Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, MN; name legally changed August 9, 1962; son of Abraham (a furniture and appliance salesman) and Beatty (Stone) Zimmerman; married Sara Lowndes, 1965 (divorced, 1977); children: Jesse, Maria, Jakob, Samuel, Anna. Education: Attended University of Minnesota, 1959-60. Addresses: Record company--Columbia Records, 550 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022-3211, website:, phone: (212) 833-8000. Website--Bob Dylan Official Website:

Singer and songwriter Bob Dylan is recognized worldwide for the impact he has had on rock music since his career began in the early 1960s, and he has maintained his popularity among fans and critics alike over the ensuing decades. Although known primarily for his caustic and candid lyrics that reveal a defiant stance on authority, politics, and social norms that was prevalent in America in the 1960s, Dylan's fans come from a variety of age groups, all of whom identify with the raw human emotion expressed in his lyrics. Dylan's own humanity was brought to the public's attention in May of 1997, when the legendary artist canceled a planned European tour and was hospitalized due to a serious health condition called pericarditis. Yet Dylan returned to the stage in August, and released Time Out of Mind to rave reviews. As further evidence of Dylan's broad appeal and the magnitude of his contributions to music, he performed in Bologna, Italy, in September of 1997, after receiving a special invitation from Pope John Paul II. The notoriously private artist revealed more of his personal life with a documentary film and autobiography published in 2005.

Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, to Abraham Zimmerman, a furniture and appliance salesman, and Beatty Stone Zimmerman. In 1947 the family moved to the small town of Hibbing, Minnesota, where Dylan spent an unremarkable childhood. He began writing poems at the age of ten, and as a teenager taught himself to play the piano, harmonica, and guitar. He appreciated a wide variety of music ranging from country to rock 'n' roll, and admired the works of Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Dylan played in many bands during his high school years, including the Golden Chords and Elston Gunn and His Rock Boppers, before enrolling at the University of Minnesota in 1959.

While he was a student at the University of Minnesota, the artist began performing as a folk singer and musician under the name Bob Dylan at such popular Minneapolis night clubs as the Ten O'Clock Scholar cafe and St. Paul's Purple Onion Pizza Parlor. Dylan soon became more involved with his musical career than with his studies, so he dropped out of school in 1960 and headed straight for New York City. The young performer's interest in New York City was based on his desire to become involved in the emerging folk music scene in the city's Greenwich Village neighborhood, as well as his wish to meet his idol, folk singer Woody Guthrie. Dylan soon became a popular performer in Greenwich Village coffee houses and night clubs, and also managed to become a regular performer for Guthrie. The young Dylan quickly gained the respect and admiration of his peers in the folk music scene with his ability to compose his own melodies and lyrics at an astonishing pace. In 1961 he attracted notice outside of New York City's folk music scene when New York Times critic Robert Shelton witnessed one of his performances at a club called Gerde's Folk City and declared that Dylan was "bursting at the seams with talent."

Dylan was 20 years old when he released his self-titled debut album in 1962. Although most of the songs were cover tunes, Dylan did include two original compositions--"Song to Woody," a tribute to Guthrie, and "Talkin' New York." The album achieved limited success, and Dylan followed it in 1963 with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which contained more original songs that shared a common theme of protest. Two of the songs from Dylan's second album, "Blowin' In the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," became enduring anthems of the 1960s, helping to define the thoughts and feelings of the counterculture. As confirmation of Dylan's success, the renowned folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded a cover version of "Blowin' In the Wind" that rose to the number two spot on the pop music charts.

The Tide Changed

By the time Dylan released 1964's The Times They Are A-Changin', he had been thrust into the role of media spokesperson for a counterculture protest movement that sought to radically alter current social and political norms. This third album also contained the protest song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." At the time the album was released, however, Dylan began to express his growing pessimism about the counterculture's ability to affect change, and declared that he was uncomfortable with his role as the movement's mouthpiece. His next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, further evidenced his disillusionment with the counterculture movement, containing extremely personal folk ballads and love songs rather than his trademark protest songs. In 1965 Dylan enraged his folk music following by performing on an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival (fans booed Dylan and his band off the stage), and by releasing Bringing It All Back Home, an album on which Dylan returned to his earlier musical influences of rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues. While the songs on this album remained critical of society, none contained any of the direct references to racism, war, or political activism that had marked his earlier works. The acoustic song "Mr. Tambourine Man" from Bringing It All Back Home was recorded in an electrified form by the popular 1960s band the Byrds, and reached the top of the pop music charts; by that time a new brand of music known as "folk rock" had become widely favored among young Americans.

