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Young Bob Dylan: The Songwriter of the Century

There was something different about this singer-songwriter, who would prove highly influential on the music of the 60s


Bob Dylan, the folk-turned-rock singer, is critically acclaimed for his storytelling abilities and ingenious lyricism. Considered the greatest songwriter of all time by Rolling Stone, a young Bob Dylan played a crucial role in the evolution of music.

With major hits including “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Dylan has left his imprint on the world of rock. The musician had a catalog of over 600 written songs, which was recently purchased in 2022 by The Universal Music Publishing Group for an estimated $300 million.

Bob Dylan posing with guitar
Bob Dylan (1966) Bettmann / Contributor / Getty

But before Bob Dylan was the connoisseur of rock music, he was just a simple boy from Minnesota. Take a look at these must-see photos and learn about the thrilling life of young Bob Dylan.

Young Bob Dylan before fame

In 1941, Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, the son of Abram and Beatrice Zimmerman. When he was young, he taught himself the piano and guitar, and soon started playing in a series of rock and roll bands.

While attending the University of Minnesota, Zimmerman began performing at local cafés and decided while doing so to take the name of Bob Dylan. His college life didn’t last all that long, with Dylan dropping out in 1960, but this turn of events ended up working out well for the singer.

Bob Dylan playing guitar; young bob Dylan
Bob Dylan (1961) Sigmund Goode / Contributor / Getty

Dylan moved up to New York City to be near his folk singing hero, Woody Guthrie, who was in the hospital. Soon after, one of Dylan’s performances received great reviews from The New York Times, leading to his getting a contract with Columbia Records.

Young Bob Dylan releases his first album

In 1962, Dylan released his self-titled debut album, which featured only two originals from the singer accompanied by 11 covers. Unfortunately, the album didn’t sell very well upon its initial release, despite the positive response it garnered from critics. Not exactly a chart-topper, it only moved about 5,000 copies in its first year.

Man performing music; young bob Dylan
Bob Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas party in 1962 Brian Shuel / Contributor / Getty

His distinctive voice and clever songwriting skill nontheless allowed Dylan to continue releasing his work.  Despite the slow start, this debut laid the groundwork for the rest of Bob Dylan’s career.

Bob Dylan’s early career

Cover of Bob Dylan record
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover (1963) Blank Archives / Contributor / Getty

After the release of his first album, Dylan tried again with the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963. This record had hits like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which was covered by many artists after its original release. The tune was made a #2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 by Peter, Paul and Mary the same year.

Dylan’s work was quickly considered original in every sense of the word — whether it was his gravelly voice or his poetic lyrics, his music was nothing if not creative. His second album only proved that fact.

Cover of bob Dylan record; young bob Dylan
Cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” record (1965) Blank Archives / Contributor / Getty

In 1964, Dylan’s first fully original album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, was released. Through his next few albums, he started to transition from his folk-styled writing to a more pop and rock genre.

In 1965, his single “Like a Rolling Stone” was released on Highway 61 Revisited, which was a game-changer for Dylan’s career. The song skyrocketed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and it achieved critical success as well.

Bob Dylan playing the piano
Bob Dylan recording “Highway 61 Visited” record (1965) Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty

Highway 61 Revisited peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200 and remained on the chart for 47 weeks.

Early-career hiatus

The summer of 1966 was a tough time for Bob Dylan; in July he got into a terrible motorcycle accident. Dylan had supposedly broken his neck and gotten a concussion, but there was no accident report and no concrete evidence of what really happened.

Bob Dylan smiling
Bob Dylan (1966) Fiona Adams / Contributor / Getty

Dylan said in his book, Chronicles (2004), “I had been in a motorcycle accident, and I’d been hurt, but I recovered… Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me, and I was seeing everything through different glasses.” His vague description didn’t provide many answers to fans, but it does give a little insight into the reason for his break.

After the crash, Dylan removed himself from music and the public eye. He and his new wife, Sara Lownds, took the time to raise their family together. Dylan didn’t release music for about a year, but didn’t perform again until 1969.

Young Bob Dylan personal life

man and woman walking; young bob dylan
Bob Dylan and Sara Lownds (1969)Bettmann / Contributor / Getty

Bob Dylan took a trip down the aisle with Lownds in 1965. The two had four children together — Jakob, Sam, Anna and Jesse — and Dylan adopted Lownds’ daughter, Maria, from a previous marriage. Unfortunately, the couple divorced in 1977.

In 1986, Dylan married Carolyn Dennis, a one-time backup singer for the artist. The couple have a daughter, Desiree, together. Many have alluded that she was his “secret daughter,” but that rumor was seemingly cleared up.

Carolyn said in an ABC News article, “Bob and I made a choice to keep our marriage a private matter for a simple reason — to give our daughter a normal childhood.”

Young Bob Dylan reinvented

Once Dylan reentered his musical era, the songs and albums he produced had a different sound and style than before. While he was previously writing folk-rock songs, Dylan transitioned over to more of a country-rock style. His releases within this new genre include 1967’s John Wesley Harding and 1969’s Nashville Skyline.

Man standing
Bob Dylan in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973) (MGM)

 By the 1970s, Dylan had decided to venture beyond singer/songwriter, trying some new things. He experimented with acting and scoring music for films, as well as writing. Dylan wrote the hit “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). The singer even acted in the film, playing the character Alias.

Religion takes the forefront

slow train coming record
Slow Train Coming RecordRobert Alexander / Contributor / Getty

After Dylan’s 1978 tour and his divorce from Sara Lownds, he declared that he was a born-again Christian and began releasing Christian themed albums — Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love. This shift confused fans, and the albums received mixed reviews from them and critics alike. However, his single “Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming earned Dylan his first solo Grammy in 1980.

Bob Dylan honors

In 1982, the the Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted Dylan and, in 1988, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted him, the same year as his hero, Woody Guthrie.

Throughout his many years of singing and songwriting, Dylan has won 10 Grammy awards. He also won a Golden Globe for best original song in 2001.

Man wearing Medal of Honor and president
President Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Honor to Bob Dylan (2012) AFP / Stringer / Getty

In 2012, President Obama honored Dylan with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Four years later, he received a Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Bob Dylan now

His most recent albums are 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways and 2023’s Shadow Kingdom. Dylan is currently gearing up to set out on the Rough and Rowdy Ways Worldwide Tour, which kicks off in March 2024.

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