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Is Bob Dylan The Best Songwriter To Have Ever Lived?

Some say he is a genius. Some say a prophet. And still, others say that hands down, he’s the best songwriter in history. One thing is for certain: Bob Dylan, throughout his career, has had the talent, insight, and musical acumen to change pop music into a means of lasting and effective communication.

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The Beginnings

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan spent his childhood and youth in the town of Hibbing. While attending the University of Minnesota, he began playing folk and country music under the name Bob Dylan. 

In 1960, Dylan dropped out of college after one year and relocated to New York City, where he began making a name for himself in folk music clubs and laid-back coffee shops. After receiving a positive review from The New York Times in the fall of 1961,  Columbia Records asked him to sign a recording contract.

His official first album, titled Bob Dylan and released in 1962, contained only two original songs that highlighted his distinctive sound and gravelly singing voice. With the release of his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Dylan found himself at the top of the music charts with the release of one of his most iconic folk songs, “Blowin’ In The Wind.” 

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The Inspiration

Although Dylan became famous for folk songs such as “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin,” much of his musical inspiration stemmed from a mix of country, blues, and rock and roll. Throughout his storied career, he explored – and some would say, mastered – a wide range of musical genres that included gospel, rock and roll, blues, and rockabilly. His changing musical and performance style would inspire some, and rile others.

On July 25, 1965, only days after the single “Like A Rolling Stone” (off of the album Highway 61) had been released, Dylan shocked the crowd when he played an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. Boos reverberated through the attendees as Dylan’s fans felt he had betrayed his folk background, and that he had sold out to a more stylized, popular version of music.

The album John Wesley Harding was released in 1967, followed by Nashville Skyline in 1969; by the early ’70s, Dylan’s musical career appeared to be on an unstoppable upward trajectory. The release of his Self Portrait album, and next came Blood On The Tracks in 1975. According to some music critics, Blood On The Tracks reigns as Dylan’s best album, owing to a collection of powerhouse songs, including “Tangled Up In Blue,”  “Simple Twist Of Fate,” “You’re A Big Girl Now,” Idiot Wind,” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”  The album Desire, released after Blood On The Tracks, mesmerized listeners with its inspired, eight-minute song, “Hurricane.” 

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The Legend

Many believe that Dylan is the single most significant American singer and songwriter of our time. His music library spans decades, and his song lyrics have left a lasting impression on both political and social movements throughout the civil rights era and beyond. During his career, he has performed with music legends of every genre, including Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, George Harrison, and Tom Petty. 

Dylan’s achievements include being honored with Grammy, Academy, and Golden Globe Awards; admittance to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; receiving a Nobel Prize in Literature, and accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

According to music superstar Bruce Springsteen. “[Dylan] did to the mind what Elvis did to the body. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and changed the face of rock and roll forever.”