Bob Dylan has been one of the most influential and controversial figures in contemporary American culture. In 1999, he was included in Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of the Century. How does a 19-year-old midwestern college dropout rise to iconic proportions as a musician, poet, and the voice for an entire generation in less than a decade?
In this article, I will explore the early influences in Dylan's life from a psychological perspective. I will also examine the impact that the social injustices and political unrest of the 1960s had on him and his music, and the overwhelming impact that he had on society as a result.
Influences in Childhood & Adolescence
Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota. When his father was stricken with polio, the family moved to nearby Hibbing, sometimes refered to as the coldest place in the United States, where he spent the rest of his childhood and high school years. His parents, Abram Zimmerman and Beatrice Stone, were part of the area's small but close-knit Jewish community. Dylan received religious and moral training from his local Rabbi as prescribed in the Jewish faith. His father was described by one of Bob's childhood friends as strict and unwelcoming, and his mother was remembered as warm and friendly. (Gill, 2004)
Bob spent much of his youth listening to the radio, first to the blues and country stations and later to early rock and roll. He started writing poems at 8 years old, and was playing the piano and writing songs by the age of 10. In his childhood years, he was most influenced by Hank Williams. By age 15, his father had bought him his first electric guitar, and he started a series of rock and roll cover bands with friends.
When asked in an interview about growing up in Hibbing, he replied, "We had 3 policemen, you couldn't be bad, you would be dead, it was a tough town." (Dylan, 1962)In a short autobiography called My Life in a Stolen Moment, he wrote,
You can stand at one end of Hibbing's main drag an' see clear past the city limits on the other end. Hibbing's a good ol' town...I ran away from it when I was 10, 12, 13, 15, 15 ½, 17 an' 18. I been caught an' brought back all but once. (Dylan, 1963)
Very little is written about Dylan's childhood and he rarely spoke publicly of it or his family. He grew up in a close-knit community that instilled solid morals and family values. He appears to have developed an ambivalent attachment style with his parents, and this ambivalence is evident throughout
Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages of development are a very accurate indicator of intrinsic motivators throughout human development. Dylan's search for self-identity during his teenage years is evidence of this, and for him, this stage lasted well into his early adulthood.
Influences in Early Adulthood
In 1959, Dylan entered the University of Minnesota and began performing at local clubs. He flunked out for non-participation in a science class, ("refusin' to see a rabbit die" in his words) and for cutting classes to frequent the local coffeehouses. A friend gave him a book that would change his life. Written by folksinger, Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory was an autobiographical account of his philosophy, his travels, and the social injustices he saw everywhere he went, and Dylan soaked up every word as if it was gospel. After listening to Guthrie's music, he traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic. In the sleeve notes to his album Biograph, Dylan explained the attraction folk music exerted:
"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." (1985)
In January 1961, he moved to New York and performed in Greenwich Village folk clubs for a dollar & a cheeseburger. He changed his name to Robert Dylan, and spent much time with his mentor, Woody Guthrie. who was then dying in a New Jersey hospital. Dylan would later say of Guthrie's work, "You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live." (Paramount, 2005)
From a developmental perspective, Dylan appears to have spent little time focused on intimacy issues commonly associated with his age, perhaps because of his ambivalent attachment style. I think he moved very quickly in young adulthood into the task described by Erikson as generativity vs. stagnation. Dylan worked day and night throughout his early adulthood, and was constantly reinventing himself, both philosophically and musically.
By 1962, Dylan was living with his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, who was raised a left-winged, politically active family, and was remarkably well-read and politically sophisticated for her age. She opened Bob's eyes to many of the social injustices and the fight for civil rights and equality. Dylan's began to write more topical pieces, often taking the story from real life injustices. He incorporated philosophy, social issues, political commentary, and whitty humor into his music, defying existing popular music conventions, and appealing widely to the rising counterculture. Dylan was emerging as a dominant figure of the so-called "new folk movement" centered in Greenwich Village.
During this time period, major events were changing the face of America. The Civil rights movement was gaining momentum, the Cuban Missile Crisis was on everyone's mind, and television was becoming a standard fixture in homes all across the country. More and more images of poverty, predjudice and war were making their way into American living rooms. The The Baby Boomers, the first generation of children that grew up with television, were coming of age as a more socially conscious generation, and were banding together to promote liberation and change.
