1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Bob Dylan in 2012
Image: Reuters/K.Price

The many lives of Bob Dylan

Sabine Peschel eg | Jürgen Brendel
October 13, 2016

He'd been considered for the Nobel Prize for some 20 years already. Now, when no one expected him to win, the cult songwriter was awarded the world's highest literary accolade. Here's a look back at Bob Dylan's career.


Journalists in Stockholm cheered when the Swedish Academy's decision was announced on Thursday afternoon. Bob Dylan had been mentioned in Nobel speculation in past years, but his odds did not seem high this year.

Yet he was finally selected for his "new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition," said Academy permanent secretary Sara Danius after revealing this year's laureate.

Some critics are bound to ask why the Nobel Prize wasn't awarded to a "real" writer, yet most people will definitely recognize the literary achievements of the cult songwriter.

 An icon of music history

For over half a century, Bob Dylan has been one of the most influential figures in pop music. "Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound," the Swedish Academy said. He creates pictures with his lyrics, "poetry for the eyes." Academy member Per Wastberg considers him to be "probably the greatest living poet."

Bob Dylan has shaped the folk and rock scene for over five decades, penning unforgettable songs such as "Blowin 'In the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin" and "Like a Rolling Stone."

He never wanted to be idolized. The singer with the nasal voice refused to be boxed into any particular category. His performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 is legendary, as he replaced his acoustic guitar with an electric one - scandalizing his fans who perceived this as a betrayal of folk music.

From rock to folk

USA Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan in 1975Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

Until then, his career had been relatively straightforward.

Born on May 24, 1941, and brought up in a close-knit Jewish community in Duluth, Minnesota, he started playing rock 'n' roll in high school bands in the mid-50s, still using his given name Robert ("Bobby") Allen Zimmerman. He developed his passion for folk music by 1959, through the songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. The young Dylan then moved to Greenwich Village, New York's hotspot for the folk music scene at the time.

That's where he met and fell in love with the already famous Joan Baez, who took him on tour. With her, he could play his songs to a large audience and established himself as a political protest figure through his wild, angry songs.

In "Masters of War," he raises charges against unscrupulous gunmen and warlords; in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," he describes harsh times in the hopes of better ones.

Together with Baez, he performed songs at The Great March on Washington in 1963, one of the largest political rallies for human rights in US history.

Bob Dylan quickly became more prominent than his mentor - and this influence remains unmistakable to this day, as this Nobel Prize shows. According to "Newsweek" magazine, Dylan is "The Einstein of pop music."

Poetic depth

His texts are filled with unexpected metaphors: "Most protest songs are stupid, lack beauty, but Bob Dylan's songs are full of power, lyricism and music," Joan Baez once said.

Dylan's influence on fellow musicians has been enormous. Many of his songs have been covered by others including Joan Baez, Cher and Eric Clapton; Jim Hendrix offered a unique version of "All along the Watchtower;" Guns N' Roses made a hit version of his song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the Great March on Washington in 1963
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the Great March on Washington in 1963Image: gemeinfrei

The magazine "Rolling Stone" ranks two Dylan albums - "Blonde on Blonde" and "Highway 61 Revisited" - among the top 10 best albums of all time. His anthem "Like a Rolling Stone" tops their list of best-ever written songs.

Difficult years

After a motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966, Dylan withdrew from the public, living with his wife Sara Lowndes and their children near Woodstock, New York. When the most important music festival of the decade took place there in 1969, the songwriting pioneer was not included in the program.

Dylan went through a difficult period in the 70s, separating from his wife and turning to Christianity towards the end of the decade - which once again unsettled his fans.

He produced a few weak albums in the 80s and his career and concerts were affected by his alcohol problems. He bounced back with a second marriage and the commercial success that came with his all-star band Traveling Wilburys, along with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. In 1988, he began his famous "Never Ending Tour," with 100 concerts a year.

Countless awards and honors

Dylan has collected the world's top accolades, including 11 Grammys, an Oscar for a film song, a Pulitzer Prize for "lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic force," and the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian award in the US. Now the Nobel Prize has just been added to that impressive collection.


Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Ukrainian servicemen from the Special Operations Forces (OPFOR) 214 Brigade load their tank with ammunition, at an undisclosed location along the frontline north of Bakhmut, Ukraine on March 16, 2023.

Ukraine updates: Kyiv prepares for counterassault

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage