the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital so he went to see him. While there he ran into another musician who was a close friend of Guthrie’s named Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Elliot was instrumental in educating Dylan on the music scene in New York.
About a year later, Dylan was doing great playing at various spots in the Greenwich Village. He was loving life because he was surrounded by other musicians. Sometimes they’d mix and match and join each other for performances. For example, Dylan might take a friend and fellow musician with him for a show to play electric guitar while he’d play lead guitar. His big break was when another artist asked him to play harmonica for an album she was going to cut for Columbia Records. Columbia liked Dylan so much they signed him to their label.
Two years after he left college he was working on his first album that was titled Bob Dylan and it had blues, folk, and gospel, music. It only sold 5,000 copies so the label was considering dropping Dylan but he had two people in his corner, one was the man who signed Dylan and he loved his music and the other was Johnny Cash, who worked for Columbia Records, and loved Dylan’s sound. Cash told the record label that Dylan would eventually make it big.
Dylan earned his keep at Columbia because he played a variety of instruments and took part in many studio sessions so his name was on several albums but not as the main artist. This is strange but he cut a few albums under the pseudo names Blind Boy Grunt and Bob Landy. The intent of the recording studio was to test the music and not get Dylan tied to anything specific until they knew what worked.
He got the opportunity to perform at various venues in the United Kingdom where folk music was popular. This was during the time when The Beatles were on fire. It was while over there that he first performed his new song: Blowin’ in the Wind and it became an overnight success in the U.K. and in the United States.
After a few months in England, Dylan came back to the United States and Columbia Records wanted him to immediately go to work on his second album called: The Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan. It included a lot of Dylan’s own songs that were socially progressive especially regarding Civil Rights.
The album began receiving rave reviews from critics and music lovers then when George Harrison with The Beatles said the band had worn Dylan’s album out by listening to it so much, everyone had to get it.
Because of his unique sound not everyone was a big fan but the fact was, his lyrics were fantastic no matter what music genre someone preferred. What helped get Dylan’s music out is that there was a female version of Bob’s (but a much smoother voice), by the name of Joan Baez who became a famous folk singer in the 60’s. They began an affair and she sang a lot of the music he wrote. Besides Joan other artists to have hit songs that were written by Dylan include: The Association, The Byrds, The Hollies, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Sonny & Cher. His impact was significant even beyond the music he sang himself.
Dylan became known as a political activist after this album hit the stores and he spoke at many Civil Rights rallies. He was asked to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show but walked out on them because one of the producers began censoring parts of the song he was going to sing. He was the wrong guy to try and censure.
In the mid-60’s he came out with a confusing album as it was more lighthearted and showed Dylan’s humorous side. By this point a lot of his fans were in the protest business so they kind of felt jilted. He also changed his look and wore sunglasses during the day and night and wore pointy English style boots along with a wild hairstyle.
He then came out with another album where it was the first time he used electric guitar on some of the songs. A single from this album was the smash hit Mr. Tambourine Man. He played acoustic guitar and harmonica when they recorded this particular song on the album. The Byrd’s recorded the song in more of a rock version and it made it to number one in the U.K. and the U.S.’s music charts.
Dylan wanted to include a song he wrote on the next album but it was over six minutes long and the record label didn’t like the idea. After playing it for some recording executives they were sold on using it. It became the greatest hit on the album and it was called: Like a Rolling Stone.
Dylan secretly got married in 1965 to Sara Lownds who was a former model then he left her to go on tour in Australia and Europe. Some of the concerts didn’t go over well because he played half of it in his early 60’s acoustic guitar and harmonica then he’d take his electric guitar and have the band join him for more rock n’ roll type music. Some fans began heckling him for selling out the folk genre and Dylan began getting very angry and upset with the tour.
It was during this time when Dylan started overindulging in drugs. He’d use uppers to get him up then take downers to get to sleep. The members touring with him became very worried. He said that when he got back to New York City he became hooked on heroin.
Dylan wasn’t necessarily good at handling pressure during his drug phase and was worrying about some major things he had on his plate including another concert tour scheduled for later that year. He was already behind in writing a manuscript of a book of poems that he’d promised but his greatest pressure was coming from ABC because they had already given him an advance for a Bob Dylan television show. Some people say that it was because of these pressures that it was "reported" Dylan had been in a motorcycle accident. I stressed the word "reported" because there was no evidence of him being in an ambulance or in the hospital. He quit touring for eight years but continued working in the studio.
Showing his creative side yet again he released his first country album titled: Nashville Skyline and it was an unexpected hit. Dylan softened up his voice and demonstrated a higher vocal range. A duet he did on the album with Johnny Cash became very popular so much so that Dylan was invited to perform with Cash at a few of his concerts.
The 1970’s were crazy for Dylan and his fans. It was difficult to figure out who he was because he played all kinds of different music making it challenging for record executives to figure out where to put him in marketing his records. Rolling Stone Magazine had a scathing article about him basically saying he’d lost it.
Dylan also decided to take part in a movie by playing one of the characters and also providing music for the film called: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The film flopped but one of Dylan’s songs became a major hit called: Knockin' on Heaven's Door.
Towards the end of the 70’s Dylan became a Christian and recorded an album that had a Christian/Rock song on it called: Gotta Serve Somebody and he won the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. Although they were somewhat friends John Lennon didn’t like that Dylan became a Christian and wrote a counter song called: Serve Yourself.
Dylan kept cranking out album after album; he’s produced 37 as of this post. He’s written several books of lyrics and poetry and six books highlighting his artwork and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. He’s won 12 Grammy’s, one Academy Award for Best Original Song, and one Golden Globe Award.
Bob and Sarah had three children together (Jesse, Anna, Samuel, and Jakob), but divorced after 12 years of marriage. Nine years later (1986), Dylan married one of his backup singers and they had one daughter together named Desiree. They divorced after six years.
I see Dylan as a diverse and talented artist. He was included in Time Magazine for their publication called: Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century. I agree with them considering his impact on American culture. I love unique artists and Dylan is every bit that.