Amazing Vintage Photos Of Bob Dylan's Legendary Life And Career
By Steve P
The name Bob Dylan conjures up images of the 1960s and a legendary back catalog of music. Mind you, we don’t need to conjure: we’ve got an amazing selection of vintage pictures right here. From obscure details blowin’ in the wind, to Dylan’s fascinating personal and creative life that keep him forever young, here’s the electrifying lowdown on the timeless strummer, told through stunning photography.
Zimmerman into Dylan
Born Robert Zimmerman, he entered the world on May 24, 1941, growing up in the port city of Duluth, as well as Hibbing, Minnesota. Zimmerman changed his name in 1962, but why? “Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Marshall Matt Dillon of TV’s iconic western Gunsmoke, and Dillon Road in Hibbing have all been suggested as possible sources,” noted an article on the website of Marquette University Law School.
Simple Twist of Fate
By the early 1960s Dylan was performing in New York, coming into contact with musical heroes such as Woody Guthrie. He began drawing attention from critics and audiences, finding himself on the cusp of superstardom. It maybe wasn’t the life he’d envisaged as he performed in clubs during a tumultuous decade for the United States. Still, he turned into an icon.
Word of mouth
Dylan was approached by John Hammond of Columbia Records, who watched him accompany artists on the harmonica. In 1962 the future music legend signed his first record contract, releasing his debut self-titled album the same year. Was it a smash? Surprisingly, no. And one of the tracks was a cover: “Man of Constant Sorrow.” It would later be used in the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Second time’s the charm
In 1963 he released The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which put him on the map. It opens with one of his most familiar songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The first U.S. Top 40 entry for Dylan was 1965’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, but the former song remains special. He performed it to acclaim during a British TV play called Madhouse on Castle Street.
Dylan rose to prominence in a game-changing decade. The 1960s empowered young people and challenged authority. His own personal life reflected this; he entered into a relationship with fellow singer and activist Joan Baez. He’s always been associated with protest, though the long musical road of Dylan’s output has many forks, featuring a variety of genres along the way.
Ed Sullivan situation
In 1963 Dylan nearly joined the likes of The Beatles in performing his new sound on The Ed Sullivan Show. Unfortunately he spooked producers by selecting the satirical number “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” Its anti-conservative tone led to Dylan being asked to perform something else. He wasn’t down for that, and so his first appearance on national TV was canceled.
Pressed for material
The release of 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan also featured “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Another immediately identifiable track, it apparently featured an intriguing songwriting process. According to legend, he compiled its lyrics from the opening lines of other songs he had as works in progress. The content reflected his negative feelings about the state of the world, as read about in newspapers.
The “voice of his generation”
Dylan may have spelled doom and gloom for some listeners, but he still captured the public’s imagination like few other artists. In 2022, People magazine looked back on his life and said that this period “established Dylan as the voice of his generation”. His lyrics “resonated with listeners and understood Americans' concerns on political and social issues of the day.”
Album The Times They Are a-Changin’, with its classic title track, came out in 1964. Each decade seems to make use of this enduring hit, even in the 21st century. It received an unusual tribute in 2009 when it played over the opening credits of bleak graphic novel adaptation Watchmen. More recently a cover version of it accompanied trailers for The Crown from Netflix.
Things have changed
One hallmark of Dylan’s work is how much its nature changes. In 1964 he underwent a musical transition away from harmonicas and guitars and toward a more modern sound. He arguably wasn’t a pure folk artist anyway: Dylan enjoyed rock and roll music, so it was natural that he’d want to branch out. The resulting album was appropriately titled Another Side of Bob Dylan.
This release featured tracks such as “It Ain’t Me Babe”, which was reportedly inspired by his girlfriend Suze Rotolo. She had previously appeared on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The story goes that Dylan was looking for Rotolo in Italy and began writing the song there. Johnny Cash would go on to cover it with his partner June Carter.
Look out kid
In 1965 Dylan put out Bringing It All Back Home, a record which saw him embracing the use of electric instruments. This change in sound hit listeners with an amazing opening salvo: “Subterranean Homesick Blues” took the form of a long, poem-like delivery slash warning to future generations. The image of Dylan holding up cards during the music video is now an iconic one.
While Dylan’s work was well-received, some weren’t happy about him plugging in a guitar. At the Newport Folk Festival, he was actually booed by its attendees over his new electric inclinations. History writes that the thumbs-down from the crowd “grew loud enough nearly to drown out the sound of Dylan and his band”. It was a memorable moment: just not for the right reasons.
