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b: Robert Allen Zimmerman, 24 May 1941, Duluth, Minnesota

D., born Robert Allen Zimmerman, is one of America’s most inventive and influential lyricists. Equal parts Elvis Presley and Arthur Rimbaud, Hank Williams and William Blake, D. bridges the intellectual excesses of the Beat poets and popular culture. He has brought a more self-conscious literary manner to traditional folk and urban-blues-based song writing. In this way, D.’s transformative approach differs from the work of Stephen Foster, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Woody Guthrie, his only peers among American songwriters.

Reared in a middle-class Jewish home, from childhood in Hibbing, D. early on developed a keen sense of racial and economic inequalities in American society. His early literary models included John steinbeck and Dylan Thomas, the latter being the most plausible source for the spelling of his professional name. Dropping out of the University of Minnesota, D. both impressed and alienated those on the burgeoning Minneapolis–St. Paul folk scene before heading for New York City, where he soon created new artistic possibilities for young singer-songwriters.

Dylan's rapid rise as writer-composer and enigmatic personality helped capture the attention of millions in the early 1960s: “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1962), “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (1963), “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” (1963), and “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1964 [1965]) galvanized a generation. Dylan's evolution to rock ’n’ cold.jpgroll in the mid-1960s, in degree under the tutelage of Allen ginsberg, is highlighted by “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965), his masterpiece “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), and “Visions of Johanna” (1965 [1966]).

A motorcycle accident in 1966 changed the course of Dylan's career. Out of his convalescent retreat came a renewed concentration on the traditional roots of American music: The Basement Tapes (released in 1975) and John Wesley Harding (1967). D.’s only novel, Tarantula, was published in 1971 to mostly negative notices. Several collections of lyrics and drawings have also been published, along with many songbooks. A return to a more personal folk and blues idiom (Blood on the Tracks, 1975) and brief associations with Jacques Levy and Sam shepard in the mid-1970s (Shepard , again, in the mid-1980s) was followed by a spiritual conversion to Christianity (“Gotta Serve Somebody,” 1979; “Every Grain of Sand,” 1981; and “Foot of Pride,” 1983 [1991] are notable), a faith D. continues to embrace and reflect in his music, as often as not, to this day (e.g., the moody Oh Mercy [1989]).

In 1997, Dylan suffered the cardiac effects of histoplasmosis and was reported near death, which he once again cheated: himself now roughly between the age that it had taken his “last idol,” Woody Guthrie, in October 1967 and his father, Abram, in June 1968. Later in 1997, Bob Dylan performed for the pope and released Time out of Mind, a critical success that earned Dylan three Grammy Awards in 1998.

Although many question Dylan’s lasting contribution to literature, his unique song writing and performing style mark a revival of the ancient oral tradition of the bard as well as new levels of individual expression and social thought in American lyricism.


[from the Encyclopedia of American Literature, Steven R. Serafin, general editor, Alfred Bendixen, associate editor, 1999]

bibliography: McGregor, C., ed., B.D.: A Retrospective (1972); Scaduto, A., B.D.: An Intimate Biography (1971); Shepard, S., Rolling Thunder Logbook (1977); Shelton, R., No Direction Home: The Life and Music of B.D. (1986)


Thanks to Evander Lomke, our Dylanologist-in-Chief, for contributing this piece to Tant Mieux's Dylan efforts. We are grateful.

Evander Lomke is a Senior Editor at Continuum-Books and a regular contributor to Dylan, So Much the Better - Bob Dylan,Tant Mieux. ~~ editorial director, sadi ranson-polizzotti, Contact? Comments? Corrections? Additions?

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