A wise man once said: "All I can ever be is me, whoever that is." And, after eight decades of being "whoever" he is, Bob Dylan has quite a lot to show for himself. The singer, songwriter and author turned 80 this week, ringing in not just birthday celebrations but a reminder of what it means to channel raw honesty into a story that speaks to millions. The waves of Dylan's "voice of a generation" continue to push, concede, and keep our 2021 consciousness just the slightest bit humbled. In honor of his eightieth, let's revisit some of Dylan's greatest hits.
From his protest anthems of the 60s, to his more innovative and transcendent explorations of the 90s, few artists have created such a vast and engaging body of work as Bob Dylan. From the beginning of his career, Dylan defied definition. Instead of adhering to a "purist" genre or style, Dylan explored his love of music in all its forms: he played what he wanted to play. The artist found his strength in fusing the folk of Woody Guthrie with the blues of Robert Johnson and adding the excitement of Little Richard to create something brand new.
Another of Dylan's immortalizing strengths is his lyrical prose. The artist received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 for his unique ability to prove that lyrics can go deeper than simple rhymes: they can become works of literature. His 1963 hit "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" from his album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan uses such lyricality to imbue a reckoning into the tune. In this song, Dylan doesn't shy away from the abysmal threat of the future, instead, he uses the seven minutes to tap into the American consciousness which fears the threat of nuclear war. Indeed, Dylan wrote the song amidst the turbulent instability of the early 60s, where chaos loomed and social unrest spilled into the streets. At the time, Dylan reported:
“Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song, but when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs, so I put all I could into this one.”
In other Dylan songs, the artist turns the harsh eye of reality to not just a looming future but the individuals around him. Widely considered his greatest song, "Like a Rolling Stone" from his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, exposes not just the elites, the snobbish, or the misguided. It investigates the listener, the neighbor, turning an unblinking eye to all of those by which he is surrounded. As this 2016 Rolling Stone magazine article puts it, "The world was changed by a cranky voice, a romantic spirit, somebody who cared enough about an unrequited love to write such a devastatingly caustic put-down." That is to say, a hit which reckons with the futility of everyday life became an anthem for a generation. There's got to be some kind of magic in that.
At 80, Dylan has set behind him a body of work that has forever impacted American cultural consciousness, and the practice of telling a story to which people will listen. And, for years to come, listen they will. Watch Dylan in a 1965 performance of "Like A Rolling Stone" below.