From a cognitive-social perspective, Dylan's life experiences and observations defined his personal values and beliefs. Dylan unwittingly became a reluctantspokesman for American youth, often to his regret. A number of his songs, such as Blowin'in the Wind and The Times They Are a'Changin' became anthems of the anti-war and civil rights movements. For his most famous song of the time,Blowin'in the Wind, he took the base melody from the traditional slave folk song,No More Auction Block, and added lyrics that questioned social and political injustices.
By 1963, Dylan and his friend, Joan Baez, were both prominent in the civil rights movement, singing together at rallies including the March on Washington. He was on the stage when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech.By the end of 1963, Dylan felt both overly-defined and exploited by the protest movements. Despite his reputation as a "protest singer", he was never interested in politics, and his peers were frustrated with his apparent indifference. It Ain't Me Babe, which appears to be a song about rejected love, was actually his rejection of the role his reputation and fans had thrown on him.
Dylan began to move his music in a different direction. The historic meeting between Dylan and The Beatles took place in August of 1964, in The Beatles' New York hotel during their first U.S. tour. The Beatles were as profoundly impressed by Dylan as he was by them. They shared insights and ideas. The Beatles began to take their music in a direction that explored social issues, and Bob explored all of their musically creative energy. In the latter half of 1964 and 1965, Dylan's appearance and musical style changed quickly, as he made his move from contemporary song-writer of the folk scene to rock music star. Dylan's mid-'60s trilogy of albums is recognized as one of the greatest musical and cultural achievements of the 20th century.
In1966, Dylan was in a motorcycle accident that caused him to take a hard look at his life and his mortality. Though the extent of his injuries was never disclosed, the crash offered Dylan the chance to escape from the pressures of his far too public life and take a much-needed break. He withdrew from the public eye for 18 months. He had always seen his music as a way to bring social issues to the forefront. But he was a poet and a songwriter first, and never wanted to be in the political spotlight. He commented once in an interview, "Being noticed can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot." (Dylan, 1965)
In 1970, Dylan was awarded an honorary doctorate by Princeton University; He has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. In April of 2008, Dylan was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for his "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." (Pulitzer) He is the first rock musical artist to win this prestigious honor.
Conclusion & Summary
Many factors went in to the molding of Bob Dylan in the 1960s, but I believe that the humanistic theories of personality best describe the primary motivators in his live. It is no coincidence that the humanistic approach also emerged in the 1960s. In a time when traditional values were being questioned, people were seeking ways to be true to themselves and their personal beliefs. Dylan's songwriting has been driven by his need to express his true self, and he was forever in conflict with industry expectations that would divert him from his own beliefs and his search for the meaning of life. According to humanist R. Baumeister, "The search for meaning becomes more pronounced during periods of rapid social change, when a culture's values and worldview are breaking down." (1991)
Over the years, Bob Dylan's music has earned him Grammies, Golden Globes, and Academy Awards. Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Bruce Springsteen made the induction speech, declaring: "Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body. He showed us that just because music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual." (1988) Dylan has been awarded countless honors over the year, including a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1991 Grammies.
In closing, I would like to leave you with a quote from Dylan that sums it all up...
"When you feel in your gut what you are and then dynamically pursue it - don't back down and don't give up - then you're going to mystify a lot of folks."
· For further reading, Check out the excellent references that I used in this article...
Gill, Andy (2004). A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks, 99. DaCapo Press
Dylan, Bob (1962) Radio interview w/ Cynthia Gooding, Folksinger's Choice, WBAI
Dylan, Bob (1963) My Life in a Stolen Moment, Columbia Records
Dylan, Bob (1985) Biograph (album) Liner notes & text by Cameron Crowe
Paramount Pictures, No Direction Home, Directed by Martin Scorsese, Released July 21. 2005
Dylan, Bob (1965) Quotes retrieved from IMDb database (Internet Movie Database)
The Pulitzer Prize Winners: Special Citation, (April 7, 2008) Retrieved from Pulitzer.org
Baumeister, R. (1991) Meanings of Life, New York: Guilford Press
Springsteen, Bruce (1988), The Columbia World of Quotations.
Retrieved from Bartleby.com