Robert Allen Zimmerman (Shabtai Zisi ben Avraham) was born on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota. Bob Dylan turned 80 on May 24, 2021. Same Person. Somewhere in those 80 years, he changed not only his name but popular music and modern culture. In fact, he has become one of the most influential people in his lifetime.
The only songwriter to be award the Nobel Prize for Literature, Dylan is widely accepted as indeed one of the greatest songwriters of all time.
In early-1962 he released his first, self-titled, album after being discovered by John Hammond, the legendary talent scout for Columbia Records. He was 20. In mid-2020, Dylan released his latest Rough and Rowdy Ways. He had just turned 79.
Somewhere in between are 600-plus (some say 900) songs, 95 singles, 52 music videos, 39 studio albums, 26 extended plays, 20 box sets, 19 compilation albums, 15 Bootleg volumes and 7 film soundtracks.
And somewhere in all that are at least seven musical genres - folk/rock/blues/country/gospel/traditional pop/jazz. So, it is no surprise that, after the Beatles, he is the most covered singer-songwriter in modern music.
Add to all this, his accolades. He has won 10 Grammy Awards, one Academy Award and one Golden Globe Award. And, of course, that Nobel Prize in 2016 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom he received from President Obama in 2012.
Not that Dylan hasn’t cashed in. Last year the father of six received upwards of $300 million from Universal Music for the rights of his entire song catalogue. He has always been regarded as biz-sharp, and even has his own Heaven’s Door bourbon whiskey label.
And on the road, there is simply no stopping – apart from a global pandemic –this octogenarian. Dylan has played 3,066 concerts since beginning the Never Ending Tour in 1988. It all ended suddenly in the middle of last year when he was forced to cancel at U.S. summer tour “in the interest of public health and safety.” He has promised fans he will be back ASAP – give or take an arthritic hand and fading voice!
And when he is not touring, there are his other endeavors. There is the literary writing – he already has a novel and his much-quoted memoir Chronicles Volume One. Add to this his art work – a Bob Dylan visual art exhibition, featuring 120 paintings, drawings and sculptures, opens in Miami on November 30. Do not forget the cinema. He has directed one film – Renaldo and Clare - and acted in several, the most notable being Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid for which he wrote the soundtrack! And there is also radio – his very popular Theme Time Radio Hour.
The only thing it seems he is reluctant to do is talk about himself and, especially, the meaning of his songs. Dylan is famous for his elusiveness to the point of being regarded as a complete enigma. And with all great puzzlers, he exists to be solved.
In fact, seeking to understand Bob Dylan has become an industry in itself over the past 60-odd years. Those who engage in such a study are known as Dylanologists or, somewhat quaintly, Bobcats! It is estimated there are more than a 100 university courses devoted to studying Dylan and his works – the most publicized being the Professor Richard F. Thomas freshman seminar on Bob Dylan at Harvard University.
These scholars struck gold in 2016 when it was revealed that Dylan had sold a massive archive, featuring around 100,000 items, to the George Kaiser Family Foundation for a cool $20 million. The material has been housed in a facility known as the Center for American Research at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It includes unreleased recordings and unseen concert performances, as well as handwritten lyrics and rare photographs. And just to add to the mix, there is even the leather jacket Dylan wore onstage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
And it was recently announced that nearly six years after this acquisition, a separate museum dedicated to these artifacts will open in May 2022. It will be known as the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Not surprisingly, the collection is the subject of several new books – many published to coincide with his special birthday!
The most anticipated is by British author Clinton Heylin, perhaps the most admired of all the contemporary Dylanologists. It is titled The Double Life of Bob Dylan: A Restless, Hungry Feeling, 1941-1966. Heylin, who spent 10 weeks researching the new archive in Tulsa, told Rolling Stone the material was revelatory since it represented a missing period. “There was a process, but getting a sense of the picture was different. Seeing the boxes and the manuscripts in Tulsa and looking at the audio files, I knew it was time to do something on a bigger scale.”
Heylin has already written eight books on Dylan. The most popular is his 1991 biography Behind the Shades, which was updated in 2001 and 2011. He thought it unlikely he could ever dredge up anything new, but once he visited Tulsa and saw the sheer enormity of such primary source material, he knew he was closer to the real story of Bob Dylan’s life.
Rolling Stone asked Heylin if he viewed the new book as a companion to Behind the Shades?
“I tried to make it a very different book. As I say in the introduction, I tried to use material that has historical veracity. By that I mean a document, tapes, contemporary recollections rather than latter-day recollections. There’s still great anecdotal stories in Behind the Shades that’s absolutely reward reading.”
What proved most valuable for Heylin during his research in Tulsa was an extraordinary amount of material relating to Dylan’s upbringing in Hibbing, Minnesota, where he moved when he was six and attended high school there.
In another interview, with The Guardian, Heylin said: “What comes across is the number of people who say he knew exactly what he was doing for an early age … that he was completely driven and that nothing would blow him off course. There’s much more self-awareness to that young man than in previous versions of him, including by myself. I just didn’t realise how burning his ambition was.”
Heylin made clear The Double Life of Bob Dylan was not related solely to material he discovered in the Tulsa archive, but he did confirm he is working on a second volume.
Heylin is often asked for his favourite Dylan album or song.
Rolling Stone asked him for a fav album: “Blood on the Tracks. It’s the second album I ever bought. It’s still the album that holds up for me the most.” The Guardian wanted his best Dylan song: “Visions of Johanna. Because it’s poetry, performance art and perfection in a seven-minute slice of song.”
But his most telling answer, as a Dylanologist , was to this question from The Guardian:
Q: “What is the most surprising thing you found out about Dylan while writing your book?”
A: “That he tells lots of ‘porkies.’ Maybe not that surprising.”
Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation
To mark Bob Dylan’s 80 th birthday on May 24, 2021, Crossroads has selected 25 Great
Americana Dylan Covers, featuring 25 different artists or groups.