The day was July 20, 1965 — exactly four years prior to the same day that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would spend 21 hours on the moon and bring back to Earth 46 pounds of rocks. By contrast, however, the rock referenced in this previous anniversary was made by a man born as Robert Allen Zimmerman, briefly known as Elston Gunn, and ultimately touted as Bob Dylan. The song is titled “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Now, for those who happen to be country music fans, as are many throughout the South, Dylan was tremendously influenced by several genres of music, including folk, blues, and country music. Some of his greatest inspiration hails from folk, including Odetta and Woody Guthrie, and blues, running the gamut from John Lee Hooker to Robert Johnson to Howlin’ Wolf to Leadbelly.
Of the country persuasion, however, Dylan, born in Duluth in 1941, said, “All the music I heard up until I left Minnesota was... I didn’t hear any folk music... I just heard Country and Western, rock and roll and polka music.” He garnered a good bit of inspiration from the Carter family, Hank Williams, Sr., Jimmie Rodgers, and Kittie Wells. Of Johnny Cash, Dylan said, “I’ve heard Cash since I was a kid... I love him.” Numerous country artists have since covered Dylan, including Cash, Hank Williams, Jr., Doc Watson, Glen Campbell, and Kris Kristofferson.
That seminal sound Dylan produced in 1965, though, seemed to arrive in the form of a song for which “the spokesman of a generation” exchanged his customary folk acoustic guitar for an electric one, a move that caused an uproar at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, only five days after the release of “Like a Rolling Stone.” The 24-year-old Dylan had been better known for folk hits such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The lyrics were also different: brasher, more confrontational, the impetus of which was allegedly Dylan’s dissatisfaction with the public’s expectations of him at the time.
Just as the song wasn’t easy for Dylan’s fans to accept, it apparently hadn’t been easy to create. It took two days to record at Columbia Records, including one take in a waltz-like fashion in 3/4 time. Ultimately, the full recorded version ended up being a defiant six minutes long, becoming the bane of radio stations accustomed to playing three or four minute songs but who ultimately had to indulge listeners’ whims.
However, the song catapulted to Billboard’s Number Two slot, behind The Beatles’ “Help” at Number One. And rocker Bruce Springsteen later said the opening drum beat of the song sounded to his then-15-year-old ears “like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.”
The words to the tune, declared the “Number One Greatest Song of All Time” by Rolling Stone magazine in 2010, have since received their due as well. In June, an unidentified bidder purchased the original handwritten lyrics, including Dylan’s doodles and scribbles, penned at the Roger Smith Hotel in Washington D.C., at a Sotheby’s “History of Rock and Roll From Presley to Punk” auction for $2 million.
As an extensive Dylan fan (e.g., I have a songlist on my iPhone just for him), I must say “Like a Rolling Stone” is list-worthy. Dylan’s accusatory lyrics are haunting, and his trademark harmonica punctuates the accompaniment. The galvanizing organ on “Like a Rolling Stone,” played by keyboardist Al Kooper, is apocalyptically mesmerizing, tethered by sharp notes from guitarist Michael Bloomfield’s Telecaster. Kooper later said, “There was no sheet music, it was totally by ear. And it was totally disorganized, totally punk. It just happened.”
In 2013, an interactive video for “Like a Rolling Stone” was released -- although this song isn’t the sort that necessarily requires a video. What Dylan song does, after all? I still listen to much of Dylan’s discography and think that he probably wouldn’t glean many votes these days on a show like American Idol or The Voice — but I don’t care for those shows anyway.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and serves on the board of directors at Corinth Theatre-Arts. She loves being a downtown Corinth resident.)