The essence of true genius is in the ability to see that which is there, but not visible to others, and then bring that vision into focus for those willing to look.
In the broad study of American popular music, only a small handful of names might fall into the category of pivotal; that is, they were so significant that a complete adjustment of history took place based on their efforts. 19th century musicians like Foster, Joplin, and Sousa, jazz greats like Ellington, Armstrong, and Parker were pivotal. So were others like Jimmie Rodgers, George M. Cohan, Bing Crosby, Chet Atkins, W.C. Handy, Woody Guthrie, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry. These individuals made contributions in the areas of music, technology, or performance technique so important that a new path was created for others to follow.
However, no individual in the history of music, Guthrie not withstanding, has had an impact on song lyrics as has modern day legend, Bob Dylan. Perhaps no other individual, other than Presley, is more worthy of the title “rock icon” than the idiosyncratic, enigmatic, brooding, distinctive, and completely original Bob Dylan.
Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in the iron-mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota in 1941. Growing up in blue collar, Jewish-Russian roots, Zimmerman began writing poetry at age ten and learned to play guitar and piano in his early teens. While in high school he joined a rock band, emulated early rock pioneers like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and wrote in his high school year book that his goal was “to join Little Richard.”
Following high school he moved to Minneapolis and enrolled in the University of Minnesota. Zimmerman’s love of music was greater than his dedication to classes, however, and as a result, he did poorly in his one year there. What he missed in classroom education was more than compensated by the broadening of his musical exposure and experience.
While in Minneapolis, he was exposed to the sounds of the roots of rock: country, blues and folk music. In the music of Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, and Woody Guthrie, Zimmerman (who had by now changed his name to Bob Dillon or Dylan, depending on what stories you believe) found the intensity of feeling and depth of lyrics that were lacking in early rock songs such as “Tutti Fruiti” and “Jailhouse Rock.” In the coffee houses around Minneapolis, Dylan began performing a variety of blues and folk songs interspersed with some original material
In 1960, Bob Dylan (the spelling was supposedly patterned after the Welch poet, Dylan Thomas, although Dylan himself denies the story) moved to New York with two goals in mind: to establish himself as a performer in Greenwich Village and to meet Woody Guthrie before he died. Guthrie was confined to a New Jersey hospital by this point and, although he would not pass away for another seven years, many thought his death was imminent.
Dylan did meet his idol, and on several occasions even performed for him in the hospital. In Greenwich Village Dylan found the perfect environment for his creative juices and the appropriate venues for his performing.
Dylan performs “Blowin’ in the Wind'” 1963