How does it feel?
The year 1965 was when Dylan released a track written while he was thinking about leaving the music business: “Like A Rolling Stone.” Feeling he lacked control over his own identity at the time, Dylan wound up releasing a song about what was going on in his mind. The rock stylings may have upset some of his hardcore fans, but the vibe proved a key moment in his career.
Such was the significance of 1965’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that it later broke the record for music manuscripts: in 2014 the handwritten lyrics changed hands for a tambourine-smashing $2 million. Dylan’s track is seen as a milestone in his career and is perhaps the most famous of his back catalog. Its 6-minutes-plus duration wasn’t exactly airtime-friendly, yet it captivated the globe.
Touring in England
Also in 1965 Dylan embarked on a tour of England, where he’d previously traveled to film the TV play Madhouse on Castle Street. Lasting a few weeks, the prosaically-titled Bob Dylan England Tour 1965 took the singer/songwriter to major cities across the country, including London, Liverpool, and Manchester. The 1967 documentary Dont ]sic] Look Back focuses on the trip.
Dylan met Sara Lownds in 1964 and they began a relationship; the following year they tied the knot. Their union continued for over a decade until divorce came in 1977. Later — between 1986 and 1992 — Dylan was married to singer Carolyn Dennis. He’s fathered six children, including The Wallflowers’ lead singer and musician Jakob. Another son, Jesse, works in the movie business as a director and producer.
Highway 61 Revisited from 1965 opened with “Like a Rolling Stone,” while epic closing track “Desolation Row” topped 11 minutes. The latter describes various characters in prosaic terms who live in the bleak title location. Dylan’s players include Cinderella, Romeo, Ophelia, Einstein — who at one point dresses like Robin Hood — and Casanova. According to Dylan, Desolation Row was somewhere in Mexico.
As the mid-1960s drew to a close, Dylan was touring America and Canada with musicians from band The Hawks providing back up. These individuals, including Robbie Robertson, went on to become simply “The Band”. Highly influential, they were together for over a quarter of a century in total. Robertson went on to work extensively with director Martin Scorsese, another collaborator of Dylan’s.
The album Blonde on Blonde came out in 1966. It included the song “Just Like a Woman” which attracted some criticism over what was seen as a problematic tone. Reportedly inspired in part by Dylan’s relationship with actress and model Edie Sedgwick, its dark and insulting lyrics offended some listeners, while others interpreted them as ironic.
Dylan released his penultimate album of the decade in 1967. John Wesley Harding took its title from a real-life Western outlaw. Interviewed by Cameron Crowe for the CD booklet of Biograph in 1985, Dylan stated he had “no idea what it was about, why it was even on the album” but named the record that to “call attention to it, make it something special”.
Crooning with Cash
He closed the 1960s with Nashville Skyline, an album that saw him take a detour into full-blown country music. It’s famous among fans for showcasing a more croon-oriented singing style. He also joined forces with Johnny Cash for the track “Girl from the North Country.” Ever the curveball-thrower, Dylan had seen out the decade in suitably diverse fashion.
Handle with care
One seismic event in his life could have taken him from the world prematurely, as the decade entered its second half. In 1966 Dylan crashed his motorcycle near his home in New York. He used the experience to slow down and “get out of the rat race”, as he later described in his autobiography. Touring wouldn’t happen for Dylan for almost another ten years.
Everybody wasn’t talking
By the time the so-called “Swinging Sixties” were over, Dylan had established himself as one of its most recognizable and popular voices. Other enduring songs from the past ten years included “Mr Tambourine Man” from 1965, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from 1967 and “Lay Lady Lay” from 1969; this last track nearly got used on the soundtrack for Midnight Cowboy, too.
Dylan heads West
The 1970s weren’t the greatest decade for Dylan by some accounts, though he certainly had his moments. The glorious “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was released as part of the movie soundtrack for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. In fact, Dylan created all the music for the Sam Peckinpah film and appeared as the character Alias. Reviews at the time were bad, though the film has since been reappraised.
Helping John and Yoko
Around the same time, Dylan demonstrated he’d lost none of his Sixties spirit. When John Lennon and Yoko Ono faced deportation from America over possession of cannabis, he protested the decision by writing a letter to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. This must surely be one of the most poetic communications the organization has ever received! Dylan clearly still had a keen sense of fighting injustice.
