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Friday, 18 May, 2001, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
The freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Dylan: the 60s figurehead now entering his own 60s
By BBC News Online's Alex Webb

In one of the most turbulent decades of the 20th century Bob Dylan seemed to speak for the conscience of the young.

There will be many who find it hard to believe that the grizzled and gaunt figure celebrating his sixtieth birthday on 24 May is the same man as the fresh-faced youth who took on the world with some rhymes and an acoustic guitar in 1962.

He was the first young singer who wrote serious lyrics about his own life and made them hits

Howard Sounes

But Dylan has not lost his hold on the public imagination - nor has he given up touring and singing from his huge, self-penned song catalogue.

Dylan biographer Howard Sounes told BBC News Online why he feels Bob Dylan still matters - and not only to his older fans.

"The fact is he's a superlative songwriter.

'Poetry'

"These are songs that are so memorable and true and funny and clever - and people quote them as figures of speech, like 'Money doesn't talk, it swears'.

"He writes songs that are as good as poetry or serious literature and you can't really say that of many other songwriters - he's pretty much alone."

Sounes dismisses the importance of nostalgia for his fans.

"If you go to a Bob Dylan concert these days you see people in their teens and early twenties - and to those younger people the 1960s are irrelevant, they're just social history."

Dylan's part of that social history begins in the Minnesota town of Hibbing, where his father ran a shop.

Counterculture

It was a middle-class Jewish background and the Zimmerman family's expectation was that Dylan would go to a university and into a profession.

Instead, young Robert's imagination was caught first by Country music and Rock 'n' Roll - and then by the counterculture figures of 1950s America.

Bob Dylan
Dylan signed to Columbia in 1962
"Like all teenagers he was easily influenced and he had heroes, as we all do, and he copied his heroes like Woody Guthrie or James Dean," explains Sounes.

"He copied these people and took what he found interesting, so he developed this kind of fake hobo persona which in retrospect seems kind of foolish and funny - but everyone goes through that."

It was the "fake hobo" who left the University of Minnesota, drifted across the country and visited the dying folk singer Woody Guthrie in hospital.

He began singing and playing in New York's Greenwich Village where a folk boom and an atmosphere of political radicalism made an ideal context for the heartfelt, radical poetry of his songs.

Classic songs

Spotted by New York Times critic Robert Shelton he was signed to Columbia Records by the great talent scout John Hammond.


He may not have broken a lot of ground since then, but that doesn't mean he's stopped writing good songs

Howard Sounes
After an indifferent debut album his second, 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, contained a host of classic songs and began a string of albums which utterly changed perceptions of the purpose and possibilities of pop music.

"The really great albums were The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan through to John Wesley Harding, and then again of course ten years later Blood On The tracks," says Sounes.

"He may not have broken a lot of ground since then, but that doesn't mean he's stopped writing good songs, it may just mean that we haven't been paying attention to him.

"An album like Time Out Of Mind from 1997 is certainly an album you could put beside Blood On The Tracks.

"Here he is writing about getting older, and having regrets in life but again the humour is there, and there are phrases that live in your memory."

'Misunderstood'

Widely perceived as a political songwriter in the 1960s, Dylan surprised many in 1979 with Slow Train Coming which announced his conversion to Christianity.

Sounes believes Dylan's political and moral stances have often been misunderstood.

"It's a misconception that he was ever really political, and even in the midst of the 1960s he wasn't someone who actually took part in protests.

"He's an artist in the tradition of the Beat writers and Rimbaud, an outsider - one of his quotes is, 'Politics is the instrument of the Devil'.

Bob Dylan
Dylan in 1996
"But he is a moralist and takes fundamental positions of right and wrong, and takes them very seriously - but that's something from the Bible and the way he was brought up."

Dylan's beliefs are still a talking point for his fans - and no easier to fathom then they ever were.

"I gather that he still believes in Jesus - I've interviewed people who have prayed with him before concerts," says Sounes.

"At the same time this is a man who owns a synagogue in Santa Monica - and I understand he goes to synagogues when he has time.

"So like most Americans he picks up bits and pieces as they suit him - he mixes and matches his religion."

Summing up such a long and creative career is not easy, but Sounes believes that, whatever his strengths as singer, showman or spokesman, Dylan's genius lies in the songs themselves.


He's an artist in the tradition of the Beat writers and Rimbaud, an outsider

Howard Sounes
"He was the first young singer who wrote serious lyrics about his own life and made them hits - and that's what liberated The Beatles and everyone else since.

"But as he says himself if he hadn't done it, it's inconceivable that someone else wouldn't have had the idea - it could have been The Beatles, it might have happened the next year.

"But he did do it first, and more importantly he went on to write 450 new songs which are exceptional and live in your heart."

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18 May 01 | Music
Music world to salute Dylan
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