Musicheads Essential Artist: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
(Courtesy of the artist)
Musicheads Essential Artist: Bob Dylan
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Click above to hear an audio version of this biography, with musical selections. Audio hosted by Mike Pengra and produced by Derrick Stevens.

One of the most influential songwriters of the twentieth century, Bob Dylan is a Musicheads Essential Artist.

Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941. He grew to love rock, then folk music as a teenager in Minnesota. At the age of 20, he moved to New York City, where he soaked up Beat Generation literature and met his hero, singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie.

Dylan folded his many influences — including Guthrie, Chuck Berry, Delta blues, New York poetry, and traditional ballads — into his music in the early '60s. He paired traditional melodies with new lyrics about social change and the human experience, and the depth of his words overshadowed all critique of his sandpapery voice. By his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the world was beginning to take notice of this enigmatic troubadour.

Throughout the next decades, Dylan built an enormous fan base. When he wasn't ducking public attention, he often surprised his fans and critics. He pulled out an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. He returned to Minnesota to re-record songs for his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. He converted from Judaism to Christianity to a more loosely defined, musical spirituality.

To this day, Dylan continues to release new songs and bootleg collections, and institutions including magazines and U.S. presidents continue to reward his work. In 2016, he became the first musician to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 2020, Dylan sold his entire catalog to Universal Music for an estimated 300 million dollars. He no longer holds the rights to his body of work. But his music has traveled so far beyond one man's life — through countless countries, stories, and voices — that in a way, he had already given up control. Thousands of artists have covered his songs, including Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and Adele. Thousands more will strum a guitar, blow a harmonica, or write lines of poetry in his honor.