Bob Dylan is one of the most influential musicians of the last century. But what about the man underneath all of the hype?
Americans of a certain age have an intense attachment to Bob Dylan. The folk singer, who turns 75 on May 24 of this year, has been actively touring since Kennedy was president, and he’s collected more awards than you would think possible for a performer who has occasionally claimed to sing badly on purpose.
Dylan has gotten rich and famous from live shows and record sales, with some musicians praising him so much in interviews it’s as if Dylan had invented music all by himself. The reality is of course that he didn’t — and in fact was perhaps most gifted at taking others’ interests and musical creations and blending them to make his own brand:
Making Contacts At His Idol’s Deathbed
Dylan began to borrow from others in his adolescence. Born in 1941 in Minnesota, Dylan — née Robert Zimmerman — spent much of his youth listening to scratchy AM blues stations broadcasting from Louisiana, and covered Elvis and Little Richard songs with the bands he formed in high school.
The highlight of his teenage music career came when the principal of his high school cut the sound during his band’s cover of “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” by Danny and the Juniors. In 1960, just before he dropped out of college to run away to New York, Zimmerman took the name Bob Dylan as an homage to poet Dylan Thomas.
Almost as soon as he got to New York, the 19-year-old Bob Dylan looked up Woody Guthrie, who was dying a horrible death in the state psychiatric hospital from Huntington’s disease. Between his visits to the hospital to see his idol, and incidentally to make valuable contacts in the recording industry among his other visitors, Dylan performed folk shows in Greenwich Village.
He eventually signed with Columbia Records to press an album that sold so badly he was nearly fired a few months later. He managed to stick around, however, and released his first openly political album in 1963. Most of the music on it was either covers or adaptations of old folk and blues songs, but it was his manager’s canny instinct to label them “protest songs” and to create a sort of brand identity for Bob Dylan as a Guthrie-esque crusader for civil rights.
Capitalizing On A Movement
Dylan’s early career was a triumph of marketing. Living in Greenwich Village, he was surrounded day and night by other young people who could talk about almost nothing but the civil rights movement. Realizing that this was the topic his prospective audience cared about more than anything else, he started showing up to every demonstration and street protest he could get to, guitar and harmonica in hand.
He brought his then-girlfriend Joan Baez along to sing with him, and before long his music had become the soundtrack of civil disobedience. In May 1963, Dylan walked off of the set of the Ed Sullivan Show for political reasons, rather than skip the potentially libelous song NBC’s lawyers asked him not to sing.
Dylan and Baez even traveled to the District of Columbia with the March on Washington in August 1963, and performed informal shows for the crowd. With his brand firmly established, Dylan’s next five years were an unbroken success story.