In the beginning, there was Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. Even before these innovators of rock and roll, there were other voices calling out in the wilderness. Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmie Rodgers. Out of the Mississippi delta grew a blend of sounds, maybe unmatched in their breadth and diversity even to this day. Blues, jazz, country, ragtime and gospel all started to coalesce into what would eventually be called rock & roll.
When Elvis hit the stage and brought this music to the young white masses, detractors labeled it pejoratively as “n-word” music. In a backhanded way, these haters were giving Africans credit for creating a musical style that would sweep the globe and start a revolution. However, that label did not tell the whole story about this music. It was too narrow of a definition. It wasn’t just music from Africa. It was music brought to America by people of color from all over the world. From Africa, New Guinea, the Caribbean, and Jamaica to name just a few. This music was blended with white country music to create a sound all its own.
Rock & roll was a rhythm. A feeling. An attitude. It was about love, loss, desire, and hope. Rock & roll started to expand in popularity, to move into mainstream society and diversify. Taking rock & roll to the youth of mainstream America were the likes of Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and, of course, Elvis.
This new sound made its way across the Atlantic to the UK’s burgeoning Skiffle movement. Skiffle was a musical genre that came out of the Mississippi delta. Skiffle caught fire in the UK combining jazz, blues and several types of folk.
These are the sounds that influenced The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who, to name just a few of the now famous British invasion bands.
Then something unexpected happened. Robert Zimmerman, a skinny kid from Hibbing, Minnesota (almost literally at the other end of the mighty Mississippi) hitch-hiked to New York City and ended up in the Greenwich Village folk scene. He walked into a folk club for a job and when they asked what his name was, he simply said Bob Dylan. Robert Zimmerman was gone for good.
Although he started in the folk genre, Dylan’s music quickly attracted a pop music following. Then, in 1965, he went electric. He plugged in and released “Like a Rolling Stone.” With its drums, guitar, wailin’ Hammond B-3 organ and smart lyrics, it changed pop music forever. Some say “Like a Rolling Stone” was a line drawn in the sand. Rock & Roll sounded one way before it and another way after it.
This change had been building within Bob Dylan since the beginning (1962). When Dylan hit the scene, pop music was not complex. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. For the great “girl groups” of the early 60’s, it was just the opposite. The Ronettes were singing, for example, “Be My, Be My Baby.” The Shirelles’ plaintive “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” Elvis Presley’s, “since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell, down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel.” Even The Beatles hadn’t matured yet, for they were still all about, “She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.”
In the midst of this teenaged love, loss, and angst, Bob Dylan stepped on stage with his acoustic guitar and sang, “Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam. And admit that the waters around you have grown and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin’ then you better start swimmin’, or you’ll sink like a stone. For the times they are a-changin’.”
He saw a country that was changing. He saw the plight of people of color in the United States. He wrote, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol,” about a rich tobacco farmer name William Zanzinger who beat a domestic named Hattie Carrol to death with his walking stick. And of course, “Blowin’ in the Wind” motivated young people all over America to get involved in civil rights. When Dylan sang, “How many roads must a man walk down before you’ll call him a man,” he inspired Sam Cook to write “A Change is Gonna Come.”
There’s always been a debate about whether the music of Bob Dylan changed the world in the 60s or if Bob Dylan’s music simply reflected the change that he saw happening around him. Regardless, a young kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, made a mark in music that will be felt for generations to come.
David Dreisbach serves as Director of Communications for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.