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Bob Dylan – It’s Alright, Ma

Bob Dylan,

( born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941) is an American singer-songwriter, artist, and writer. He has been an influential figure in popular music and culture for more than five decades. Much of his most celebrated work dates from the 1960s, when he was both a chronicler and a reluctant figurehead of social unrest. A number of Dylan’s early songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’“, became anthems for the American civil rights and anti-war movements. Leaving behind his initial base in the culture of the folk music revival, Dylan’s six-minute single “Like a Rolling Stone” radically altered the parameters of popular music in 1965. His mid-1960s recordings, backed by rock musicians, reached the top end of the United States music charts while also attracting denunciation and criticism from others in the folk movement.

Dylan’s lyrics have incorporated a variety of political, social, philosophical, and literary influences. They defied existing pop music conventions and appealed hugely to the then burgeoning counterculture. Initially inspired by the performance style of Little Richard, and the songwriting of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, and Hank Williams, Dylan has both amplified and personalized musical genres. His recording career, spanning fifty years, has explored many of the traditions in American song—from folk, blues, and country to gospel, rock and roll, and rockabilly to English, Scottish, and Irish folk music, embracing even jazz and swing. Dylan performs with guitar, keyboards, and harmonica. Backed by a changing line-up of musicians, he has toured steadily since the late 1980s on what has been dubbed the Never Ending Tour. His accomplishments as a recording artist and performer have been central to his career, but his greatest contribution is generally considered his songwriting.

Since 1994, Dylan has published six books of drawings and paintings, and his work has been exhibited in major art galleries. As a musician, Dylan has sold more than 100 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time; he has received numerous awards including Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy Award; he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Pulitzer Prize jury in 2008 awarded him a special citation for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” In May 2012, Dylan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

bob dylan

Origins and musical beginnings

Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman (Hebrew name שבתאי זיסל בן אברהם [Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham]) in St. Mary’s Hospital on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, on the Mesabi Range west of Lake Superior. His paternal grandparents, Zigman and Anna Zimmerman, emigrated from Odessa in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) to the United States following the anti-Semitic pogroms of 1905. His maternal grandparents, Benjamin and Lybba Edelstein, were Lithuanian Jews who arrived in the United States in 1902. In his autobiography Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan writes that his paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Kirghiz and her family originated from Kağızman district of Kars Province in north eastern Turkey.

Dylan’s parents, Abram Zimmerman and Beatrice “Beatty” Stone, were part of the area’s small but close-knit Jewish community. Robert Zimmerman lived in Duluth until age six, when his father was stricken with polio and the family returned to his mother’s home town, Hibbing, where Zimmerman spent the rest of his childhood. Robert Zimmerman spent his early years listening to the radio—first to blues and country stations broadcasting from Shreveport, Louisiana, and, as a teen, to early rock and roll. Zimmerman formed several bands while attending Hibbing High School. In the Golden Chords, he performed covers of songs by Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Their performance of Danny & the Juniors‘ “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” at their high school talent show was so loud that the principal cut the microphone off. In 1959, his high school yearbook carried the caption: “Robert Zimmerman: to join ‘Little Richard’.” The same year, using the name Elston Gunnn [sic], he performed two dates with Bobby Vee, playing piano and supplying handclaps.

Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis in September 1959, where he enrolled at the University of Minnesota. His early focus on rock and roll gave way to an interest in American folk music; in 1985, Dylan explained the attraction that folk music had exerted on him:

The thing about rock’n’roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough … There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms … but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.

He soon began to perform at the Ten O’Clock Scholar, a coffeehouse a few blocks from campus, and became actively involved in the local Dinkytown folk music circuit.

During his Dinkytown days, Zimmerman began introducing himself as “Bob Dylan”. In his memoir, Dylan acknowledged that he had been influenced by the poetry of Dylan Thomas. Explaining his change of name in a 2004 interview, Dylan remarked: “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”

bob dylan

 

1960s

Relocation to New York and record deal

In May 1960, Dylan dropped out of college at the end of his first year. In January 1961, he traveled to New York City, hoping to perform there and visit his musical idol Woody Guthrie, who was seriously ill with Huntington’s disease in Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. Guthrie had been a revelation to Dylan and was the biggest influence on his early performances. Describing Guthrie’s impact on him, Dylan later wrote: “The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them … [He] was the true voice of the American spirit. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple.” As well as visiting Guthrie in the hospital, Dylan befriended Guthrie’s acolyte Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Much of Guthrie’s repertoire was actually channeled through Elliott, and Dylan paid tribute to Elliott in Chronicles: Volume One (2004).

