Today is the 77th birthday of Robert Allen Zimmerman better known as Bob Dylan. It’s difficult to write a short composition about someone who has had such a profound effect on music and the world. It’s especially challenging when the subject is somebody who went from high school rebel to fraternity pledge to college dropout to folk icon to rock idol and along the way went from practicing Jew to Born Again Christian to Hassidic Jew. He has received acclaim for his paintings and sculptures but is now spending much of his time launching his “Heaven’s Door” line of vegan whiskey, bourbon, and rye.

In his 1959 Hibbing (MN) High School yearbook, Zimmerman wrote that his life goal was to “join Little Richard”. Within a year he had dropped out of University of Minnesota and was trying to make a living singing and playing harmonica. He was the opening act for a Smothers Brothers tour but was soon fired because the brothers and audiences hated Dylan’s obscure songs, and scruffy appearance.

The first recorded performance of Dylan was his harmonica playing on Harry Belafonte’s 1962 album, “Midnight Special”.  Columbia Records executive John H. Hammond who had discovered Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohan and eventually Bruce Springsteen, signed Dylan after hearing him play harmonica for folk singer Carolyn Hester. When Dylan’s self-titled debut album sold only 5,000 copies Columbia planned on parting ways with him. Dylan’s good friend Johnny Cash convinced Columbia to stick with the folk singer. The result was his breakthrough album “The Freewheelin Bob Dylan” which boasted a picture of the singer with his girlfriend Susan Rotolo, the inspiration for six of his songs including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” 

The meanings behind Dylan’s songs are mysteries. Unlike the Beatles who spoke freely about their songs and lyrics, Dylan enjoys keeping people guessing. This has led to thousands of college courses dissecting his songs and millions of opinions circulating on the Web. On the occasions that Dylan has commented on a song, he will more than likely contradict himself in his next interview, increasing the amount of speculation from Dylan watchers (Dylanologists).

He considers himself a storyteller with a guitar: “These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up…I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs…I met other singers who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour. …If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.”

Dylan never recorded a number one single however ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’ both reached number two.
Like a Rolling Stone
Dylan has never explained why he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” leaving a generation of musicologists to hypothesize. Some say it is about a girlfriend while others speculate it’s an attack on Andy Warhol. Or he could be damning the critics who wanted him to more openly espouse left wing causes. Dylanologists debate the identity of “Napoleon in rags”. Is he a drug dealer with his hand inside his coat, Napoleon- style, asking his customer “How does it feel”? Or was Dylan foretelling the me-too movement with “Napoleon in rags” representing the waning of male dominance?

Rainy Day Women #12&35 (Everybody Must Get Stoned)
This raucous song was recorded in one take and many believe that Dylan is chastising his critics for their incessant stoning of him. But maybe it is just a fun party song with Dylan giving it a weird title to keep Dylanologists speculating for a decade or five.  

Was Quinn Really an Eskimo? 
It’s rumored that Dylan loved Anthony Quinn’s portrayal of an Eskimo in the 1960 film, “The Savage Innocents” Then again, ‘Quinn” might be God returning for the final judgement. If you want to review excruciating ruminations about the meanings of this and other Dylan songs check out

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