Bob Dylan recorded his first four albums as a folk singer, becoming hugely influential more for his songwriting than his performances. He didn’t experience much commercial success, and he didn’t really seek it. But several of his songs, notably “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin'” became anthems for the anti-war and civil rights movements.
Then in 1965, not coincidentally as the Beatles were becoming an international sensation, Dylan showed up at the staid Newport Folk Festival and created an uproar of his own. You see, he played an electric guitar. Bob Dylan played an electric guitar! He was booed by the crowd, and only played three songs. But he was undeterred, and soon crowds accepted and approved the dramatic change.
In fact, Dylan never has been a huge commercial success, probably because he can’t sing a lick. Joyce Carol Oates described his voice as “frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing.” And she likes him. Many others have had hits with his songs, including “Mr. Tambourine Man” (The Byrds), “It Ain’t Me Babe” (The Turtles), “All Along the Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix), “Quinn the Eskimo” (Manfred Mann), and 375 different covers of “Blowing in the Wind.”
Dylan, like most artists who’ve enjoyed longevity, has experimented with many styles through his career. He’s ventured into gospel, jazz, Western swing, even rap. He converted to Christianity, and his music continued to reflect the changes of his life.
Bob Dylan has won Grammys and an Academy Award, been inducted into the Rock and Roll and the Songwriters Halls of Fame, and received the Kennedy Center Honors. His song “Like a Rolling Stone” was named number one in the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone. (I would have chosen “Tangled Up in Blue.”) And Dylan virtually invented the music video – here he is with his wonderfully playful “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: