Bob Dylan’s influence on popular music is incalculable. As a songwriter, he pioneered several different schools of pop songwriting, from confessional singer/songwriter to winding, hallucinatory, stream-of-conscious narratives. As a vocalist, he broke down the notions that in order to perform, a singer had to have a conventionally good voice, thereby redefining the role of vocalist in popular music. As a musician, he sparked several genres of pop music, including electrified folk-rock and country-rock. And that just touches on the tip of his achievements. Dylan’s force was evident during his height of popularity in the ’60s â€” the Beatles’ shift toward introspective songwriting in the mid-’60s never would have happened without him â€” but his influence echoed throughout several subsequent generations. Many of his songs became popular standards, and his best albums were undisputed classics of the rock & roll canon. Dylan’s influence throughout folk music was equally powerful, and he marks a pivotal turning point in its 20th century evolution, signifying when the genre moved away from traditional songs and toward personal songwriting. Even when his sales declined in the ’80s and ’90s, Dylan’s presence was calculable.
For a figure of such substantial influence, Dylan came from humble beginnings. Born in Duluth, MN, Bob Dylan (b. Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941) was raised in Hibbing, MN, from the age of six. As a child he learned how to play guitar and harmonica, forming a rock & roll band called the Golden Chords when he was in high school. Following his graduation in 1959, he began studying art at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. While at college, he began performing folk songs at coffeehouses under the name Bob Dylan, taking his last name from the poet Dylan Thomas. Already inspired by Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, Dylan began listening to blues while at college, and the genre weaved its way into his music. Dylan spent the summer of 1960 in Denver, where he met bluesman Jesse Fuller, the inspiration behind the songwriter’s signature harmonica rack and guitar. By the time he returned to Minneapolis in the fall, he had grown substantially as a performer and was determined to become a professional musician.
Dylan made his way to New York City in January of 1961, immediately making a substantial impression on the folk community of Greenwich Village. He began visiting his idol Guthrie in the hospital, where he was slowly dying from Huntington’s chorea. Dylan also began performing in coffeehouses, and his rough charisma won him a significant following. In April, he opened for John Lee Hooker at Gerde’s Folk City. Five months later, Dylan performed another concert at the venue, which was reviewed positively by Robert Shelton in the New York Times. Columbia A&R man John Hammond sought out Dylan on the strength of the review, and signed the songwriter in the fall of 1961. Hammond produced Dylan’s eponymous debut album (released in March 1962), a collection of folk and blues standards that boasted only two original songs. Over the course of 1962, Dylan began to write a large batch of original songs, many of which were political protest songs in the vein of his Greenwich contemporaries. These songs were showcased on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Before its release, Freewheelin’ went through several incarnations. Dylan had recorded a rock & roll single, “Mixed Up Confusion,” at the end of 1962, but his manager, Albert Grossman, made sure the record was deleted because he wanted to present Dylan as an acoustic folky. Similarly, several tracks with a full backing band that were recorded for Freewheelin’ were scrapped before the album’s release. Furthermore, several tracks recorded for the album â€” including “Talking John Birch Society Blues” â€” were eliminated from the album before its release.