From February 1961, Dylan played at various clubs around Greenwich Village. He befriended and picked up material from many folk singers in the Village scene, including Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Odetta, the New Lost City Ramblers, and Irish musicians The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. In September, Dylan gained some public recognition when Robert Shelton wrote a positive review in The New York Times of a show at Gerde’s Folk City. The same month Dylan played harmonica on folk singer Carolyn Hester‘s eponymous third album, which brought his talents to the attention of the album’s producer, John Hammond. Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia Records in October. The performances on his first Columbia album, Bob Dylan, released in March 1962, consisted of familiar folk, blues and gospel material combined with two original compositions. The album made little impact, selling only 5,000 copies in its first year, just enough to break even. Within Columbia Records, some referred to the singer as “Hammond’s Folly” and suggested dropping his contract, but Hammond defended Dylan vigorously and was supported by Johnny Cash, an early fan of Dylan. In March 1962, Dylan contributed harmonica and back-up vocals to the album Three Kings and the Queen, accompanying Victoria Spivey and Big Joe Williams on a recording for Spivey Records. While working for Columbia, Dylan also recorded several songs under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt, for Broadside magazine, a folk music magazine and record label. Dylan used the pseudonym Bob Landy to record as a piano player on The Blues Project, a 1964 anthology album issued by Elektra Records. Under the pseudonym Tedham Porterhouse, Dylan contributed harmonica to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s 1964 album Jack Elliott.

Dylan made two important career moves in August 1962. He legally changed his name to Bob Dylan, and he signed a management contract with Albert Grossman. (In June 1961, Dylan had signed an agreement with Roy Silver. In 1962, Grossman paid Silver $10,000 to become the sole manager of Dylan’s career.) Grossman remained Dylan’s manager until 1970, and was notable both for his sometimes confrontational personality, and for the fiercely protective loyalty he displayed towards his principal client. Dylan subsequently said of Grossman, “He was kind of like a Colonel Tom Parker figure … you could smell him coming.” Tensions between Grossman and John Hammond led to Hammond being replaced as the producer of Dylan’s second album by the young African American jazz producer Tom Wilson.

From December 1962 to January 1963, Dylan made his first trip to the United Kingdom. He had been invited by TV director Philip Saville to appear in a drama, Madhouse on Castle Street, which Saville was directing for BBC Television. At the end of the play, Dylan performed “Blowin’ in the Wind”, one of the first public performances of the song. The film recording of Madhouse on Castle Street was destroyed by the BBC in 1968. While in London, Dylan performed at several London folk clubs, including The Troubadour, Les Cousins, and Bunjies. He also learned new material from several UK performers, including Martin Carthy.

By the time Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in May 1963, he had begun to make his name as both a singer and a songwriter. Many of the songs on this album were labeled protest songs, inspired partly by Guthrie and influenced by Pete Seeger‘s passion for topical songs. “Oxford Town”, for example, was a sardonic account of James Meredith‘s ordeal as the first black student to risk enrollment at the University of Mississippi.

His most famous song at this time, “Blowin’ in the Wind“, partially derived its melody from the traditional slave song “No More Auction Block”, while its lyrics questioned the social and political status quo. The song was widely recorded and became an international hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, setting a precedent for many other artists who had hits with Dylan’s songs. “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” was based on the tune of the folk ballad “Lord Randall“. With its veiled references to an impending apocalypse, the song gained even more resonance when the Cuban missile crisis developed only a few weeks after Dylan began performing it. Like “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” marked an important new direction in modern songwriting, blending a stream-of-consciousness, imagist lyrical attack with a traditional folk form.

While Dylan’s topical songs solidified his early reputation, Freewheelin’ also included a mixture of love songs and jokey, surreal talking blues. Humor was a large part of Dylan’s persona, and the range of material on the album impressed many listeners, including The Beatles. George Harrison said, “We just played it, just wore it out. The content of the song lyrics and just the attitude—it was incredibly original and wonderful.”

bob dylan

The rough edge of Dylan’s singing was unsettling to some early listeners but an attraction to others. Describing the impact that Dylan had on her and her husband, Joyce Carol Oates wrote: “When we first heard this raw, very young, and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing, the effect was dramatic and electrifying.” Many of his most famous early songs first reached the public through more immediately palatable versions by other performers, such as Joan Baez, who became Dylan’s advocate, as well as his lover. Baez was influential in bringing Dylan to national and international prominence by recording several of his early songs and inviting him onstage during her own concerts.