Dylan continued to record songs that fused his folk and rock influences, using mystical, ominous lyrics filled with imagery and allusion, and in 1965 he released Highway 61 Revisited. The album featured songs with themes of alienation, including the well-known "Like a Rolling Stone," which quickly rose to the number two spot on the Billboard singles chart. That same year Dylan married Sara Lowndes, a friend of his manager's wife. In 1966 Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, which polished the edgy, harsh rock sounds of Highway 61 Revisited and introduced music unlike any of its predecessors. Although he was wildly successful, Dylan was suffering from the strains of fame. In the 1971 biography Bob Dylan the artist described his feelings during that period of his life to author Anthony Scaduto: "The pressures were unbelievable. They were just something you can't imagine unless you go through them yourself. Man, they hurt so much." Similarly, in a 1997 interview with Newsweek's David Gates, Dylan asserted "I'm not the songs. It's like somebody expecting [William] Shakespeare to be Hamlet, or [Wolfgang von] Goethe to be Faust. If you're not prepared for fame, there's really no way you can imagine what a crippling thing it can be."

Knockin' on Death's Door

On July 29, 1966, at the peak of his popularity, Dylan's neck was broken in a near-fatal motorcycle crash. The accident left Dylan with time to recuperate and rest at his Woodstock, New York, home with his wife and their newborn son, Jesse. He began reflecting upon his religious beliefs and personal priorities, and wrote songs that reflected his newfound sense of inner peace and satisfaction. Many of these songs were recorded in 1967 with The Band and later released on the 1975 album The Basement Tapes, while others were released on Dylan's first album following the motorcycle accident, 1968's John Wesley Harding. This slower-paced acoustical album was followed in 1969 by Nashville Skyline and in 1970 by Self Portrait and New Morning. These three albums were generally panned by the public, and Dylan was criticized harshly by his fans for what they perceived as his failure to comment on the harsh realities of the time, namely the Vietnam War and the struggle for racial equality and civil rights for African Americans.

Dylan's first album to reach the number one spot on music charts was his 1974 effort Planet Waves, which he recorded with The Band. Although it was not a critical success, the album led to a flood of interest in Dylan's 1974 tour of the United States, where audience demand for tickets far exceeded available seating. In 1974, following the tour, Dylan released Before the Flood, a two-album set of music recorded live during the tour; the album rose to number three on music charts.

While Dylan's musical career was on an upswing, his personal life was in a downslide, as he became involved in a bitter separation with Sara and a fierce custody battle over their children. Dylan's 1975 album Blood On the Tracks featured songs reflecting the sorrow and passion of his personal life at the time; "If You See Her, Say Hello" referred directly to the breakup of his marriage. Many critics hailed Blood On the Tracks as Dylan's best album since the 1960s, praising the artist's use of visual imagery to blur distinctions between reality and illusion. The album's searing songs about love and loss, including "Tangled up in Blue," "Shelter from the Storm," and "Idiot Wind," were well received by fans, and the album soon reached number one on the charts. Dylan's 1976 album Desire, which contained a mournful tune titled "Sara," also reached number one on the charts and achieved widespread success in both the United States and Europe.

Although Dylan's 1978 album Street Legal was unpopular with his fans, who feared that the performer's personal crises had interfered with his musical abilities, it did not prepare the fans for what was soon to follow. In 1978, while touring to support Street Legal, Dylan experienced a religious vision that he later asserted made him question his moral values and saved him from self-destructive behavior. Pronouncing his belief in fundamentalist Christianity, Dylan began to include in his music a concern with religious salvation and the end of the world. Many fans were unhappy with the artist's apparent attempts to persuade his listeners to adopt his religious philosophy, while others viewed the lyrics as similar to Dylan's earlier songs about social change and prophecy. Of the albums during his Christian period, only the 1979 album Slow Train Coming was a commercial success, largely due to the popularity of the Grammy Award-winning single "Gotta Serve Somebody."

Dylan Reinvented Himself

In 1983 Dylan released Infidels, an album in which he departed from his overtly religious themes and returned to more complex, emotionally subtle lyrics in songs such as "Jokerman" and "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight." The 1985 album Empire Burlesque displayed a wide range of musical sounds, from gospel to acoustic ballad. In the mid-1980s Dylan remained prominent in the public eye by performing with various other music stars, including superstar Michael Jackson, on the 1985 single "We Are the World," and at the Live Aid benefit concert, both of which were designed to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. Also in 1985, Dylan released Biograph, a five-album set that contained previously released material and "bootleg" (unreleased) recordings, and which also included Dylan's brief commentaries; the set was highly popular and proved a top seller.

The year 1988 marked the beginning of Dylan's collaboration with the Traveling Wilburys, a group that included veteran music stars George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty. The group released two albums, 1988's Traveling Wilburys and Traveling Wilburys Volume 3---no second volume was ever recorded---in 1990. In 1988 Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was honored by noted rock star Bruce Springsteen, who commented during the induction ceremony that "Bob [Dylan] freed the mind the way Elvis [Presley] freed the body. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual. ... He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and changed the face of rock and roll forever."

