Folk rock singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota. While attending college, he began performing folk and country songs, taking the name “Bob Dylan.” In 1961 Dylan signed his first recording contract. Showing no signs of slowing down, Dylan has continued to tour in recent years, with his recent studio albums including Together Through Life (2009) and Tempest (2012).
In 1960, Bob Dylan dropped out of college and moved to New York, where his idol, the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie was hospitalized with a rare hereditary disease of the nervous system. He visited with Guthrie regularly in his hospital room; became a regular in the folk clubs and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village; met a host of other musicians; and began writing songs at an astonishing pace, including “Song to Woody,” a tribute to his ailing hero. In the fall of 1961, after one of his performances received a rave review in The New York Times, he signed a recording contract with Columbia Records, at which point he legally changed his surname to Dylan. Released early in 1962, Bob Dylan contained only two original songs, but showcased Dylan’s gravelly-voiced singing style in a number of traditional folk songs and covers of blues songs.
The 1963 release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan marked Dylan’s emergence as one of the most original and poetic voices in the history of American popular music. The album included two of the most memorable 1960s folk songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (which later became a huge hit for the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary) and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” His next album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, firmly established Dylan as the definitive songwriter of the 60s protest movement, a reputation that only increased after he became involved with one of the movement’s established icons, Joan Baez, in 1963. While his romantic relationship with Baez lasted only two years, it benefited both performers immensely in terms of their music careers—Dylan wrote some of Baez’s best-known material, and Baez introduced him to thousands of fans through her concerts. By 1964 Dylan was playing 200 concerts annually, but had become tired of his role as “the” folk singer-songwriter of the protest movement. Another Side of Bob Dylan, recorded in 1964, was a much more personal, introspective collection of songs, far less politically charged than Dylan’s previous efforts.
In 1965, Dylan scandalized many of his folkie fans by recording the half-acoustic, half-electric album Bringing It All Back Home, backed by a nine-piece band. On July 25, 1965, he was famously booed at the Newport Folk Festival when he performed electrically for the first time. The albums that followed, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)—which included the seminal rock song “Like a Rolling Stone”—and the two-record set Blonde on Blonde (1966) represented Dylan at his most innovative. With his unmistakable voice and unforgettable lyrics, Dylan brought the worlds of music and literature together as no one else had.
Over the course of the next three decades, Dylan continued to reinvent himself. Following a near-fatal motorcycle accident in July 1966, Dylan spent almost a year recovering in seclusion. His next two albums, John Wesley Harding (1968)—including “All Along the Watchtower,” later recorded by guitar great Jimi Hendrix—and the unabashedly country-ish Nashville Skyline (1969) were far more mellow than his earlier works. Critics blasted the two-record set Self-Portrait (1970) and Tarantula, a long-awaited collection of writings Dylan published in 1971, also met with a poor reception. In 1973, Dylan appeared in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a feature film directed by Sam Peckinpah. He also wrote the film’s soundtrack, which became a hit and included the now-classic song, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”