Born into a family of Jewish shopkeepers in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941, Robert Allen Zimmerman was destined through his music to play an important role in the course of American history. While Robert Zimmerman is not a household word, his professional name, Bob Dylan, surely is. To review Dylan’s poetry/music chronologically is to follow his generation’s reaction against shallow materialism and its desperate race to discover joy. It is also to chart one man’s quest for meaning in life.

Dylan grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, a small, iron-mining town, in a period when individualism was subordinated to “the group.” Early influences on his thought were the Old Testament’s concern for the oppressed, John Steinbeck’s novels, and the songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, “folk singers” whose message songs denounced American materialism and dramatized the plight of the poor—the inequitable distribution of abundant national resources. Dylan left Hibbing in 1959 to attend the University of Minnesota. Apparently it was not a happy time, and more and more he began to write poems and to sing. Shortly before Christmas 1960, 21-year-old Dylan fled the Midwest and “like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles A. Lindbergh, young Minnesotans of an earlier era, Dylan was off to seek a place in the pantheon of American heroes.”

He went to New York City, and in Greenwich Village developed a style lacking the polish and calculation of such big-name folk performers as Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio. Robert Shelton, a New York Times music editor, first heard him in September 1961 at a Greenwich Village club and predicted he would become “America’s greatest troubadour if he doesn’t explode.” In the beginning, he often sang traditional folk ...

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