Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota, and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, on the Mesabi Iron Range west of Lake Superior. Robert Zimmerman lived in Duluth until age six, when his father was stricken with polio and the family returned to his mother's home town, Hibbing, where Zimmerman spent the rest of his childhood.
Robert Zimmerman spent much of his youth listening to the radio—first to blues and country stations broadcasting from Shreveport, Louisiana and, later, to early rock and roll. He formed several bands while he attended Hibbing High School. The Shadow Blasters was short-lived, but his next, The Golden Chords, lasted longer and played covers of popular songs. Their performance of Danny and the Juniors' "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay" at their high school talent show was so loud that the principal cut the microphone off.
In his 1959 school yearbook, Robert Zimmerman listed as his ambition "To follow Little Richard." The same year, using the name Elston Gunnn, he performed two dates with Bobby Vee, playing piano and providing handclaps.
Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis in September 1959 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where his early focus on rock and roll gave way to an interest in American folk music. In 1985, Dylan explained the attraction that folk music had exerted on him: "... I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings."
He soon began to perform at the 10 O'clock Scholar, a coffee house a few blocks from campus, and became actively involved in the local Dinkytown folk music circuit.
During his Dinkytown days, Zimmerman began introducing himself as "Bob Dylan."
In his autobiography, Dylan acknowledged that he had been influenced by the poetry of Dylan Thomas. Explaining his change of name in a 2004 interview, Dylan remarked: "You're born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free."
From February 1961, Dylan played at various clubs around Greenwich Village. The same month Dylan played harmonica on folk singer Carolyn Hester's eponymous third album, which brought his talents to the attention of the album's producer John Hammond. Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia Records in October.
The performances on his first Columbia album, Bob Dylan in 1962, consisted of familiar folk, blues and gospel material combined with two original compositions. The album made little impact, selling only 5,000 copies in its first year. Within Columbia Records, some referred to the singer as "Hammond's Folly" and suggested dropping his contract.
Hammond defended Dylan vigorously. While working for Columbia, Dylan also recorded several songs under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt, for Broadside Magazine, a folk music magazine and record label. Dylan used the pseudonym Bob Landy to record as a piano player on the 1964 anthology album, The Blues Project, issued by Elektra Records. Under the pseudonym Tedham Porterhouse, Dylan contributed harmonica to Ramblin' Jack Elliott's 1964 album Jack Elliott.
Dylan made two important career moves in August 1962. He legally changed his name to Bob Dylan, and signed a management contract with Albert Grossman. Grossman remained Dylan's manager until 1970.
His early lyrics incorporated a variety of political, social and philosophical, as well as literary influences. They defied existing pop music conventions and appealed hugely to the then burgeoning counterculture. Initially inspired by the songs of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, and the performance styles of Buddy Holly and Little Richard, Dylan has explored numerous distinct traditions in American song—from folk, blues and country to gospel, rock and roll, and rockabilly. He has also tapped English, Scottish, and Irish folk music, embracing even jazz and swing. Dylan plays guitar, keyboards, and harmonica.
Backed by a changing line-up of musicians, he has toured steadily since the late 1980s on what has been dubbed the Never Ending Tour. His accomplishments as a recording artist and performer have been central to his career, but his greatest contribution is generally considered to be his songwriting.
As a songwriter and musician, Dylan has received numerous awards over the years including Grammy, Golden Globe, and Academy Awards; he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2008, a road called the Bob Dylan Pathway was opened in the singer's honor in his birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota.
The Pulitzer Prize jury in 2008 awarded him a special citation for "his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power."