In '12, Bob Dylan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be awarded to a civilian. A White House press release cited Dylan's "rich and poetic lyrics" and their influence on the civil rights movement in the '60s.
Sure, his songs had an impact but the truth is Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman) didn't really have much to do with Rock, except influence just about everybody and profoundly change everything.
It didn't start out that way. Dylan was a folkie from the outback - Hibbing, MN, who worshiped Woody Guthrie. Wandering to New York he was "discovered" by famous producer John Hammond. And so, Dylan he became (allegedly after Dylan Thomas). As a Folk singer Dylan was out there. One critic said his songs had more words than melody. And that was the thing about Dylan, he was an incredible lyricists. He wrote "Blowin' In The Wind" which was recorded by a ton of people but Peter, Paul & Mary (a Folk act) had the hit. Then, in the mid-60's the Byrds, Manfred Mann and the Turtles turned Dylan songs into pop hits. What did Dylan think of all this?
Well, Dylan went "electric" at New York's Forest Hill's Folk Festival with backing from future Blood Sweat & Tears founder, organist Al Kooper, bassist Harvey Brooks (future member of Electric Flag) and The Band's guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm. Playing electric was what Rock musicians did, it was not something folkies were supposed to do. A few hard core types booed Dylan which was great press - it opened him up to the Rock audience.
"Highway 61 Revisited" was one ground breaking a record. "Like A Rolling Stone" with Al Kooper again on keyboards, was the song everyone knew. It was probably the only pop hit of the '60s with four verses. That was just the beginning. The title track was the album's best song but it wasn't released as a single. The opening line was enough to scare off AM radio programmers. It had five verses ("Desolation Row" had ten... how could he memorize them all for a concert?). And each verse was an important piece of the song... no filler. Also, the "Ballad Of The Thin Man" introduced Mr. Jones, who was revived by the Counting Crows for their '80's hit.
"Blonde On Blonde" was next and had the classic "Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35." It's the song with the line "everybody must get stoned." Although the lyrics talk about people being critical, the song was playing at Rolling Stone Keith Richards' house when the law raided and busted him for drugs.
Then there was the infamous motorcycle accident. Dylan holed up, recovering, a recluse, slowly but surely making music with The Band in a house forever known as The Big Pink.
"John Wesley Harding" and "Nashville Skyline" were extraordinary albums but had a Country feeling to them. "J.W.H." contained the original version of "All Along The Watchtower" which, bluntly, Jimi Hendrix did better.
Dylan continued to come up with an occasional classics like "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" or, the then controversial (in the '70s), "Hurricane" (about the "wrongful" jailing of boxer "Hurricane" Carter) but his output was hit or miss. What do you expect? You can't keep writing ten verse songs forever.
In the late '70s Dylan left the Jewish faith and became a Born Again (Christian). Wow, that was a switch.
He spent the '80s and '90s bouncing along, riding his living legend status, and being known (by many post-60s music fans) as the father of Jakob (Wallflowers).
A benefit of being a legend (living or not) is that there are always fans interested in everything you've done. Clearing the decks, Dylan began issuing his official Bootleg Series in '91. Each album covered a specific time period, event (Royal Albert Hall concert- Vol. 4) or tour (Rolling Thunder Review - Vol. 5). "Tell Tale Signs," the eighth volume in the series landed in '08 with outtakes, demos, live performances and rarities from '89 to '06. For many artists, this kind of project is a sign of a career running on fumes.
Still, it's never wise to write off Dylan. After grousing about modern (digital) recording techniques (they rip the soul out of recordings) he released "Modern Times," his first album in five years (the last one was '01's "Love & Theft"). Turned out the public didn't mind the digital stuff. "Modern Times" moved more than 192,000 copies in its first week to land at #1 on the Billboard 200. This was the fourth time a Dylan album had topped the chart. But it had been 30 years since his last #1, '76 release "Desire." "Modern Times" was also #1 in seven other countries.
Dylan unfurled "Together Through Life" in '09. French film director Olivier Dahan got the ball rolling when he asked Dylan to write a song for his movie My Own Love Song. With backing from guitarist Mike Campbell (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) and multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), the project grew to an album. According to Dylan "the record sort of took its own direction."
The lyrics, a Dylan specialty, were also crafted by longtime Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter. "He's got a way with words and I do too," said Dylan. "We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting."
One of the nice things about becoming a Christian is being able to celebrate Christmas. Decades after making the leap of faith, Dylan released "Christmas In The Heart." All money raised from U.S. sales of the '09 holiday collection benefited the Feeding America hunger-relief organization. "[I] hope that [Feeding America and my] efforts can bring some food security to people in need during this holiday season," said Dylan. The set featured "Little Drummer Boy," "Here Comes Santa," "Do You Here What I Here" and "The Christmas Song."
On a non-Christmas note, "California," a previously unreleased track, was featured prominently in an episode of TV crime show NCIS. The song also appeared on "NCIS: The Official TV Soundtrack, Vol. 2."
