Bob Dylan’s Life in Song

On Bob Dylan's 76th birthday, here's a look at his life through his legendary music.
Publish date:
Folk Singers and Folk Revolutionaries: Bob Dylan poses for a portrait with his a Gibson acoustic guitar in New York City, in September 1961. The guitar, a Gibson model J50, was used on the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), which included the songs 'Girl from the North Country,' 'Masters of War' and 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall.' (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.)

Bob Dylan poses for a portrait in New York City in September 1961 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.)

It’s hard to believe but Bob Dylan, the voice of a generation representing youthful protest, turns 76 today. He told us “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” shared a jail cell with “Mister Tambourine Man,” and challenged us to look beyond the comforts of materialism, asking “how does it feel” to be a “Like a Rolling Stone”? Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, he began playing music at high school dances and later cited rock stars such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard as his idols. He changed his surname because Zimmerman was too long and settled on Dillon after the sheriff of the TV series Gunsmoke subsequently shortening it to Dylan. 

One of the most influential figures not only in pop music but in the culture at large, he has sold over 100 million records, published six books of drawings and paintings, and directed and starred in the film Renaldo and Clara. In addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 11 Grammys, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe, he has won a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize jury in 2008, and the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, the first songwriter to earn the honor. 

Bob Dylan: Dylan is honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on May 29, 2012, in Washington, DC. And like any cool rocker would, Dylan keeps his shades on for the historical moment.

President Barack Obama presents Bob Dylan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 29, 2012, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Here are eight of his songs that tell the life of this legendary figure.

“Song to Woody” (1962)

Dylan paid tribute to his idol, legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie in this early classic. The young would-be troubadour had dropped out of the University of Minnesota in his freshman year. He travelled to New York City to perform in the Greenwich Village club scene and to meet Guthrie who was hospitalized with Huntington’s Disease. Dylan was heavily influenced by the older performer whom he called “the true voice of the American spirit.”

“The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1963)

While not strictly autobiographical, this title track from Dylan’s third album would become one of his most famous and iconic songs, launching him as a major voice in the new folk scene and marking the beginning of the youth and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s. Critic Michael Gray called it “the archetypical protest song.” Less than a month after Dylan recorded it, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. He opened his next concert with the song and the audience cheered. “Times” has been covered over 400 times including versions by The Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary, Nina Simone, Phil Collins, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor and Carly Simon, Billy Joel, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springsteen. “Times” along with his earlier “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall” established him as the definitive folk protest singer. His growing fame on the folk scene led him to meet Joan Baez, the reigning queen of the movement. She recorded several of his songs while they had a two-year affair.

“Ballad in Plain D” (1964)

Dylan details his fractious relationship with Suze Rotolo in this long (eight minutes and eighteen seconds) track from his fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan. He starkly lays out a violent argument between himself and Suze’s sister Carla whom he harshly characterizes as a “parasite…Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect/Countless visions of the other she’d reflect/As a crutch for her scenes and her society.” Dylan’s translation of reality into art was remarkably rapid. The screaming match took place in March of 1964, he wrote the song along with others for the album when staying in a Greek village in May and recorded it in June. Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin called it “an exercise of painful autobiography.” In a 1985 interview when asked if he had regrets about “Ballad,” he responded, “Oh yeah, that one! I look back and say ‘I must have been a real schmuck to write that.’ I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I've written, maybe I could have left that alone.”

“Like a Rolling Stone” (1965)

Chosen by Rolling Stone as number one on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, this howl of anger at those who think they’ve got it made transformed Dylan from a folk singer to a rock star. He wrote it after returning from an exhausting tour of England documented in the film Don’t Look Back. He was contemplating quitting the music business, but he worked out his frustrations about the public’s demanding expectations of him through this song.

“Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (1966)

The only song on the fourth side of his album Blonde on Blonde is often called a wedding song for Dylan's wife, the former Sara Shirley Lownds, and later mother of four of his children (they divorced in 1977.) Dylan was scheduled to begin recording the song in a Nashville studio in February of 1966, but he hadn’t even written it yet. So he spent the whole night—from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.—writing the song while the musicians napped or played cards.

“All Along the Watchtower” (1968)

After a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan went into seclusion for almost a year. He emerged with one of his greatest artistic achievements with this track from the John Wesley Harding album. The opening lyrics consist of a caustic and spare dialogue between two archetypical figures: The Joker and The Thief who debate their views on life. The final verse opens up to reveal a castle populated with noblewomen and servants and the two figures from the beginning approaching. Many critics have seen this song as a summing-up of Dylan’s life and career. Some thought Dylan was the Joker, taking a more amused attitude after his accident and that Elvis Presley was the Thief. Watchtower was later reinterpreted by Jimi Hendrix and became a Top 20 single in 1968.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979)

In the late 1970s, Dylan underwent a conversion to born-again Christianity, taking five months off touring to attend Bible school. This yearning plea for meaning expressed his new religion. (“You’re gonna have to serve somebody/Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”) It was part of his Slow Train Coming rock-gospel album which reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart. During the recording, the songwriter attempted to convert his producer Jerry Wexler, who answered “Bob, you’re dealing with a 62-year-old Jewish atheist. Let’s just make the album.” Once released, the song sparked controversy. John Lennon found the song “embarrassing” and wrote the satirical “Serve Yourself” in response (“You gotta serve yourself/Ain’t nobody gonna do it for you”). Older fans accused Dylan of proselytizing, but he gained new listening among young Christians and won an 1980 Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal, performing the song on the telecast.

“Things Have Changed” (2000)

Written for the film Wonder Boys, this whimsical portrait of an aging star shuffling through show business (“Lot of water under the bridge/Lot of other stuff too/Don’t get up gentlemen/I’m only passing through”) won Dylan a Golden Globe and an Oscar. He played the song live and accepted his Oscar via satellite from Sydney, Australia where he was touring. Since then, Dylan is still going strong, touring, recording, and chronicling our times which are always “a-changin’.”

From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on May 24, 2016.