It's the 70th birthday of Bob Dylan (books by this author), born Robert Zimmerman in 1941. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota, and grew up in nearby Hibbing, just off the road that ran all the way up from New Orleans and lent its name to his sixth album, 1965'sHighway 61 Revisited. He moved down to Minneapolis and studied art at the University of Minnesota, and though he'd started out his musical career with a rock 'n' roll band, he soon converted to folk, playing gigs at a coffeehouse, the 10 O'clock Scholar, in the Dinkytown neighborhood north of campus. Rock was catchy, but it wasn't deep enough to satisfy him, and he later said: "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." He left Dinkytown for New York and became the darling of Greenwich Village's folk community.
By the mid-1960s, he'd gone electric, forsaking folk and returning to his rock roots. It wasn't a popular move among his fans, and at a show in England they booed him and called him "Judas." He responded by cranking the amps even louder, never one to worry about a rapport with his audience.
His lyrics evolved too, from protest songs into more literary undertakings, influenced by Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and John Keats (to say nothing of Dylan Thomas, who inspired Zimmerman's name change). He's been called one of America's great contemporary poets, and his lyrics are studied in college poetry classes, stripped of the music. Boston University lecturer Kevin Barents directs students to consider the iambic and ballad meter on Dylan's album John Wesley Harding. Oxford professor Christopher Ricks puts him on a par with Milton, Keats, and Tennyson. He's been nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature every year since 1996. He wrote a volume of poetry and prose calledTarantula in 1966 (published in 1971), even though he had famously proclaimed himself "a song-and-dance man" in 1965, when asked outright if he was a songwriter or a poet; The New Yorker published two of his poems from that period in 2008. Perhaps it's best to draw the distinction where he did, in the liner notes for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan: "Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can't sing, I call a poem."
He's also kept up with his art, drawing and painting to fill the time when he's on the road. Some critics compare his style to Degas, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Matisse. Others say he is "spasmodically brilliant," and one art history professor said he "paints like any other amateur." The artist himself says, in his typically laconic style: "I just draw what's interesting to me and then I paint it. Rows of houses, orchard acres, lines of tree trunks, could be anything. I can turn it into a life and death drama."