Bob Dylan has one of the most recognizable voices in the world, but casual fans may not know his real name.
It’s not unusual for stars to have a stage name. But the Nobel Prize-winning songwriter’s choice of alias reveals a lot about his inspiration.
Today we’ll look at the story behind one of the world’s most iconic rock and folk singers.
The Story of Robert Allen Zimmerman
Bob Dylan’s real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman. Born in Duluth, Minnesota, he spent most of his childhood in nearby Hibbing after his father contracted polio. Young Robert found his love of music early by listening to blues, country, and rock on the radio.
He formed several bands in high school. In the Golden Chords, their high school talent show performance was so loud that the principal turned off the mic.
In college, he lost his taste for rock. Instead, he wanted to write serious music that explored deep feelings and real life. So Robert took up folk music and got involved in the Dinkytown circuit in Minneapolis. He also started going by Bob Dylan.
Dylan dropped out of college his first year and made his way to New York City. He wanted to visit his idol, Woody Guthrie, who was sick and in the hospital. While visiting Guthrie, he befriended Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. This chance encounter also led to him performing in local clubs in Greenwich Village, where he found influence in the beat scene.
His shows garnered a lot of attention, and by 1962 he’d scored his first record deal. The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, his second album, established him as a singer-songwriter to watch. Dylan wrote topical songs that questioned the status quo and explored social issues.
The musician’s songs became part of the culture of the civil rights movement and nuclear disarmament. But by his sixth album, Dylan returned to his rock and roll roots without letting go of social issues.
While the folk community was upset, he had great success with singles such as Like a Rolling Stone. By going electric, he was free to explore more genres. To this day, he continues to follow where his passion leads.
From the Muse: Many musicians have invited Dylan to join his talents with theirs. These are our favorite 7 Albums With Bob Dylan as a Guest!
Why Did Bob Dylan Change His Name?
Throughout his childhood, friends and family called him Robert. But the name didn’t ring right. Dylan experimented with Elston Gunn while performing in his hometown. It allowed him to become the character on stage.
His original plan was to go by Robert Allen when he moved to Minneapolis. But the first time someone asked his name, he instinctively replied, “Bob Dylan.” There’s a story that Dylan Thomas inspired the name, but the singer denies it. He even went as far as to say that the poet was only for people who weren’t satisfied in bed.
Bob Dylan has said that many people move away from their real name as they strike out independently. It’s a way of feeling more like themselves.
His new identity gave him the perfect disguise to become a thoughtful storyteller. He had the confidence to write songs that undeniably imprinted the culture of the 60s and 70s.
Bob Dylan’s Best-Known Songs
Once he changed his name to Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter wrote evocative stories and put them to music. He influenced some of the biggest names in rock and roll history and helped add heart to the genre. Whether or not you’re a fan, it’s hard to deny some of his most iconic songs.
Tangled Up in Blue
One of Dylan’s most famous songs, Tangled Up in Blue, is also his most personal. It explores the changes he faced in life, including his broken marriage. The lyrics explore the start and end of a turbulent romance. It’s a beautiful song that plays with time and different points of view.
It’s also structured like a sonnet, giving the tune a unique feel. The lyrics hop back and forth over the beat. It has amazing internal rhymes that offer a playful feel to a haunting song. The accosting backing band also refers to his early folk style, a sound inspired by listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
Dylan has played this song live nearly 2,000 times and frequently experiments with the lyrics and arrangement.
Like a Rolling Stone
Often cited as the best song of all time, this tune was revolutionary in its combination of musical styles. It also marked a turning point in Dylan’s career as he went electric. The brooding six-and-a-half-minute track broke pop conventions at a time when short and sweet dominated. And it still managed to chart for 12 weeks, peaking at No. 2.
The rock and roll sound helped elevate the star’s status, and it remains his most successful song. But the story it tells was born from exhaustion. Dylan had finished a long tour and was running on an empty tank. He said it felt like a ghost wrote the song. Like a Rolling Stone remains one of his favorite pieces of work.
His story describes a woman’s fall from high society to poverty. With nowhere to go, she was like a rolling stone, free but with no direction. It’s overstuffed with resentful lyrics and describes fantastical characters. Put simply, it’s perfect.
Blowin’ In the Wind
While it never saw the same success as some of his later work, this song helped define Dylan as the voice of his generation. While it only features a simple guitar part and Dylan’s signature gravelly voice, it evokes so much more.
The song poses a series of rhetorical questions related to good and evil and peace and war. According to Dylan, the answer to all the questions is blowin’ in the wind. You could interpret the vague answer in several ways, but the anti-war message rings clear.
This great tune will always remain associated with the anti-war and civil rights protests of the 60s. To this day, you can still hear it at various rallies.
Why Did Bob Dylan’s Voice Change?
Bob Dylan’s rough voice defines his early records, which gave them a quality that’s difficult to name. But he gave up cigarettes a few years into his prolific early start. Without the smoke clogging his pipes, he could sing with a smoother baritone.
You can hear the stark difference when you listen to his album Nashville Skyline. But this seemed to be a short-lived improvement. A few years later, the roughness starts to return after his divorce. Some fans speculate he may have started smoking again for a while.
But more recently, it sounds like the sand in his throat has transitioned to gravel. It’s possible that he’s lost muscle tone now due to age. That would also explain the thinner sound when he sings.
The Oscar-winning songwriter is in his 80s and has toured extensively for most of his life. If you ask us, it’s incredible that he can still sing at all.
From the Muse: Haven’t listened to Dylan for a while? Revisit Bob Dylan’s Desire Album If You’ve Forgotten His Genius.
What Is Bob Dylan Doing Now?
While he’s released 39 studio albums and countless other recordings, music isn’t the only thing that’s marked his career. His most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, came out in June 2020. Critics praised the new songs, and the record reached No. 1 on the UK Billboard charts. He’s the oldest artist ever to achieve this feat.
The prolific songwriter has published nine books of drawings and paintings. He’s also written a memoir and a book of critical essays on 66 songs by other artists. Additionally, he co-founded a distillery, Heaven’s Door Spirits. They make various styles of American whiskey.
Bob Dylan’s live schedule, unofficially called The Neverending Tour, has kept him busy consistently since the late 80s. He travels the world nonstop, an incredible feat for someone his age. There’s no sign of him clocking out anytime soon.
A Storyteller From the Start
Few musicians have done so much with what they have. While Dylan isn’t exactly known for his great vocals or his skill on the guitar, his ability to tell a story elevated his art form into something undeniable.
Bob Dylan is his real name now, no matter what his birth certificate says. With it, he helped inspire a generation to fight for what they believed in.