Bob Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, a gifted wordsmith with a political conscience, incisive storytelling abilities and a poet-like acumen for meter and language.
As a musician, he's shaped popular music in innumerable ways—from inspiring the Beatles and bringing folk-rock into the mainstream to proving that electric guitars could be as revolutionary as acoustic ones.
On July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan showed up at the Newport Folk Festival and decided to play an electric set rather than his usual acoustic one. Unsurprisingly, this move was polarizing: Although some in attendance dug the rawer direction, others were audibly grumbling and booing as Dylan opened his appearance with a searing, almost sneering version of "Maggie's Farm."
Going electric was Dylan's first major surprise career move, but it was far from the last one. In the next half-century, he'd continue to hone his reputation as a merry prankster and enigmatic figure who went wherever his muse took him. Political commentary, gnarled fictional narratives, gospel-inspired songs, even Frank Sinatra covers: Anything and everything was fair game, as long as it fit Dylan's whims and creative inspiration at the given moment.
Born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, the boy who would be Dylan taught himself guitar, harmonica and piano and absorbed the popular music of the day—to name a few artists, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Woody Guthrie, Roy Orbison and Chuck Berry. In early 1961, he decamped to New York City and, more specifically, the blues and folk scene percolating in Greenwich Village. Along the way, he visited his idol, Guthrie—who was then hospitalized in New Jersey—and started making a name for himself in clubs.
By the end of 1961, Dylan had a record deal with Columbia. His self-titled 1962 debut LP was a modest affair, although it contained one of his first indelible originals: "Song To Woody," an homage to the folk icon. 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, on the other hand, featured all self-penned compositions, including the anti-war songs “Blowin’ In The Wind" and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall," and the flowery romantic laments "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Girl From The North Country." Even early in his career, Dylan's genius wordsmithing abilities were already taking shape.
At the same time, he was also becoming known as a politically outspoken social commentator, which shone through on the spare, strident folk songs of 1964's The Times They Are a-Changin'. Yet even as he started to direct popular music—that year, he famously met and influenced the Beatles—he was growing restless within the rabble-rousing protest music scene. 1964's aptly titled Another Side Of Bob Dylan contained "It Ain't Me, Babe," a slightly self-deprecating song aimed at letting a romantic interest down easy.
In light of these shifts, it's no surprise Dylan's electric set at the Newport Folk Festival came sandwiched between the release of two more pivotal LPs: Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. The former was half-electric, half-acoustic and featured "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," while the latter was the home of "Like A Rolling Stone," a No. 2 pop hit. That same year, the Byrds also took their jangly cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" to No. 1 on the pop charts, adding further credence to the burgeoning folk-rock scene. Controversial sound aside, Dylan was becoming a bankable star.
1966's landmark double LP Blonde on Blonde continued this momentum. Recorded with members of his live band the Hawks—who would find success on their own as the Band a few years later—and Nashville session musicians, it introduced a barnstorming, rustic, electric-meets-acoustic sound comprising elements of folk, blues and country. “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” "Just Like A Woman" and “I Want You” hit the top 40, while "Visions of "Johanna," "Leonard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and "Absolutely Sweet Marie" became classics.
A serious July 1966 motorcycle accident derailed his career for nearly two years after that, although while out of sight and recuperating, he hung out and jammed with the Band, producing material that would later end up on multiple bootlegs and 1975's The Basement Tapes.
When Dylan reemerged from solitude with 1967's harmonica-heavy, stripped-down John Wesley Harding, he had pivoted once again to become a poet laureate fond of vivid character sketches. The distressed, urgent "All Along the Watchtower" in particular resonated with Jimi Hendrix, who later made the song his own. 1969's country-leaning Nashville Skyline featured a remarkably different vocal delivery—on some songs, Dylan's keening, earnest croon was almost unrecognizable—and contained "Lay Lady Lay" and Johnny Cash dueting with him on another version of "Girl From the North Country."
Dylan's penchant for tweaking and reinvention would continue in the '70s, leading to hit-or-miss (and, much later, significantly diminished) commercial and critical returns. Still, this chameleonic approach mythologized his raconteur-like persona and exemplified his literary bent, as he produced some of his densest, most interesting material.
Song-wise, standouts include "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" from 1973's film soundtrack Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid; Planet Waves' "Forever Young"; and 1975's "Hurricane," a return to activism form inspired by boxer Rubin Carter's incarceration. 1975's Blood On The Tracks also ranks among his best records, while 1978's contemporary-sounding, (almost) straightforward Street-Legal incorporated prominent female backing vocals and saxophone.
Dylan started the 1980s with a series of albums referencing gospel and his newly embraced Christian faith, and ended the decade by putting together and recording with Traveling Wilburys, a group featuring George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. Unexpectedly, he also experienced another mainstream renaissance a decade later thanks to a string of three studio albums: 1997's multiple Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind, 2001's Love and Theft and 2006's No. 1 Modern Times.
He's kept a high profile since, in part because he and his band continue to bring their (appropriately) freewheeling live road show across the country for months on end. In recent years, Dylan's also fulfilled a long-standing dream by releasing a pair of standards albums (2015's Shadows In The Night, 2016's Fallen Angels) featuring an abundance of tunes popularized by Frank Sinatra. Both work beautifully, of course, and serve as a reminder that underestimating Bob Dylan—or his seemingly incongruous detours—has never been a smart bet.