A few years later, Dylan was among the '12 Medal of Freedom recipients. During a White House ceremony, President Obama said he was "extremely grateful" to be able to personally thank the honorees "for the great work they have done" in America and worldwide. Other recipients included novelist Toni Morrison; former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; and astronaut and former Senator John Glenn. The Medal of Freedom is America's highest civilian honor.
Later in the year, Dylan released his 35th studio album, "Tempest." The set featured a tribute to John Lennon titled "Roll On John."
"The Basement Tapes Complete," containing 138 songs recorded in the late '60s', rolled out in '14. With The Band appearing on most tracks, the collection was recorded when Dylan was on the mend from his motorcycle accident.
Dylan's next move was also a return to the past, but in a different way. Though a legendary songwriter, Dylan mined the Great American Songbook, recording songs that were famous before Dylan was famous, for the albums "Shadows Of The Night" ('15) and "Fallen Angels" ('16). Apparently, Dylan had been thinking about recording standards after hearing Willie Nelson's '78 set "Stardust."
In between the two albums, the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa purchased a Dylan archive containing 6,000 pieces (lyrics, writings, etc.) for academic study. "It's a great honor," said Dylan in a statement.
To top it off, Dylan became the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He received the '16 honor "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."
1962 Bob Dylan
1963 The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
1964 The Times They Are a-Changin'
1964 Another Side Of Bob Dylan
1965 Bringing It All Back Home
1965 Highway 61 Revisited
1966 Blonde On Blonde
1967 John Wesley Harding
1969 Nashville Skyline
1970 Self Portrait
1970 New Morning
1973 Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid
1974 Planet Waves
1975 Blood On The Tracks
1975 The Basement Tapes
1978 Street Legal
1979 Slow Train Coming
1981 Shot Of Love
1985 Empire Burlesque
1986 Knocked Out Loaded
1988 Down In The Groove
1989 Oh Mercy
1990 Under The Red Sky
1992 Good As I Been To You
1993 World Gone Wrong
1997 Time Out Of Mind
2001 "Love And Theft"
2006 Modern Times
2009 Together Through Life
2009 Christmas In The Heart
2014 The Basement Tapes Complete
2015 Shadows Of The Night
2016 Fallen Angels
In addition, Dylan has released live albums, The Bootleg Series, and compilation albums.
In the fabled '60s, Bob Dylan was the premier singer/songwriter. His greatest Rock album is "Highway 61 Revisited." From that set, "Like A Rolling Stone," became a lyrical icon as well as a Classic Rock song. There's the humorous title track with the classic opening line ("God said to Abraham kill me a son and Abe says man you must be putting me on"). There's also the Country influenced "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" and the put down/put out of "Ballad Of The Thin Man" and "Desolation Row."
"Blonde On Blonde" followed and is another excellent record with the hilarious "Rainy Day Woman 12 & 35," the wailing "Memphis Blues Again" and the Folk/Country flavored "I Want You."
"Bring It All Back Home" just preceded "Highway 61 Revisited" and shows Dylan moving closer to Rock with "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "It's All Over Now."
Dylan moved away from Rock and toward Country producing two excellent albums, "Nashville Skyline" and "John Wesley Harding." These are not Rock albums but illustrate Dylan's songwriting abilities which are his strongest suit. Dylan's output since has been spotty at best. However, his best '70s album "Blood On The Tracks" is a powerful Folk/Rock effort.
Dylan virtually created the Folk/Rock movement. His earlier albums contain the original versions of songs later covered and popularized by countless others.
"Modern Times" is a low key effort which certainly resonated with friends and fans. Dylan touches Country, Blues and Folk. He sounds like an aged but wizened troubadour. Wait, that's exactly what he is! Dylan's confident and emotional, giving weight to the lyrics and authority to the songs.
On "Together Through Life" Dylan is a Folk-Blues singer complete with gravelly voice and searing passion. Dylan's trademark nasal whine shows up intermittently but for the most part Dylan favors a style closer to the Chicago wailers who populated Chess Records in the '40s and '50s - an influence on Dylan and just about everyone else of his generation.
"The roots-oriented songs are appealingly and unassuming. "Shake Shake Mama," a roadhouse Blues number, is supported by the lively "It's All Good" and "Jolene."
"Tempest" is essentially an extension of "Modern Times" and "Together Through Life." Even so, there was much discussion regarding Dylan's vocal timbre. The resonance and tone heard on "Lay Lady Lay" or even "Like A Rolling Stone" is long gone. Though Dylan was one of the most imitated singers of his, and subsequent generations, it's hard to imagine that John Hammond, or anyone else for that matter, would have signed Dylan to a recording contact in the early '60s based solely on his singing abilities. There's a lot more to Dylan.
"Duquesne Whistle," "Narrow Way" and "Early Roman Kings" are the keepers from "Tempest."
"Biograph" and "Greatest Hits Vols. I & II" capture Dylan's key moments.