After dabbling briefly in rock music as pianist for Bobby Vee, Robert Zimmerman of Duluth, Minnesota took himself off to Greenwich Village, New York, where he first of all transformed himself into a folk singer, then transformed the very notion of folk music.
Barely 20 years old, Bob Dylan was spotted early in 1961 playing autoharp and singing at the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village by a writer from the Village Voice. His report described Dylan as “extraordinary” and predicted his emergence within the year as a major talent to be reckoned with.
Dylan’s official New York debut came at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village on 11 April 1961, opening for bluesman John Lee Hooker.
Just over a fortnight later, he made his recording debut, earning $50 for playing the harmonica on Harry Belafonte‘s recording of Midnight Special.
On 29 September, noted New York Times music critic Robert Shelton lent weight to the Village Voice opinion when he gave Dylan his first major press review.
Raving over a Dylan slot at Gerde’s, Shelton described him as “a cross between a choirboy and a beatnik” who was “bursting at the seams with talent”.
Shelton ended his review with the words, “Mr Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up”.
That same day, Dylan had played the harmonica on a recording session for his friend, folk singer Carolyn Hester, through whom he had met veteran record producer John Hammond.
Hammond (whose previous signings included Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Aretha Franklin) was so impressed by Dylan’s talent and Shelton’s review that he offered a contract with $1,000 advance.
Colombia Records’ faith in the young folk singer’s potential was underlined by the fact that he was signed to the label for five years at an unprecedented royalty rate of only 4%.
On November 20th and 22nd, Hammond and Dylan recorded his debut album at a cost of $400, with the working title Bob Dylan.
In May 1963, Dylan walked out of CBS’ Ed Sullivan Show after being told he could not perform his anti-segregationist song Talking John Birch Society Blues. In the same year, folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary had chart hits with Dylan compositions Blowin’ in the Wind and Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, although Dylan’s own early singles were not faring as well.
In August, however, sales of Freewheelin’, his second album, rocketed him into place as the world’s #1 folk music star.
Around the same time, scare-mongering began in the press, suggesting that his songs were, in fact, Kremlin-inspired propaganda designed to brainwash the youth of the Western world . . .
Despite writing such obvious protest songs as Blowin’ In The Wind and The Times They Are A-Changin’, Dylan denied being a ‘protest’ singer. “Don’t put me down as a man with a message”, he insisted. “My songs are just me talking to myself. I have no responsibility to anybody except myself”.
Like many things surrounding Bob Dylan, what’s known in pop shorthand as “Dylan goes electric” splinters into a kaleidoscope of stories. Few agree on what happened when he plugged in and amped up through Maggie’s Farm and Like a Rolling Stone at the Newport Folk Festival on 25 July 1965.
He is said to have been inspired by The Byrds‘ electric treatment of his songs but was promptly booed off stage, allegedly in tears, by the audience of folk purists.
Dylan’s organist Al Kooper claims the audience didn’t boo because Dylan had forsaken the purity of acoustic folk but because his set was too short. But tensions ran high backstage – Folkies Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax were appalled to see their protégé roaring towards the dark side of psychedelic pop.
Whatever it was that happened, Newport became rock music’s shock that was heard around the world: Before it, pop and protest were mutually exclusive. In Dylan, they merged.
His first real chart success came in August when Like A Rolling Stone made it to #2 in the USA.
A motorcycle crash in 1966 put him out of circulation, and when he returned in 1968, it was with the simpler, countrified style of John Wesley Harding.
Although Dylan hit another creative peak in the mid-Seventies with the albums Blood On The Tracks and Desire, his conversion to Christianity in the latter part of the decade caused many of his early fans to desert him.
His evangelical-flavoured material from the Slow Train Coming album was booed when he performed it live on tour. Dylan continued to tour and release albums for the faithful and the hopeful.
At the turn of the 1980s (his most accident-prone decade by miles), Bob Dylan released Oh Mercy. His fans rejoiced, the world spun off its axis, and then he brought out the pretty threadbare Under The Red Sky. For some, the disappointment positively ached.
The influence of Dylan’s early works is inestimable. His songs were the very basis of the folk-rock genre and, in particular, the early career of The Byrds.
Echoes of Dylan can be heard down the decades in the works of everyone from The Beatles to Simon & Garfunkel and Bruce Springsteen.