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Bob Dylan’s Life in Song

On Bob Dylan’s 76th birthday, here’s a look at his life through his legendary music.

It’s hard to believe but Bob Dylan, the voice of a generation representing youthful protest, turns 76 today. He told us “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” shared a jail cell with “Mister Tambourine Man,” and challenged us to look beyond the comforts of materialism, asking “how does it feel” to be a “Like a Rolling Stone”? Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, he began playing music at high school dances and later cited rock stars such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard as his idols. He changed his surname because Zimmerman was too long and settled on Dillon after the sheriff of the TV series Gunsmoke subsequently shortening it to Dylan. 

One of the most influential figures not only in pop music but in the culture at large, he has sold over 100 million records, published six books of drawings and paintings, and directed and starred in the film Renaldo and Clara. In addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 11 Grammys, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe, he has won a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize jury in 2008, and the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, the first songwriter to earn the honor. 

Bob Dylan: Dylan is honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on May 29, 2012, in Washington, DC. And like any cool rocker would, Dylan keeps his shades on for the historical moment.

President Barack Obama presents Bob Dylan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 29, 2012, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Here are eight of his songs that tell the life of this legendary figure.

“Song to Woody” (1962)

Dylan paid tribute to his idol, legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie in this early classic. The young would-be troubadour had dropped out of the University of Minnesota in his freshman year. He travelled to New York City to perform in the Greenwich Village club scene and to meet Guthrie who was hospitalized with Huntington’s Disease. Dylan was heavily influenced by the older performer whom he called “the true voice of the American spirit.”

John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. He opened his next concert with the song and the audience cheered. “Times” has been covered over 400 times including versions by The Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary, Nina Simone, Phil Collins, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor and Carly Simon, Billy Joel, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springsteen. “Times” along with his earlier “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall” established him as the definitive folk protest singer. His growing fame on the folk scene led him to meet Joan Baez, the reigning queen of the movement. She recorded several of his songs while they had a two-year affair.

“Like a Rolling Stone” (1965)

Chosen by Rolling Stone as number one on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, this howl of anger at those who think they’ve got it made transformed Dylan from a folk singer to a rock star. He wrote it after returning from an exhausting tour of England documented in the film Don’t Look Back. He was contemplating quitting the music business, but he worked out his frustrations about the public’s demanding expectations of him through this song.

Elvis Presley was the Thief. Watchtower was later reinterpreted by Jimi Hendrix and became a Top 20 single in 1968.

John Lennon found the song “embarrassing” and wrote the satirical “Serve Yourself” in response (“You gotta serve yourself/Ain’t nobody gonna do it for you”). Older fans accused Dylan of proselytizing, but he gained new listening among young Christians and won an 1980 Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal, performing the song on the telecast.

“Things Have Changed” (2000)

Written for the film Wonder Boys, this whimsical portrait of an aging star shuffling through show business (“Lot of water under the bridge/Lot of other stuff too/Don’t get up gentlemen/I’m only passing through”) won Dylan a Golden Globe and an Oscar. He played the song live and accepted his Oscar via satellite from Sydney, Australia where he was touring. Since then, Dylan is still going strong, touring, recording, and chronicling our times which are always “a-changin’.”

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