Voice of conscience
> The classic folk and gospel songs of Bob Dylan, counterculture icon of the 60s, have rejuvenated US storytelling
BOB DYLAN, the surprise winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, 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 re-define US forms of storytelling.
Since early in his career, the 75-year-old has experimented with the intersection of the literary and the musical.
In the words of a New York Times reviewer, who saw the then 21-year-old perform solo at Town Hall theatre in 1963, “Mr Dylan’s words and melodies sparkle with the light of an inspired poet”.
One of his most celebrated songs, Mr Tambourine Man, features a literary character based on a drummer Dylan 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.
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.
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 career in which Dylan reflects on slavery through the story of the blues singer of the same name.
In 1965, Dylan also was behind a turning point in music when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, stunning the audience.
Despite his massive cultural influence, he has long won acclaim in spite of, rather than because of, his voice.
“Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog,” Dylan said last year in an unexpected career-spanning speech as he accepted a lifetime award at the Grammys.
His relationship with crowds borders on indifferent to hostile, with Dylan steadfastly refusing to please audiences by rolling out his hits.
He raised controversy again when he played in 1985 at the Live Aid concerts for Ethiopian famine relief and told the crowd that he wished “a little bit” of the money could go to American farmers struggling to pay their mortgages.
His quip inspired Farm Aid, a still-running US festival to raise money for farmers.
Dylan has remained active and tours regularly.
In 2012, he released an album full of dark tales of the American past called Tempest, raising speculation it would be his finale, in an echo of Shakespeare’s last play of the same name.
But Dylan has kept up his prolific output.
Earlier this year, he released his 37th studio album, his second in a row devoted to pop standards popularised by Frank Sinatra. – AFP-Relaxnews