Others who recorded and had hits with Dylan’s songs in the early and mid-1960s included The Byrds; Sonny & Cher; The Hollies; Peter, Paul and Mary; The Association; Manfred Mann; and The Turtles. Most attempted to impart a pop feel and rhythm to the songs, while Dylan and Baez performed them mostly as sparse folk pieces. The cover versions became so ubiquitous that CBS started to promote him with the tag “Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan.”

“Mixed Up Confusion”, recorded during the Freewheelin’ sessions with a backing band, was released as a single and then quickly withdrawn. In contrast to the mostly solo acoustic performances on the album, the single showed a willingness to experiment with a rockabilly sound. Cameron Crowe described it as “a fascinating look at a folk artist with his mind wandering towards Elvis Presley and Sun Records.”[54]

Never Ending Tour

The Never Ending Tour commenced on June 7, 1988, and Dylan has played roughly 100 dates a year for the entirety of the 1990s and 2000s—a heavier schedule than most performers who started out in the 1960s. By May 2013, Dylan and his band had played more than 2,500 shows,anchored by long-time bassist Tony Garnier, multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, and guitarist Charlie Sexton. To the dismay of some of his audience, Dylan’s performances remain unpredictable as he alters his arrangements and changes his vocal approach night after night. Critical opinion about Dylan’s shows remains divided. Critics such as Richard Williams and Andy Gill have argued that Dylan has found a successful way to present his rich legacy of material. Others have criticized his live performances for mangling and spitting out “the greatest lyrics ever written so that they are effectively unrecognisable”, and giving so little to the audience that “it is difficult to understand what he is doing on stage at all.”

Dylan’s performances in China in April 2011 generated controversy. Some criticised him for not making any explicit comment on the political situation in China, and for, allegedly, allowing the Chinese authorities to censor his set-list. Others defended Dylan’s performances, arguing that such criticism represented a misunderstanding of Dylan’s art, and that no evidence for the censorship

of Dylan’s set-list existed. In response to these allegations, Dylan posted a statement on his website: “As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There’s no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play.”

In March and April 2014, Dylan and his band performed in Japan and Hawaii. In June and July Dylan toured Europe, commencing in Ireland and ending in Finland. Dylan commenced his tour of Australia and New Zealand on August 4, 2014, and concluded it in Christchurch on September 10. Dylan commenced a tour of the US in Seattle on October 17, 2014, which is scheduled to end in New York on December 3.

Artist

Over a decade after Random House had published Drawn Blank (1994), a book of Dylan’s drawings, The Drawn Blank Series opened in October 2007 at the Kunstsammlungen in Chemnitz, Germany. This first public exhibition of Dylan’s paintings showcased more than 200 watercolors and gouaches made from the original drawings. The exhibition coincided with the publication of the book Bob Dylan: The Drawn Blank Series, which includes 170 reproductions from the series. From September 2010 until April 2011, the National Gallery of Denmark exhibited 40 large-scale acrylic paintings by Dylan, The Brazil Series.

In July 2011, a leading contemporary art gallery, Gagosian Gallery, announced their representation of Dylan’s paintings. An exhibition of Dylan’s art, The Asia Series, opened at the Gagosian Madison Avenue Gallery on September 20, displaying Dylan’s paintings of scenes in China and the Far East. The New York Times reported that “some fans and Dylanologists have raised questions about whether some of these paintings are based on the singer’s own experiences and observations, or on photographs that are widely available and were not taken by Mr. Dylan.” The Times pointed to close resemblances between Dylan’s paintings and historic photos of Japan and China, and photos taken by Dmitri Kessel and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Magnum photo agency confirmed that Dylan had licensed the reproduction rights of these photographs.

Dylan’s second show at the Gagosian Gallery, Revisionist Art, opened in November, 2012. The show consisted of thirty paintings, transforming and satirizing popular magazines including Playboy and Babytalk. In February 2013, Dylan exhibited the New Orleans Series of paintings at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. In August 2013, Britain’s National Portrait Gallery in London hosted Dylan’s first major UK exhibition, Face Value, featuring twelve pastel portraits.

In November 2013, the Halcyon Gallery, London, hosted an exhibition of seven wrought iron gates that Dylan had created. The exhibition was titled Mood Swings. In a statement released by the gallery, Dylan said: “I’ve been around iron all my life ever since I was a kid. I was born and raised in iron ore country, where you could breathe it and smell it every day. Gates appeal to me because of the negative space they allow. They can be closed but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways there is no difference.”

Since 1994 , Bob Dylan has published six books of painting and drawing.

bob dylan

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