Photo: Alberto Cabello from Vitoria Gasteiz / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
Born: May 24, 1941
Age: 78 years
Born Place:Duluth, Minnesota, United States
Spouse(s): Sara Dylan (m. 1965; div. 1977) || Carolyn Dennis (m. 1986; div. 1992)
Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman; May 24, 1941) is an American singer-songwriter, author, and visual artist who has been a major figure in popular culture for more than 50 years. Much of his most celebrated work dates from the 1960s, when songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963) and “The Times They Are a-Changin'” (1964) became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements. His lyrics during this period incorporated a range of political, social, philosophical, and literary influences, defied pop music conventions and appealed to the burgeoning counterculture.
Following his self-titled debut album in 1962, which mainly comprised traditional folk songs, Dylan made his breakthrough as a songwriter with the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan the following year. The album featured “Blowin’ in the Wind” and the thematically complex “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. For many of these songs, he adapted the tunes and phraseology of older folk songs. He went on to release the politically charged The Times They Are a-Changin’ and the more lyrically abstract and introspective Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964. In 1965 and 1966, Dylan drew controversy when he adopted electrically amplified rock instrumentation, and in the space of 15 months recorded three of the most important and influential rock albums of the 1960s: Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966). Commenting on the six-minute single “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), Rolling Stone wrote: “No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time.”
In July 1966, Dylan withdrew from touring after a motorcycle accident. During this period, he recorded a large body of songs with members of the Band, who had previously backed him on tour. These recordings were released as the collaborative album The Basement Tapes in 1975. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dylan explored country music and rural themes in John Wesley Harding (1967), Nashville Skyline (1969), and New Morning (1970). In 1975, he released Blood on the Tracks, which many saw as a return to form. In the late 1970s, he became a born-again Christian and released a series of albums of contemporary gospel music before returning to his more familiar rock-based idiom in the early 1980s. Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind marked the beginning of a renaissance for his career. He has released five critically acclaimed albums of original material since then, the most recent being Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). He also recorded a series of three albums in the 2010s comprising versions of traditional American standards, especially songs recorded by Frank Sinatra. Backed by a changing lineup of musicians, he has toured steadily since the late 1980s on what has been dubbed the Never Ending Tour.
Since 1994, Dylan has published eight books of drawings and paintings, and his work has been exhibited in major art galleries. He has sold more than 100 million records, making him one of the best-selling music artists of all time. He has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, ten Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award. Dylan has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Pulitzer Prize Board in 2008 awarded him a special citation for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”. In 2016, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman (Hebrew: שבתאי זיסל בן אברהם Shabtai Zisl ben Avraham) in St. Mary’s Hospital on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, on the Mesabi Range west of Lake Superior. Dylan’s paternal grandparents, Anna Kirghiz and Zigman Zimmerman, emigrated from Odessa in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) to the United States following the anti-Semitic pogroms of 1905. His maternal grandparents, Florence and Ben Stone, were Lithuanian Jews who arrived in the United States in 1902. In his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan wrote that his paternal grandmother’s family originated from the Kağızman district of Kars Province in northeastern Turkey.
Dylan’s father Abram Zimmerman and mother Beatrice “Beatty” Stone were part of a small, close-knit Jewish community. They lived in Duluth until Dylan was six, when his father contracted polio and the family returned to his mother’s hometown, Hibbing, where they lived for the rest of Dylan’s childhood, and his father and paternal uncles ran a furniture and appliances store. In his early years he listened to the radio—first to blues and country stations from Shreveport, Louisiana, and later, when he was a teenager, to rock and roll.
Dylan formed several bands while attending Hibbing High School. In the Golden Chords, he performed covers of songs by Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Their performance of Danny & the Juniors’ “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” at their high school talent show was so loud that the principal cut the microphone. In 1959, Dylan’s high school yearbook carried the caption “Robert Zimmerman: to join ‘Little Richard’.” That year, as Elston Gunnn, he performed two dates with Bobby Vee, playing piano and clapping. In September 1959, Dylan moved to Minneapolis and enrolled at the University of Minnesota. His focus on rock and roll gave way to American folk music, as he explained in a 1985 interview:
The thing about rock’n’roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough… There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms… but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.
Living at the Jewish-centric fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu house, Dylan began to perform at the Ten O’Clock Scholar, a coffeehouse a few blocks from campus, and became involved in the Dinkytown folk music circuit. During this period, he began introducing himself as “Bob Dylan.” In his memoir, he said he had considered adopting the surname Dillon before he unexpectedly saw poems by Dylan Thomas, and decided upon that less common variant. Explaining his change of name in a 2004 interview, he said, “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
Dylan’s first serious relationship was with artist Suze Rotolo, a daughter of American Communist Party radicals. According to Dylan, “She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen… The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves. We started talking and my head started to spin.” Rotolo was photographed arm-in-arm with Dylan on the cover of his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Critics have connected Rotolo to some of Dylan’s early love songs, including “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.” The relationship ended in 1964. In 2008, Rotolo published a memoir about her life in Greenwich Village and relationship with Dylan in the 1960s, A Freewheelin’ Time.
