Fifty-three years ago this week, Robert Zimmerman released his first album under a name that would soon become an American legend: Bob Dylan.
That eponymous album was mostly made up of covers of folk standards, with only two original compositions. It was those standards, however, that taught Dylan everything he needed to know to become one of the most influential songwriters of all time.
"Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that's fair game, that everything belongs to everyone," Dylan said at a recent MusiCares event honoring him as 2015's Person of the Year. He ran down a list of old folk standards he used to sing and quoted his own lyrics that sounded similar. "All these songs are connected," he said. "Don't be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way."
That "different kind of way," though, made all the difference. Bob Dylan twisted timeless songs and hooked them to the most pressing modern issues. His songs inspired new political and artistic movements. And had he never gotten his shot all the way back in 1962, the world might be a very different place today. These are five Dylan songs that actually changed the world:
1. "Blowin' in the Wind"
Dylan claimed he wrote the lyrics of "Blowin' in the Wind" in 10 minutes in a NYC cafe, and they've gone on to inspire poets and activists for decades. Its lyrics are a series of questions with no answers. They allow for multiple interpretations, making the song, as Rolling Stone wrote in their "500 Greatest Songs of All Time," an "all-purpose progressive anthem suggesting that things must and will change." Because of this, it served as the center of several protest movements in the '60s.
Dylan released his version in 1963 on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan right as the civil rights movement was reaching its peak. He performed the song at a voter registration rally in Greenwood, Mississippi. Peter, Paul and Mary, who recorded a popular version that same year, performed it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just hours before Martin Luther King told the world, "I have a dream."
Later, due to the song's "cannonballs" and "doves," it lent itself to anti-Vietnam protests. According to activist and musician Peter Yarrow, the all-purpose applications of the song are a major part of its appeal. "You can hear in this a yearning and a hope and a possibility and a sadness and sometimes a triumphal proclamation of determination," he told NPR. "So it's a matter of interpretation and, frankly, I think Bobby was probably right and legitimate in not giving a specific interpretation."
2. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
Written in 1962, deep in the midst of Cold War uncertainty, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is one of Dylan's most apocalyptic and dire protest songs. "Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song," Dylan said in the song's liner notes. "But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn't have enough time alive to write all those songs, so I put all I could into this one."
At the time, music writer Nat Hentoff mistakenly assumed it was a response to the Cuban missile crisis, which had broken around the time of the song's recording. But Dylan denied it, saying that the "hard rain" and "the pellets of poison ... flooding the waters" were not acid rain or nuclear fallout, but the "lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers."
Nonetheless, the "sad forests" and "dead oceans" mentioned in the lyrics would later inspire a variety of environmental activist projects. Mark Edwards' 2006 photography exhibition Hard Rain and the 2015 Whole Earth? project both explore examples of human-wrought environmental degradation that resembled the scenes Dylan foretold. In 2009, the United Nations adopted the song as the unofficial anthem for the Copenhagen climate summit.
The prophetic ethos of the song gave Dylan a mystic and philosophical demeanor that would follow him the rest of his life. Its portents caused beat poet Allen Ginsberg to weep when he heard it, "'Cause it seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation from earlier Bohemian or Beat, Illumination and Self-Empowerment."
3. "The Times They Are A-Changin'"
"This was definitely a song with a purpose," Dylan once said of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in the liner notes of Biograph. "I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time." He wrote that song to tap into that movement, calling out writers, critics, senators, congressmen, mothers and fathers to all step up and embrace change.
The song captured the zeitgeist — the youthful political revolt and the dangerous allure of an uncertain future. "'The Times' became an anthem, a strident warning, angry yet hopeful. It came to symbolize the generation gap, making Dylan the reluctant 'spokesman' for the youth revolt," Peter Dreier wrote in an essay adapted from The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.
But while it was one of his most powerful political anthems, it was also one of his last. Dylan opened a set with the song at a concert the day after JFK was assassinated. "I thought, 'Wow, how can I open with that song? I'll get rocks thrown at me.' But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there." Dylan told biographer Anthony Scaduto, "Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding the song. And I couldn't understand why they were clapping, or why I wrote the song. I couldn't understand anything. For me, it was just insane."
A few weeks later, he announced to a room full of people he would no longer concern himself with something as "trivial as politics." But the songs were already out there in the hearts and minds of the people.
4. "Like a Rolling Stone"
"Like A Rolling Stone" was the one of the first songs Bob Dylan played when he "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. That rock 'n' roll blare he conjured mortally offended his folk base, filling the festival with deafening jeers. "If I had an axe, I'd chop the microphone cable right now," Pete Seeger reportedly said. That anecdote gradually spiraled into a myth that Seeger actually had an axe and really attempted to sever that cable by force.
Though this direction was despised at the time, with many believing it was a sign that Bob Dylan was selling out, it was simply an example of Dylan living out his own advice to embrace change and push boundaries. His move ended up birthing an entirely new genre — folk-rock. As promised, his music began including less explicitly political language and symbolism, essentially divorcing the attributes that had characterized his legacy up to that point. But his mythology only grew.
5. "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"
"Every time an artist borrows the basic structure of country music but shuns the rigidity of Nashville assembly line music and lyrics in favor of looser rhythms and messier emotional content, it can be traced back to The Basement Tapes," wrote Jim Beviglia for American Songwriter. "Any time a musician anywhere writes or plays a song with more concern for the truth within it than for what an audience might expect," it all goes back to The Basement Tapes.
Recorded in a house in Woodstock, NY called Big Pink, Dylan and his backing band (which would later start its own storied career as The Band) experimented with a wild range of sounds and styles to cut a series of demos later known as The Basement Tapes. "We were playing with absolute freedom," guitarist Robbie Robertson told Rolling Stone. "We weren't doing anything we thought anyone else would ever hear, as long as we lived ... It was like the Watergate tapes. A lot of the stuff, Bob would say, 'We should destroy this.'" Thankfully, they didn't and the tapes circulated as bootlegs. Some of the cuts saw official release much later on a 1975 album. But that album didn't capture the riotous experimentation of that mythic session.
"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" is perhaps most emblematic of the album, though the whole record is influential. Its ragged, weird glory inspired countless modern folk-rock bands. In it, you can hear the archetype for "Wagon Wheel" and the modern Mumford & Son style of folk revival. In November 2014, a group of Dylan's successors — Elvis Costello, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons — cut a New Basement Tapes, using newly unearthed lyrics Dylan wrote during that era. T Bone Burnett likened their work to the way we've reprised Shakespeare. "We've been reworking Shakespeare ever since he wrote that stuff, you know. And that's what Bob's done and he's reworked The Carter Family and Homer and Ovid, all of it," he told KCRW. Dylan is still keeping the legacy of folk music alive.