Return to form
Dylan didn’t have the best critical reception during the 1970s until the arrival of album Blood on the Tracks, when his talents became widely appreciated again. Believed to be autobiographical in nature — something the man himself denies — it features the tracks “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of”‘Shelter from the Storm”. Today the record is seen as a Dylan classic.
One of Dylan’s most famous protest songs — “Hurricane” — he co-wrote with Jacques Levy. It was composed to highlight the wrongful imprisonment of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who eventually spent two decades of his life behind bars, earning eventual release in 1985. A movie was released about him in 1999 starring Denzel Washington: Dylan and Levy’s recording featured on the soundtrack.
While Dylan doesn’t seem to have had much luck with movies, his songs have contributed to some memorable big-screen moments, not least the use of 1970’s “The Man In Me” in cult 1998 classic The Big Lebowski. Yet when the singer released the self-directed effort Renaldo and Clara in 1975 it kind of sank without trace. It probably wasn’t helped by having a running time of nearly four hours!
Heaven’s door opens
Dylan’s life took an arguably unexpected direction in the late 1970s: he became an Evangelical Christian. Dylan’s gospel phase lasted between 1979 and 1981. In 2017 newspaper The Independent noted that Dylan had already experienced the “religious ritual of a bar mitzvah when he was 13, and went to Jewish summer camps.” So, he had been far from an atheist initially. anyway.
Dylan took part in the recording of the charity single “We Are The World,” a track raising money for those affected by famine in Africa. Dylan also sang against restrictions in South Africa, lending his vocals to anti-apartheid release Sun City. His creative output was receiving mixed reviews, but he continued to campaign for social justice causes through music.
No tambourine required
In another eye-opening musical move, he appeared on a rap record: 1986’s “Street Rock” was part of the Kingdom Blow album by artist Kurtis Blow. The close-to-9-minute track treated the world to the sound of Dylan trying his hand at the poetry of the street. Whether he handled it better than his usual kind is open to debate.
Dylan in print
Dylan is regarded as a consummate wordsmith, so it makes sense that he wrote books as well as songs. Tarantula in 1971 was a collection of prose poems. In 2004 he released Chronicles: Volume One, a memoir where fans got the direct account of his life from the man himself. Music criticism book The Philosophy of Modern Song came out in 2022.
Ballad of an award-winning man
He’s also been the recipient of a fair few awards, as you might expect. Dylan’s reactions to these well-deserved trophies were far from standard. For example, when he collected a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991 his serious words — punctuated by an unnaturally long pause — left the audience puzzled. He talked about his parents, but didn’t thank anyone for the honor.
In general, Dylan’s list of awards is varied and impressive. Not only has he won ten Grammys across the decades, he was also inducted into the legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Further accolades were to come: he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. He even won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
It’s you babe
In 2000 Dylan received rare cinematic acclaim when he contributed the track “Things Have Changed” to the movie Wonder Boys. Some saw it as an important shift for Dylan. Director Curtis Hanson believed the film’s subject-matter, about a repressed artist, connected with Dylan. The song went on to win both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.
The Soy Bomb incident
Dylan is used to staging protests and drawing attention to various causes. But the performer himself was interrupted by a topless male protestor named Soy Bomb, who in 1998 broke away from his fellow backing dancers and exposed the poetry on his chest. At the time Dylan, who found himself sharing the spotlight with this anarchic figure, had been busy performing the track “Love Sick.”
Drink to his health
Despite giving up the demon drink in 1994 Dylan retains business interests involving whiskey. Taking its name from one of his most soulful hits, Heaven’s Door issues releases of the alcoholic rather than musical kind. Dylan provides artwork for the bottles and both his fans and admirers of whiskey in general do the rest. It’s described as a “new avenue” for the songwriter.
With so many classic artists deciding to sell their back catalogs for mega-money, it was probably only a matter of time before Dylan followed suit. In 2022 he passed his awe-inspiring collection of songs on to Sony Music Entertainment. Exact figures aren’t available, but reportedly the catalog went for as much as $200 million. Enough to keep that stone rolling for years to come!
Dylan’s music is still a major part of popular culture. When it isn’t in movies, it’s being played on vinyl turntables, or streamed for old and new generations alike. Looking back, for many fans Dylan strides across the latter half of the 20th century like a musical colossus: these vintage images give just a small insight into the remarkable life of this versatile and uniquely expressive artist.