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 songs, but two early compositions offered powerful suggestions of what was to come: the moving “Death of Emmett Till,” an anguished denunciation of a racial murder in Mississippi in 1955, and an antinuclear statement, “I Will Not Go Underground.” He was perfectly armed for the times in which he found himself.

A Brown University student expressed it well in the December 1965 New York Times Magazine: “We’re concerned with things like the threat of nuclear war, the civil-rights movement, and the spreading blight of dishonesty, conformism and hypocrisy in the U.S.… and Bob Dylan is the only American writer dealing with these subjects in a way that makes sense to us.”

Sounding like an inspired Jeremiah, Dylan early on pointed at man’s inhumanity to man and the disrespect Americans held for God’s creation. In perhaps his most famous and most recorded song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan cried out against racial prejudice, war, and hatred. He continued an antinuclear theme on the same album, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, with the remarkable song about nuclear disaster and human suffering: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

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In 1963 Dylan also made his major concert debut at New York’s Town Hall. America’s mood was clearly changing and questions were being raised that demanded and deserved answers. And Dylan was leading the way.

In early 1964, Dylan presented adynamic album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, containing some of his best and most biting criticism. The title cut from that album captured the youth mood precisely, and his satirical justification of war (“With God on Our Side”) anticipated the rise of the antiwar movement over Vietnam in a concise review of American history. This was an intense follow-up to his “Masters of War,” in which he denounced war profiteers who made money at the cost of young men’s lives. The lyrics conclude: “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do.” Judgments and punishment would follow, for “All the money you made / Will never buy back your soul.”

Without aspiring to lead, Dylan was in the vanguard of a developing counterculture. By the time we, his contemporaries, were discovering the politics of protest, he was moving musically and lyrically beyond us in new directions. Musically, he turned in 1965 to electric rock and roll, an abrupt change that almost single-handedly gave birth to “folk rock.” Lyrically, his work grappled with tough concepts like guilt and freedom. He still attacked the power structure in song-poems like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Maggie’s Farm,” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” but he spoke less to public issues, voicing instead a growing individual, private agony. Also to the fore came a developing preoccupation with religious imagery and themes.

In “Gates of Eden” (1965), Dylan contrasts life as it was meant to be (“There are no sins inside the Gates of Eden”) to the world as he saw it (“Sick … hungry … tired … torn”). In “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” he preached, castigating a shallow society’s games: “Human gods make everything from toy guns that spark / To flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark / Not much is really sacred.” Or, again in 1965, in retelling the Abraham-Isaac story, Abraham questions God, who replies: “You can do what you want, Abe, but / The next time you see me coming you’d better run.” Dylan’s theme rings clear and true: only through obedience to God can man achieve peace.

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A July 1966 motorcycle accident removed Dylan from the public eye for 18 months. That accident came just after President Lyndon Johnson’s manipulation of the U.S. Senate to secure the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, upon which he legitimized the great build-up of American forces in Vietnam. The number of American soldiers in Vietnam escalated into the hundreds of thousands, and the monetary cost shot up to $20 billion by 1967. American cities were aflame, and American colleges were beginning to explode in protest of the war.

When he surfaced again, it was as a Dylan with a heightened sense of his Jewishness. It was also a Dylan who repudiated drugs, a staple of the counterculture he had helped spawn. In 1968, returning to simple guitar and softer music, Dylan released his John Wesley Harding album. What is surprising in it is evidence of a profound reading of the New Testament, especially in “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” clearly patterned after the parables of Jesus. He describes man’s search for wealth and his sensual lust, which bring only death; Frankie Lee denies that eternity exists. But Dylan moralizes: “Don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road.” He was again accused of selling out, of abandoning his role as public conscience. But in retrospect, he can again be viewed as leading his generation.

In the middle and late sixties, Dylan was beginning to write that man is ultimately accountable for his sin—free to choose to obey or disobey God’s divine directive—that man will be judged. In 1971, in a powerful poem-song “Sign on the Cross,” it is evident that his religious pilgrimage has progressed. He is now haunted by and grappling with the meaning of Jesus Christ. In 1970 he had written the beautiful, exceptional modern psalm, “Father of Night.” But clearly in “Sign on the Cross” he has a different concern. He says the sign on Jesus’ cross can never be forgotten: He suggests that man cannot escape that symbol and what it means.

Jewish author Stephen Pickering described Dylan in 1974–5 as “a post-Holocaust Jewish voice, searching for and rediscovering the manifestations of God.… [His] poetry centers upon God, upon Heaven … upon the … Jewish Messianic tradition. His sense of impending apocalypse (the dialectical struggle between darkness and light) burns into the … heart. In his moral anger … Bob Dylan is a Jewish voice aware of the struggle which can tear apart the heart: what one ought to do as opposed to what one wants to do.”

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Pickering’s analysis was perceptive, and in 1979 rumors of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity swept through rock publications. There had been others earlier, but this was Dylan, who had scaled the pinnacle of the rock world. “Surely not.” said the veterans of the 1960s movement. “That’s Pat Boone’s style, not Dylan’s.”

But the answer was simple and affirmative in late 1979 with the release of his album Slow Train Coming. “Jesus Rock” music flooded the market in the late 1970s, much of it rightly characterized as trite. But Slow Train was not trite: it was the “old” Bob Dylan once again focusing his remarkable talents on the decadence of America’s materialistic culture in prophetic fashion. But as critic Sharon Gallagher put it. “Now there’s a framework and direction for that anger with a new element of hope.”

It is not just that Dylan has come out of his experiences changed; that comes through clearly in his lyrics. This album is also exceptional in terms of its musical quality. One secular reviewer said, “I don’t know what’s happened to Dylan or what it means, but it’s good.” In 1980, he issued another overtly Christian album. Saved, which was favorably reviewed in both secular and Christian publications. Even the reviewer in Rolling Slone, while criticizing the lyrics, argued that Saved displayed the energy of the “old” Dylan.

There are cynics—I have heard them. Christians and non-Christians—who argue that Dylan’s conversion is based on the dollar sign, that he is simply cashing in on the trendy evangelical movement in America. Such an analysis seems to me unsatisfactory; Dylan’s concern for justice has been consistent throughout his career. Christianity is simply a logical extension of his long-term themes. In most cases, Charles Colson’s for example, ethics follow conversion; in Dylan’s life it was just the reverse.

Time, of course, may tell. But Dylan, whose work is even now finding its rightful place in anthologies of modern American poetry, has a ready-made audience—those of us who grew up with him and listened as he articulated the problems and inequities of our society; those of us who for the first time really felt the wrongness of racial prejudice, of nuclear war, of material decadence through his writing. How will we respond to the “new” Bob Dylan?

CHARLES J. BUSSEYDr. Bussey is associate professor of history at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.

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