All Rights Reserved © 2001 Thomas W. Day
Screw politics. Screw business. Today, I have something to celebrate and you are stuck celebrating it with me. At least, until you escape this web page or delete the e-mail. Sixty years ago, today (May 24, 1941), Robert Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota. You probably know him as Bob Dylan and, mostly, so do I.
I suspect that most of you probably flinch when you think about Bob's grating, Okie-phrased voice. Maybe you weren't particularly fond of his neck-racked, panting harmonica solos. All those complaints are interesting, but they're your problem, not mine.
In 1963, when I was 15, I bought The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and my life changed. Up to that point, I wanted to be a jazz musician like my heroes Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Cannonball Adderly. When I first heard Bob's voice and Talkin' World War III Blues, A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, and the other 11 great songs on that record, I put away my trumpet for life. I'd been playing guitar and bass for a few years and, even, played in a band that did pop tunes, but I barely bothered to learn the words to the songs we performed. The words didn't matter, they were just random syllables that singers used to justify their existence. Dylan changed all that.
Dylan changed a lot of things. For one, if he could sell records with his Woody Guthrie-wannabe voice, a lot of us believed that anyone with something to say could give it a shot. For two, the music took a passenger seat to the song's story. For some of us, the music became a backseat driver because we had so many stories to tell and so little time to learn anything about music.
Dylan has been called the greatest song writer of the 20th Century. Really. If you're not familiar with Bob's incredible catalog of great music and incredible stories, you may not have any idea why someone would make this claim. If you aren't familiar with music from the 1950s and what had happened when the rock and roll started ruling the pop charts, you won't have the slightest idea how unique Dylan's breakthrough really was. Just when it looked like pop music was going to devolve into "yeah, yeah, yeah" and "I love you" drivel, Dylan's songs started appearing on their charts, mostly performed by other artists.
Dylan was the bridge between the 1950s beatniks and the 1960s hippies. How could a kid from rural northern Minnesota, where the next hippest guy from the area would be Garrison Keillor on public radio, arrive in New York City and have such an incredible effect? Talent. Pure, raw, undiluted talent. The kind of talent that makes other artists say, thirty-nine years later, "there was only one Shakespeare and there will only be one Bob Dylan." The kind of talent that moved U-2's Bono to say "It's like trying to talk about the pyramids. What do you do? You just stand back and . . . gape." More than forty albums, hundreds of songs that will be played and performed for decades after Dylan is dust, but not forgotten. Dylan has influenced musicians of all styles and all styles of music. Except for classical music, I doubt that there is a song written in the last three decades that wasn't, in some way, influenced by Bob Dylan. Even the Monty Python goons admitted having stolen ideas and style from Dylan.
Bits of Dylan's voice can be heard in nearly every popular singer from the last thirty years. The way Bob put together words can be found in novels, poetry, Time Magazine, and your local newspaper. Personally, every word I have written, everything I have said, every note I have played since 1963 has been influenced by Bob Dylan. His words and music are in my head when I'm on the road, when I'm walking in the woods, or when I'm trapped in my cubicle at work Americans marched to his songs during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests. Everyone with a cause, from ecology to human rights, has found a Dylan song for accompaniment. Everyone with a ache in their heart, due to love or politics or the human condition, can find a Dylan song for comfort. With more than 400 songs in his history, there isn't a style Dylan hasn't fit to his words or an emotion that he hasn't put to music. The world will never see another Bob Dylan.
Thanks, Bob. I wouldn't have made it this far without you.