It is now 58 years since Bob Dylan recorded his first Columbia album. In that time, many imitators have come and gone, but Dylan remains one of our most fascinating and unpredictable cultural figures. His influence on the art and craft of songwriting is immeasurable, and it is arguably true that the summer 1965 release of "Like A Rolling Stone" transformed postwar popular music. Although he is one of the most famous people on earth, the notoriously private and evasive Dylan remains something of an enigma.
Over six lectures, musicologist, musician and lifelong Dylan fan Dr. Mike Daley, (whose research on Bob Dylan's singing style won the 1998 York University Thesis Prize), will break down Dylan's career through the decades. Known as a great lyricist, Dylan will also be shown to also be a brilliant performer and interpreter. We'll survey the ways that Dylan's work has been interpreted over the years and suggest some new approaches to his art. We'll also situate Dylan firmly within his times, from his role in the generational schisms of the 1960s right up to his recent Nobel Prize for Literature. With fresh insights and a critical ear, this course will be an authorative account of Bob Dylan's life and music.
We begin by looking at Bob Dylan as cultural figure, taking stock of the ways that his work has resonated. We'll sketch out the world of American vernacular music and radical politics that Dylan inherited. From the leftist folksong movement of the 1930s through the field recordings of Alan Lomax and the commercial folk boom of the 1950s, the time was right for Bob Dylan. We will trace his early life in northern Minnesota, the child of Abraham and Beatrice Zimmerman. After moving to Minneapolis for university, Dylan finds a small but vibrant folk music scene, continuing the musical education begun in high school rock and roll combos. After reading Woody Guthrie's autobiography, the nineteen-year-old Dylan drops out of university and plans a pilgrimage.
When Dylan arrives in New York, he finds acceptance among the folk music old guard and Woody Guthrie himself, now institutionalized and dying of Huntington's Disease. After a swift rise in the fertile Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene, Dylan is improbably signed to a major record label. With the release of his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, he begins a career ascent that will take him to the top reaches of the (commercial) folk revival of the 1960s. Anthems like "Blowin' In The Wind" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" soon become legendary and spawn a generation of imitators with harmonica racks and scratchy voices. By late 1964, Dylan is ready to jettison the orthodoxies of the folk scene as he watches the rise of the Beatles.
Dylan serves notice to the folkies with "Subterranean Homesick Blues" in early 1965. After a disastrous appearance at the Newport Folk Festival brandishing an electric guitar and backed by a loud rock band, Dylan finds himself getting booed and heckled on tour. His response is to make his music even louder, with the #1 pop hit "Like A Rolling Stone" achieving major commercial success. In the process, Dylan carves a new place for himself on the pop charts, and gives rock music a brain (which it sometimes uses). After a mysterious 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan abruptly withdraws to a quiet family life through late 1967, punctuated by the marathon home demo recordings known as the Basement Tapes. Dylan closes out the 1960s with a mainstream country album, Nashville Skyline. Dylan's mysterious nature and increasingly legendary countercultural status spawn a shadowy world of obsessive fans. We will acquaint ourselves with the likes of A.J. Weberman who stole Dylan's garbage and published the contents in underground magazines. The notoriously private and increasingly reclusive Dylan leaves New York and moves his growing family to a walled compound in Malibu.
As the 1970s begin, Dylan releases the substandard Self Portrait, a move that at least helped to deflate his outsize legend. From this point, Dylan could continue his career unhampered by mainstream expectations. By 1974, he is back on tour with the Band and then the Rolling Thunder Revue, barnstorming arenas across North America. His marriage in tatters, Dylan pens the cathartic Blood On The Tracks album, which recharges his fan base and places Dylan at the top of the singer-songwriter scene that he helped spawn. Following a drawn out divorce, Dylan abruptly converts to born-again Christianity, releasing two albums of all-religious material that alienate many of his fans again.
The 1980s begin with Dylan performing only his religious material in concert, but the evangelical lyrics begin to subside by 1981's Shot Of Love. Dylan tries to update his sound and image with contemporary record production and glossy music videos, with mixed results. His second marriage in 1986 is kept secret, while large-scale tours with Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead keep Dylan's profile high through the 80s. Beginning in 1988, Dylan tours more or less constantly. "The Never Ending Tour" continues to this day. Dylan's son Jakob enjoys a period of success with his own band, the Wallflowers. After some disappointing album releases, Dylan clears the decks with two albums of solo acoustic folk songs, then returns after a recording hiatus with the well-regarded Time Out Of Mind.
His artistic and cultural status assured, Dylan spends much of the 2000s collecting awards for his work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as Academy Award. His 2001 album Love and Theft is considered one of Dylan's best efforts, even as he is accused of borrowing text without attribution. In 2004 Dylan releases the first volume of his autobiography, Chronicles. This idiosyncratic account only deepens Dylan's legend. In 2006 Dylan begins to host a satellite radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour. Though he is now a highly respected figure, Dylan continues to confound expectations by releasing several albums of Frank Sinatra hits and reinterpreting his songs, sometimes unrecognizably, in live performance. Even as his 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature ratifies his legendary reputation, Dylan's absence from the acceptance ceremony underscores his unpredictable nature.