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A Spokesman for a Generation: Bob Dylan

Julie Bender | Tuesday, March 2, 2004

He’s not the typical rock icon. In fact, he might more aptly be called the antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s only 5’6″. He’s a scrawny, pale-looking thing who walks slightly hunched. His nose is hooked, his mouth sneering. He wears a harmonica strap around his neck and his right thumbnail is eerily long for the purpose of guitar strumming. And then there is the matter of his voice.Bob Dylan certainly doesn’t look the part of the rock ‘n’ roll star, but his influence in the music industry is one that has had more power and sway than anyone could have predicted from a skinny kid out of Minnesota. Starting this Friday, that same skinny kid will be playing four dates in Chicago at different venues: the Aragon Ballroom, the Riviera Theatre, the Vic Theatre and Park West. These are just a few more stops on Dylan’s so-called “Never Ending Tour” that he has been on since 1988. Following in the footsteps of country and blues artists before him, Dylan lives on stage doing one-night stands in various cities throughout the world. Such constant touring is not to promote new albums, but rather to reshape and reinvigorate the art of live songwriting. Although Dylan does not actually write new songs on stage, he reworks songs in his repertoire, changing lyrics, rhythms and instruments until the songs become almost unrecognizable from their original form. Some fans dislike this and would rather the songs be played with strict adherence to their album versions. But the majority of Dylan fans love the game of trying to guess what he is playing. Often it isn’t until the second or third verse that a familiar lyric or guitar hook can be distinguished. It’s all part of the strangeness that is Bob Dylan.Born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, Robert Allen Zimmerman had a rather uneventful childhood – one that certainly didn’t reveal any clues about what his future held. He was the son of Jewish parents who owned a small furniture shop, and at the age of six he moved to the town Hibbing, near the Canadian border. By nine or ten, Zimmerman was teaching himself piano and was learning to blow on a cheap harmonica he had obtained. His interest in music took off from there. Zimmerman learned guitar and began forming bands with schoolmates throughout junior high and high school. His heroes were Little Richard, Elvis Presley and James Dean. From leather jackets and motorcycles, Zimmerman entered the University of Minnesota and began to expand his interest in music to folk from the Great Depression era. He changed his name officially from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie became a huge influence. When Dylan heard that Guthrie, whom he’d never met, was on his deathbed in New York City, Dylan packed up, left school and headed east to make the acquaintance of his folk hero. With only his guitar in tow, Dylan hit the Greenwich Village folk circuit that was fast becoming popular in early 1960s. Despite his odd looks and even odder, nasal voice, Dylan gained a devoted following, playing folk standards and original songs that boasted a style all of his own. Irregular strumming, distinctive harmonica, and words jammed and stretched into precarious phrases became Dylan’s trademarks. By the age of 20 he had a record deal and had released his self-titled debut album.Pegged as the next Guthrie in the early quaking of Vietnam and the civil rights movement, Dylan’s words and songs became the guideposts of a slightly lost and chaotic generation. Songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “It Ain’t Me Babe,” gained him popularity and fame at an incredible speed, and folk music gained a new loyal following. Soon a host of other folk artists followed the route Dylan had paved including Joan Baez, Donovan and Gordon Lightfoot. But none of them would have quite the impact or prestige that Dylan embodied.With so much success, Dylan pressed on. He next ventured into the realm of rock ‘n’ roll, which had been inhabited by the Beatles up to this point. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan traded his acoustic six-string for a full-bodied electric guitar. He strutted on stage in leather, plugged in his guitar and launched into the raunchy “Maggie’s Farm.” Folk purists were shocked, but this electrifying event forever changed the history of rock ‘n’ roll. From now on rock lyrics could be forceful and political. No longer did they have to have the simplistic boy-loves-girl themes. They could have power and become a dominant cultural force.The release of Dylan’s next albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll. His songs were not typical. They lacked melody, keen instrumentation, and good singing voice. None of this mattered, however, when it came to Dylan’s lyrics. It is no small feat to be the spokesman of generation, and that is the name often attributed to Dylan by those who were alive during his popular reign.Many successful artists today credit Dylan with developing the importance of lyrics in songwriting. Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, the Dave Matthews Band and Ani DiFranco are just a small sample of musicians who claim Dylan as a hero. The Rolling Stones, the Byrds and even the Beatles owe debt to Dylan. In fact, if it weren’t for him, the Beatles might never have expanded their musical reach into psychedelia. In 1964, Dylan heard the song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio. He misheard the lyrics “I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide,” thinking the Beatles were singing, “I get high, I get high, I get high.” Dylan approached the Beatles at a hotel during one of their tours and pulled out marijuana, an unfamiliar substance to the band. Without this initiation by Dylan into the world of drugs, the history of the Beatles might be a little different.Dylan’s influence didn’t just remain in the 1960s either. He has continued to release albums throughout all decades including Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and more recently Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. He has played the role of folk artist, rock ‘n’ roller, cowboy, recluse and gospel singer. In his career Dylan has release over 40 albums, and is showing no sign of slowing down despite being 63. His songs continue to make their way into unsuspecting places and his words continue to inspire and articulate feelings thought inexpressible. Dylan is the bard of the modern era, the original Mr. Bojangles – song and dance man.

Contact Julie Bender at jbender@nd.edu