This Day in Music, May 24: Bob Dylan Is 70 (Years Old)

By , Contributor

Happy 70th birthday, Bob; is it still rolling?

The celebrations have already started to mark this major landmark for his Bobness: megastars are making lists (some of them twice), and some can't decide whether they prefer Bob naughty or nice.

David Crosby picked "Mr. Tambourine Man", Bono chose "Like a Rolling Stone", Merle Haggard, "Blowin' in the Wind", and Roger McGuinn "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere".

As for what the rest of us would pick - it's almost impossible; it's like picking your favourite kid when you're a father of six. No one's ever been able to nail down who or what Bob Dylan is, and there's really no need to start trying now.

His vast influence on music is matched only by Elvis and the Beatles (and even The Beatles' shift toward introspective songwriting wouldn't have happened without his towering influence). Dylan's gift was to marry poetic lyrics with catchy tunes, and as a vocalist he broke the notion that a singer must have a conventionally good voice in order to perform, redefining the vocalist's role in popular music in the process.

Robert Zimmerman was born on this day in 1941, in St. Mary's Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota. He lived in Duluth until age six, when his father was stricken with polio and the family returned to his mother's home town of Hibbing, where Zimmerman spent the rest of his childhood.

Dylan Hibbing High School.jpgBob spent much of his youth listening to the radio - first to blues and country stations and later, to early rock 'n' roll. He formed several bands while he attended Hibbing High School, including The Shadow Blasters and The Golden Chords. In his 1959 school yearbook, Robert Zimmerman listed as his ambition "To follow Little Richard," with whom he was obsessed.

Following his graduation in 1959, he began studying art at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. While at college, he began performing folk songs at coffeehouses under the name Bob Dylan, taking his last name from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

Finding his way to New York City in January of 1961, Dylan immediately made a substantial impression on the folk community. Initially inspired by the songs of Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and Robert Johnson, Dylan incorporated in his early song lyrics a variety of political, social and philosophical, as well as literary, influences, while drawing on many traditional folk song forms and melodies, including highly topical and witty "talking blues" tales.

They defied existing pop music convention, sometimes extended over many verses, appealing, along with the young Dylan's persona, sometimes world-weary, sometimes mischievous, to the then-burgeoning alternative music scene, almost entirely folk-based.

Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond sought out Dylan on the strength of a review, and signed the songwriter in late 1961, producing Dylan's eponymous debut album, a collection of folk and blues standards that surprisingly boasted only two original songs.

Bob Dylan Gaucho.jpgOver the course of 1962 Dylan began to write a large batch of original songs, many of which were political protest songs in the vein of his Greenwich Village contemporaries. These songs were showcased on his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

Between April 1962 and April 1963 he claimed to have written more than 100 songs, being so prolific in this period that he said he was afraid to go to sleep at night, for fear he would miss a song.

His breakthrough to the pop audience came in the summer of 1965, when "Like a Rolling Stone" became a #2 hit. Driven by a circular organ riff and a steady beat, the six-minute single broke the barrier of the three-minute pop song.

In 1988, Dylan embarked on what became known as "the Never-Ending Tour"--a constant stream of shows that ran on and off into the late '90s.

As his contemporaries - including McCartney, Jagger, Richards, and Paul Simon - all approach 70, the old troubadour is still working harder than any of them. In the 20 years up to 2010, he performed 2,045 concerts, although he now made his shows so idiosyncratic that not more than half the audience could probably tell which particular Dylan classic he was performing at any given time.

The late-model Bob Dylan has released some amazing records, as good as anything he did in 1975, 1989, and 1997, and is still making great records after 50 years of studio and live work.

Here are my two favourite Dylan songs (at the moment): "Like a Rolling Stone" and, from Modern Times, "Thunder on the Mountain".

No doubt you have your own, so feel free to submit your thoughts below. Keep on rolling, Bob! 

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A former musician, Neil was in the 80's group The Cheaters who were once signed to EMI's Parlophone label, and released three albums. He was also a radio presenter and is still a regular music pundit on various BBC stations. Neil is the founder of the award winning web site This Day in Music which is…

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