Bob Dylan, the surprise winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature today, became an icon of 1960s counterculture but his voice has reached widely and evocatively into the American past.
The author of some of rock’s early anthems such as ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’, Dylan tapped classic folk and gospel songs to rejuvenate defining US forms of story-telling. Since early in his career the 75-year-old singer has experimented with the intersection of the literary and the musical.
In one of his most celebrated songs, Mr Tambourine Man, Dylan created a literary character after a drummer he knew from the clubs of New York’s Greenwich Village. Like a Rolling Stone tore apart pop convention by going on for more than six minutes, with Dylan’s steady narration and a touch of R&B interrupted by the refrain, How does it feel?
“After writing that, I wasn’t interested in writing a novel or a play or anything, like I knew like I had too much. I wanted to write songs,” Dylan said later of the song. “Desolation Row,” which closed his 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited,” stretched on for more than 11 minutes and reached into biblical allusions, while referencing the growing tumult in urban America.
“Highway 61 Revisited” itself reflected an American journey, referencing the highway that stretches from Dylan’s home of Minnesota to New Orleans and the homes of the blues in the American South.
The album was part of a massive burst of creativity when in a two-year period Dylan put out three legendary albums, with the other two being “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Blonde on Blonde.”
The stardom is all a long way from his humble beginnings as Robert Allen Zimmerman, born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota. He taught himself to play the harmonica, guitar and piano. Captivated by the music of folk singer Woody Guthrie, Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan — reportedly after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas — and began performing in local nightclubs.
After dropping out of college he moved to New York in 1960. His first album contained only two original songs, but the 1963 breakthrough “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” featured a slew of his own work including the classic “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Armed with a harmonica and an acoustic guitar, Dylan confronted social injustice, war and racism, quickly becoming a prominent civil rights campaigner — and recording an
astonishing 300 songs in his first three years.
His interest in civil rights has persisted and in 1991 he released Blind Willie McTell, one of the best-known songs of his late career in which Dylan reflects on slavery through the
story of the blues singer of the same name.