On This Day In Music History: Bob Dylan

Today is Bob Dylan’s birthday.

He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, the first born son of Abe and Beatty Zimmerman, on Saturday, May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota. (The family moved to Hibbing in 1946.) He became Bob Dillon in 1958 while a junior in high school and legally changed his name to Bob Dylan in 1962. He went on to become “the most prolific and influential singer/songwriter in the history of music.” (Bob Dylan Complete Discography 2006 by Brain Hinton)

In the vast ocean of all that has been said and written about Bob Dylan, including all that he has said and written about himself, it seems to me that the most important thing is his songs, all of those songs

So, what is your favorite Bob Dylan song?

I pose this question knowing that you might not like, maybe even can’t stand, Bob Dylan. But given that he is the most “covered” songwriter of all time, there’s a pretty good chance that you like, maybe even love, one of his songs. (For example: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as done by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, “My Back Pages” as done by the Byrds, “I Shall Be Released” as done by the Band, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” as done by Nina Simone, “Just Like A Woman” as done by Richie Havens… hmm… I think I have an idea for another blogpost!)

My initial response to the question is one of those question-to-answer-the-question answers: how can you pick just one?

My serious answer is: “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

I love this song. I’ve been playing it for many years, performed it dozens of times. At first, I played it capoed up around the fifth fret, fingering in the key of C and using Cotten-style fingerpicking patterns. Then I saw the Murray Lerner documentary film Festival about the 1963-65 Newport Folk Festivals and there was Bob playing the song, doing Carter-style strumming on a D major chord, capoed at the second fret and with a low bass note that signaled dropped-D tuning. From then on, that’s been the way for me.

I’ve never felt the need to play harmonica in the song. Just getting those words out there, those incredible, dazzling words, and letting that melody soar has been enough. (I’ve never understood why the Byrds only do the second verse in their electric version.) It’s one of those songs that I feel from the bottom of my feet right on through my fingers and seemingly out the top of my head. I’ll be playing and singing this song as long as my fingers and my voice allow.

Bob liked the song, too. In No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (1986), Robert Shelton wrote: “In 1968, Dylan told Sing Out: ‘There was one thing I tried to do which wasn’t a good idea for me. I tried to write another ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ It’s the only song I tried to write ‘another one.’ I don’t do that anymore.’ ”

After trying to record it at two other sessions, Bob finally cut the version we know and love in the sixth take on January 15, 1965 at Columbia Records’ Studio A in New York City with Bruce Langhorne on second guitar.

“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free…”

What is your favorite Bob Dylan song?

Happy Birthday, Bob. All the best.

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4 Responses to On This Day In Music History: Bob Dylan

  1. Mine? Well, “All Along the Watchtower”… though not a song I prefer sung by Dylan (is that heresy?), I always liked it by Hendrix, but then Michael Hedges, a phenomenal technique guitarist really kicked with his version of this classic. You can see this on YouTube (like all else): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqGHE5GqZ44 and there are many other editions. None really show the dynamics. What I love about the song? The truth of the times. Bob captured it perfectly. Cheers,
    ~john

  2. Chuck Rhoades says:

    Lots of smiles from your Dylan article. I also like the Byrd’s cover of your favorite Dylan tune. My favorite? What a difficult question! I thnk I’ll have to listen to his music on this most appropriate day and see if I can decide.

    Thanks, Eric.

  3. Jonathan Gray says:

    I searched my music database, and I only have two songs that list Bob Dylan as an artist. First is “We are the world”, but I can’t really count that one and second is “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”. I like Rainy Day Women because it is so rough around the edges and shows you how music does not have to be smooth.

    Speaking of rough around the edges, I just got the new Creedence Clearwater Revival album. They’ve got a totally different sound now, but still great music.

  4. Tom Savage says:

    Interesting commentary, Eric. I didn’t know that the Byrds had used an abbreviated version, but then in 1965 radio play was tightly controlled and songs had fairly strict length limits.

    Dylan, for me, is one of those artists that grew on me over time. I know that I certainly didn’t appreciate him when I was young, though I was aware of how many artists were covering his work. But tastes change and mature as the hair changes color….

    My favorite? Hmmm. Has to be “The Times They Are A Changin'”

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