When Joan Baez first met Dylan in April 1961, she had already released her first album and was acclaimed as the “Queen of Folk”. On hearing Dylan perform his song “With God on Our Side”, Baez later said, “I never thought anything so powerful could come out of that little toad.” In July 1963, Baez invited Dylan to join her on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, setting the scene for similar duets over the next two years. By the time of Dylan’s 1965 tour of the U.K, their romantic relationship had begun to fizzle out, as captured in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary film Don’t Look Back. Baez later toured with Dylan as a performer on his Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975–76, and sang four songs with him on the live album of the tour, Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue. Baez appeared with Dylan in the one-hour TV special Hard Rain, filmed at Fort Collins, Colorado, in May 1976. Baez also starred as “The Woman In White” in the film Renaldo and Clara (1978), directed by Dylan and filmed during the Rolling Thunder Revue. They performed together at the Peace Sunday anti-nuclear concert in 1982. Dylan and Baez toured together again in 1984 with Carlos Santana.
Baez recalled her relationship with Dylan in Martin Scorsese’s documentary film No Direction Home (2005). Baez wrote about Dylan in two autobiographies—admiringly in Daybreak (1968), and less admiringly in And A Voice to Sing With (1987). Baez’s relationship with Dylan is the subject of her song “Diamonds & Rust”, which has been described as “an acute portrait” of Dylan.
Dylan married Sara Lownds, who had worked as a model and a secretary at Drew Associates, on November 22, 1965. Their first child, Jesse Byron Dylan, was born on January 6, 1966, and they had three more children: Anna Lea (born July 11, 1967), Samuel Isaac Abram (born July 30, 1968), and Jakob Luke (born December 9, 1969). Dylan also adopted Sara’s daughter from a prior marriage, Maria Lownds (later Dylan, born October 21, 1961). Sara Dylan played the role of Clara in Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clara (1978). Bob and Sara Dylan were divorced on June 29, 1977.
Maria married musician Peter Himmelman in 1988. Jakob became well known as the lead singer of the band the Wallflowers in the 1990s. Jesse is a film director and business executive.
Dylan married his backup singer Carolyn Dennis (often professionally known as Carol Dennis) on June 4, 1986. Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan, their daughter, was born on January 31, 1986. The couple divorced in October 1992. Their marriage and child remained a closely guarded secret until the publication of Howard Sounes’ biography Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, in 2001.
When not touring, Dylan is believed to live primarily in Point Dume, a promontory on the coast of Malibu, California, though he also owns property around the world.
Growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan and his family were part of the area’s small, close-knit Jewish community and in May 1954 Dylan had his Bar Mitzvah. Around the time of his 30th birthday, in 1971, Dylan visited Israel, and also met Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the New York-based Jewish Defense League.
During the late 1970s, Dylan converted to Christianity. In November 1978, guided by his friend Mary Alice Artes, Dylan made contact with the Vineyard School of Discipleship. Vineyard Pastor Kenn Gulliksen has recalled: “Larry Myers and Paul Emond went over to Bob’s house and ministered to him. He responded by saying, ‘Yes he did in fact want Christ in his life.’ And he prayed that day and received the Lord.” From January to March 1979, Dylan attended the Vineyard Bible study classes in Reseda, California.
By 1984, Dylan was distancing himself from the “born again” label. He told Kurt Loder of Rolling Stone magazine: “I’ve never said I’m born again. That’s just a media term. I don’t think I’ve been an agnostic. I’ve always thought there’s a superior power, that this is not the real world and that there’s a world to come.”
In 1997, he told David Gates of Newsweek:
Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light”—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.
In an interview published in The New York Times on September 28, 1997, journalist Jon Pareles reported that “Dylan says he now subscribes to no organized religion.”
Dylan has supported the Chabad Lubavitch movement, and has privately participated in Jewish religious events, including the Bar Mitzvahs of his sons and attending Hadar Hatorah, a Chabad Lubavitch yeshiva. In September 1989 and September 1991, he appeared on the Chabad telethon. On Yom Kippur in 2007 he attended Congregation Beth Tefillah, in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was called to the Torah for the sixth aliyah.
Dylan has continued to perform songs from his gospel albums in concert, occasionally covering traditional religious songs. He has also made passing references to his religious faith—such as in a 2004 interview with 60 Minutes, when he told Ed Bradley that “the only person you have to think twice about lying to is either yourself or to God.” He also explained his constant touring schedule as part of a bargain he made a long time ago with the “chief commander—in this earth and in the world we can’t see.”
In a 2009 interview with Bill Flanagan promoting Dylan’s Christmas LP, Christmas in the Heart, Flanagan commented on the “heroic performance” Dylan gave of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and that he “delivered the song like a true believer”. Dylan replied: “Well, I am a true believer.”
- Bob Dylan (1962)
- The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
- The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964)
- Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
- Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
- Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
- Blonde on Blonde (1966)
- John Wesley Harding (1967)
- Nashville Skyline (1969)
- Self Portrait (1970)
- New Morning (1970)
- Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
- Dylan (1973)
- Planet Waves (1974)
- Blood on the Tracks (1975)
- The Basement Tapes (1975)
- Desire (1976)
- Street Legal (1978)
- Slow Train Coming (1979)
- Saved (1980)
- Shot of Love (1981)
- Infidels (1983)
- Empire Burlesque (1985)
- Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
- Down in the Groove (1988)
- Oh Mercy (1989)
- Under the Red Sky (1990)
- Good as I Been to You (1992)
- World Gone Wrong (1993)
- Time Out of Mind (1997)
- “Love and Theft” (2001)
- Modern Times (2006)
- Together Through Life (2009)
- Christmas in the Heart (2009)
- Tempest (2012)
- Shadows in the Night (2015)
- Fallen Angels (2016)
- Triplicate (2017)
- Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)