Bob Dylan’s Infamous Legacy
Author: Cameron Morrison
Emulated but never duplicated, Bob Dylan's influence on popular music is truly incalculable. As a songwriter, he pioneered several different schools of pop songwriting, from confessional singer/songwriter to winding, hallucinatory, stream-of-conscious narratives. As a vocalist, he broke down the notions that in order to perform, a singer had to have a conventionally good voice, thereby redefining the role of vocalist in popular music.
Bob Dylan began performing in coffeehouses, and his rough charisma won him a significant following. In April, he opened for John Lee Hooker at Gerde's Folk City. Five months later, Dylan performed another concert at the venue, which was reviewed positively by Robert Shelton in the New York Times. Columbia A&R man John Hammond sought out Dylan on the strength of the review, and signed the songwriter in the fall of 1961. Hammond produced Dylan's eponymous debut album (released in March 1962), a collection of folk and blues standards that boasted only two original songs.
Over the course of 1962, Bob Dylan began to write a large batch of original songs, many of which were political protest songs in the vein of his Greenwich contemporaries. These songs were showcased on his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Before its release, Freewheelin' went through several incarnations. Dylan had recorded a rock & roll single, "Mixed Up Confusion," at the end of 1962, but his manager, Albert Grossman, made sure the record was deleted because he wanted to present Dylan as an acoustic folky.
The permissive and unrestrictive Bob Dylan made a huge impact in the U.S. folk community, and many performers began covering songs from the album. Of these, the most significant were Peter, Paul & Mary, who made "Blowin' in the Wind" into a huge pop hit in the summer of 1963 and thereby made Bob Dylan into a recognizable household name. On the strength of Peter, Paul & Mary's cover and his opening gigs for popular folky Joan Baez, Freewheelin' became a hit in the fall of 1963, climbing to number 23 on the charts.
While Dylan’s 1969 album was a hit, spawning the Top Ten single "Lay Lady Lay," it was criticized in some quarters for uneven material. The mixed reception was the beginning of a full-blown backlash that arrived with the double-album Self Portrait. Released early in June of 1970, the album was a hodgepodge of covers, live tracks, re-interpretations, and new songs greeted with negative reviews from all quarters of the press. Bob Dylan followed the album quickly with New Morning, which was hailed as a comeback.
Bob Dylan's hugely successful 1974 Planet Waves world tour was the beginning of a comeback culminated by 1975's Blood on the Tracks. Largely inspired by the disintegration of his marriage, Blood on the Tracks was hailed as a return to form by critics and it became his second number one album.
At the conclusion of his 1978 tour, Bob Dylan announced that he was a born-again Christian, and he launched a series of Christian albums that following summer with Slow Train Coming. Though the reviews were mixed, the album was a success, peaking at number three and going platinum.
In 1988, Bob Dylan embarked on what became known as "The Never-Ending Tour" - a constant stream of shows that ran on and off into the late '90s. That same year, he released Down in the Groove, an album largely comprised of covers. The Never-Ending Tour received far stronger reviews than Down in the Groove, but 1989's Oh Mercy was his most acclaimed album since 1974's Blood on the Tracks. However, his 1990 follow-up, Under the Red Sky, was received poorly, especially when compared to the enthusiastic reception for the 1991 box set The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased), a collection of previously unreleased outtakes and rarities.
It was followed in 1993 by another folk album, World Gone Wrong, which won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. After the release of World Gone Wrong, Bob Dylan released a greatest-hits album and a live record. Dylan released Time Out of Mind, his first album of original material in seven years, in the fall of 1997. Time Out of Mind received his strongest reviews in years and unexpectedly debuted in the Top Ten.
Another album of original material, Love and Theft, followed in 2001. Soon after its release, Bob Dylan announced that he was making his own film, to star Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Val Kilmer, and many more. The accompanying soundtrack, Masked and Anonymous, was released in July 2003. Today, Dylan continues to define his legacy, proving that his tremendous talent, unwavering courage to be different, and extraordinary musical prowess will continue to challenge and change the face of the music industry for years to come.
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