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The Evolution of Bob Dylan

Watch Dylan’s evolution from bright-eyed folk revivalist to 1980s wash-up to a genius on a true Never Ending Tour

Sigmund Goode/ Michael Ochs Archive

When Bob Dylan arrived in New York City in the freezing cold winter of 1961 his repertoire was mostly old folk songs, some dating back 100 years – not surprising, since the folk revival was reaching its peak at the time, with mainstream acts like Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio generating lots of press attention.

On many of his earliest recorded concerts Dylan seems to be channeling the very spirit of Woody Guthrie and other folk icons. These made for compelling shows, but he soon realized that to move himself (and the movement) forward he'd need to start penning originals. One of his first was "Song to Woody," a tribute to Woody Guthrie. 

By Andy Greene

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The Never Ending Tour Begins: 1988-1996

Dylan got out of his Eighties funk very slowly. It began when he took some advice from Bono and cut an album with U2 producer Daniel Lanois. The previous year he hit the road on a tour that's still going 23 years later. Between 1991 and 1996 Dylan released two albums of traditional folk covers and toured incessantly, but didn't release any new material. "I really thought I was through making records," Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2001. "I didn't want to record anymore. I was more concerned with what I do in personal appearances. It was clear to me I had more than enough songs to play. Forever…I was already playing over a hundred shows a year at that point. I decided I would just go back to live performing, which I hadn't really thought I'd done since maybe 1966."

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The Creative Comeback: 1997-2011

Few people expected Dylan to release a classic album in 1997. His last undisputed masterpiece was more than 20 years in the past, and he hadn't even tried to record anything new in seven years. Around that time, however, Dylan found himself writing bits and pieces down of new songs. "It was starting to pile up," he told Rolling Stone in 2001. "I thought, 'Well, I got all this – maybe, I'll try to record it.' I'd had good luck with Daniel Lanois [producer of the 1989 album Oh Mercy], so I called him and showed him a lot of the songs."

The resulting record, Time Out Of Mind, won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Everybody seems to love it, except for Dylan. "I feel we were lucky to get that record," Dylan said in 2001. "I didn't go into it with the idea that this was going to be a finished album. It got off the tracks more than a few times, and people got frustrated. I know I did. I know Lanois did…I felt extremely frustrated, because I couldn't get any of the up-tempo songs that I wanted." It was no surprise than Dylan's next three records were self-produced.

Dylan has no specific plans for his 70th birthday on May 24th. He wrapped up a leg of the Never Ending Tour in Auckland, New Zealand on April 30th and won't be seen again until it picks up again June 16th in Cork, Ireland. For those that care, the last song he will likely sing in public while still in his 60s was, appropriately enough, "Forever Young." 

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See all of our Bob Dylan at 70 coverage here

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