Singer, songwriter, poet, prophet - the enigmatic musician Bob Dylan is many things to many people. He unquestionably redefined popular music at a time when the record books couldn't keep up with history in the making. And while the ink was drying, Dylan had already moved on. The Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Award winner remains somewhat of a paradox, delivering sublimely eloquent lyrics in a rough, nasal voice, and balancing a vague and, at times, inaccessible character with bursts of absurdist humour and edgy charisma.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, Bob Dylan started to play guitar and harmonica as a child and formed a few bands while in high school. After graduation, he moved to Minneapolis to study art at the University of Minnesota. He began performing at coffeehouses and adopted his stage name after the poet Dylan Thomas. While spending the summer in Denver in 1960, Dylan met bluesman Jesse Fuller, who would inspire the budding artist's signature harmonica rack and guitar.
A unique voice
With new resolve to become a professional musician, Dylan headed east to New York City in January 1961 and quickly made an impression on the Greenwich Village folk community. In April, he opened for legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker and, after a well received solo show, was signed that fall by John Hammond for Columbia Records.
Dylan's self-titled debut was released the following year, featuring folk and blues standards with only two original songs. But his 1963 sophomore effort, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, included brand new material that was soon being covered by folk musicians across the country, most notably Peter, Paul & Mary with a version of Blowin' in the Wind. The album reached 23 on the charts.
Around that time, Dylan began dating folk singer Joan Baez after opening for her in a series of concerts. The Times They Are A-Changin', a collection of eloquent protest songs and contemporary tales of injustice, cemented his reputation as a folk musician par excellence. But he was already moving on to a new sound...
Inspired by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and John Keats, Dylan's songwriting was heading in new directions. The 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan integrated blues and R&B influences, but it was a few months after the 1965 release of Bringing It All Back Home, with his performance at the Newport Folk Festival, that the ever-evolving musician broke with his folk roots and plugged into rock n' roll.
While dramatically changing his sound, Dylan smuggled the poetry and personal expression from his previous work into his new rock repertoire. He made the words as - if not more - important as the music, confounding literary analysts with his cryptic lyrics.
Dylan hired a full band for his first all-electric album, Highway 61 Revisited, and replaced the folk troubadour persona with that of a world-weary hipster. He also defied expectations with Like a Rolling Stone, which, clocking in at over six minutes, doubled the standard length of a single. After Blonde on Blonde came out the following year, the artist had sold over ten million records world wide.
Following a tumultuous tour of the U.K., where audiences famously rejected his new electric sound, Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident outside his home in Woodstock, New York, in the summer of 1966. The incident left no permanent damage, although the musician suffered a concussion, but it marked a major shift in his life style. Dylan temporarily retired into seclusion, living at home with his wife (Sara Lowndes, whom he married after dating Baez) and their family.
He began recording a series of demos with The Band, which were later packaged as The Basement Tapes, and released John Wesley Harding toward the end of 1967. The album reflected the musician's pastoral existence, featuring rural myths set to quiet, country-tinged melodies. The follow-up, Nashville Skyline (1969), which was recorded in the country music capital, received mixed reviews, although the single Lay Lady Lay reached the Top Ten.
The following five years were marked by restless wandering. Dylan moved back to New York City, made his acting debut in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and coped with a few episodes of writer's block. The artist regained his footing with the 1975 release of Blood on the Tracks. That year, he formed the Rolling Thunder Revue, which was inspired by travelling medicine shows and featured musicians Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Rambling Jack Elliot, along with poet Allen Ginsberg.
Bob and God
In 1978, Dylan announced that he was a born-again Christian and released a series of religious albums into the early 1980s to mixed reviews. That decade saw the musician tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and, later, the Grateful Dead. He hit the road indefinitely with his "Never-Ending Tour," appearing in a continuous stream of concerts from 1988 to the late 1990s, and then into the 2000s.
Dylan released Time Out of Mind in 1997, his first album of original material in seven years, which won three Grammy awards. Love and Theft followed four years later and went gold. With the commercial and critical success of Modern Times (2006), Dylan had listeners under his spell once more.
During that period, the notoriously media-shy artist published the first installment of his memoirs, Chronicles Vol. 1, and made a candid appearance in Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary, No Direction Home. The musician was back in the spotlight nearly half a century since he first took the stage - and audiences still wanted more.
In 2007, Dylan appeared at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, where he was presented with the Spirit Award. Two years later, Together Through Life, his 33rd studio album, became the top selling recording at the time of its release. Christmas in the Heart came out soon after, just in time for the 2009 holiday season.