On this day in 1965, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan rocks the world of folk music when he performs at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island and abandons his acoustic guitar for a 1964 Fender Stratocaster. By going electric, Dylan eventually moved rock and folk music closer together. He also infused rock and roll, known then for its mostly lightweight lyrics, with a more intellectual, poetic sensibility.
Dylan sold tens of millions of albums, wrote more than 500 songs recorded by more than 2,000 artists, performed all over the world, and set the standard for lyric writing. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
Dylan grew up with the name Robert Allen Zimmerman, in the northeastern Minnesota mining town of Hibbing, where his father co-owned Zimmerman Furniture and Appliance Co. Taken with the music of Hank Williams, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Ray, he acquired his first guitar in 1955 at age 14 and later, as a high school student, played in a series of rock and roll bands.
In 1959, just before enrolling at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Dylan served a brief stint playing piano for rising pop star Bobby Vee. While attending college, he discovered the bohemian section of Minneapolis known as Dinkytown. Fascinated by Beat poetry and folksinger Woody Guthrie, he began performing folk music in coffeehouses, adopting the last name Dylan (after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas). Restless and determined to meet Guthrie, confined to a hospital in New Jersey, he relocated to the East Coast.
Dylan began a long series of performances at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village in the chill Winter of 1961, and was provided meals and shelter by a growing list of supporters. He quickly built a cult following, and earned a laudatory New York Times review by Robert Shelton, and talent scout–producer John Hammond investigated and quickly signed him to Columbia Records. There Dylan’s unkempt appearance and roots-oriented song material earned him the whispered nickname “Hammond’s Folly.” Despite this derision, Hammond’s instincts were generally spot-on, as he signed Bruce Springsteen in 1972, just one more artist on a long list including Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, George Benson and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Dylan’s eponymous first album was released in March 1962 to mixed reviews. Dylan’s second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” released May 1963, landed squarely on the hearts and ears of American youth. His singular voice and delivery became de rigueur, divided parents and children, won over folk purists and established him as part of the burgeoning counterculture. Moreover, his first major composition, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” served notice that this was no pedestrian recording artist.
Millions jumped on the bandwagon, and Dylan was perceived as a rangy, mysterious hero and he spawned imitators at coffeehouses and record labels everywhere. Rather than smooth out edges, however, by ’64-’65, Dylan indulged his now-infamous opposition-defiance disorder: he walked off the set of Sullivan, leaving nascent millions behind; he confounded audiences by playing his personal selections versus his “hits”; he had the temerity to go electric.
In June 1965, consorting with “hardened” rock musicians and in kinship with his sometime-muse the Byrds, Dylan recorded his most ascendant song yet, “Like a Rolling Stone.” At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan bravely showcased his electric sound, backed primarily by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. After an inappropriately short 15-minute set, Dylan left the stage to a hail of booing–mostly a response to the headliner’s unexpectedly abbreviated performance rather than to his electrification.
The rest would be hit or miss music history, as Dylan would record with various musicians and producers in various places, with various influences and uneven results. In 2007 he was awarded Dylan Spain’s Prince of Asturias Prize for the Arts in 2007; the jury called him a “living myth in the history of popular music and a light for a generation that dreamed of changing the world.” In 2008 the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded him a special citation for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture.” And most recently, in 2016 Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
And still, Dylan took it all with the same slouchy indolence that made him an unlikely smash nearly six decades ago. A rolling stone, indeed.