Another Close Call

In May of 1997 Dylan was stricken with a sometimes fatal fungal infection called histoplasmosis, which caused the sac surrounding his heart to swell, resulting in a condition known as pericarditis. He told Newsweek's David Gates, "Mostly I was in a lot of pain. Pain that was intolerable. That's the only way I can put it." Nevertheless, he began to recover, and performed again in August of that same year. In September he performed for Pope John Paul II---reportedly at the Pope's request---at a eucharistic conference in Bologna, Italy. And in December of 1997 he became the first rock star ever to receive Kennedy Center honors.

Dylan's album Time Out of Mind was released in September of 1997 and was greeted by rave reviews. The album brought Dylan three Grammy Awards---for Album of the Year, Male Rock Performance (for "Cold Irons Bound"), and Contemporary Folk Album. Critics declared that the artist had again managed to reinvent himself and provide his fans with a fresh sound. Time's Christopher John Farley praised the album, declaring that "Dylan has found purpose in his inner battle to reignite his imagination. Turning the quest for inspiration itself into relevant rock---that is alchemic magic." Newsweek contributor Karen Schoemer maintained that Time Out of Mind "is rewarding precisely because it's so outside the present. In an era defined by novelty hits and slick video edits, it's a reminder that music can mean something more: it can be personal, uncompromised and deeply felt."

Following Time Out of Mind, Dylan entered a new, expansive phase of his career, one that focused attention on his current musical output and broadened the understanding of his past achievements. In 1998 Columbia Records released The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert. The two-disc recording, featuring an acoustic and electric set, was recorded at Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966, and became one of the most renowned bootlegs in rock 'n' roll history. "By the mid-'70s," noted Bill Holland in Billboard, "the 'Albert Hall' bootlegs became a cultural touchstone for music fans of the hippie-era baby boomer generation."

Dylan waited until 2001 to release Love and Theft, his first album of new material since Time Out of Mind. The album received a warm reception from critics, and following on the heels of the Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind, represented a renaissance for Dylan. "With Love and Theft," wrote David Browne in Entertainment Weekly, "Bob Dylan's return to the land of the living is complete." Columbia also continued to release vault material, including The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975--The Rolling Thunder Review in 2002 and The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964--Concert at Philharmonic Hall in 2004.

In 2003 Dylan appeared in Masked and Anonymous, a film widely panned by critics. "Unfortunately," wrote Ethan Alter in Film Journal International, "I have to concede that the movie is largely a mess--a rambling, disjointed, semi-coherent hodgepodge that plays like a parody of a bad Dylan song."

Published Autobiography

In 2004 and 2005 Dylan, always protective of his personal privacy, wrote the first installment of his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One. He also agreed to participate in extensive interviews for Martin Scorsese's two-hour biographical Dylan documentary for PBS, No Direction Home. Since he first become popular in the mid-1960s, Dylan had allowed biographers and journalists to tell his story: now, with a book and a documentary, he would have his turn. Columbia seized the opportunity to release two discs worth of scattered demos, out-takes, and live recordings to accompany the documentary project. In 2006 Twyla Tharp's play "The Times They Are A-Changin," drawn from Dylan's songs, was slated to open at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, California.

While Dylan has always drawn concert audiences and maintained a loyal fan base, new recordings and vault releases following Time Out of Mind have energized longtime fans and introduced him to a new generation. "Forty-plus years into his never-ending career," wrote Browne, "Bob Dylan keeps throwing us curveballs."

by Lynn M. Spampinato and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr

Bob Dylan's Career

Composed more than 500 songs since early 1960s; recorded with rock groups including The Band (1975), The Traveling Wilburys (with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison, 1988 and 1990), and The Grateful Dead (1989); solo singer and musician in concerts since early 1960s, including appearances at Newport Folk Festival in 1962 and 1965, Woodstock Festivals in 1969 and 1994, and Live Aid benefit concert in 1985; issued new material on Time Out of Mind, 1997, and "Love and Theft," 2001; issued movie soundtrack, Masked and Anonymous, 2003; issued multiple entries in the "bootleg" series, from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert in 1998 to The Bootleg Series, Vol. 7: No Direction Home--The Soundtrack, 2005.

Bob Dylan's Awards

Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, Tom Paine Award, 1963; Grammy Award, Best Rock Vocal Performance, for "Gotta Serve Somebody," 1979; Rolling Stone Music Award, Artist of the Year (tied with Bruce Springsteen) for The Basement Tapes, 1975; and Album of the Year for Blood on the Tracks, 1975; inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1988; Commander Dans L'Ordre des Arts et Lettres from French Minister of Culture, 1990; Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 1991; Grammy Award for World Gone Wrong, 1993; Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Trust, Arts Award, 1997; Lifetime Achievement Award, John F. Kennedy Center honors, 1997; Grammy Awards, for Album of the Year, Best Male Rock Performance, and Best Contemporary Folk Album, 1998, all for Time Out of Mind.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 16 years ago

Bob Dylan is a no-talent phony.