Believe in Zimmerman! On May 24, 1941, the best thing that ever happened music, ever, was born. Bob Dylan didn’t drop his first album until 1962, but his birthday happened eighty-two years ago, and as far as audiophiles are concerned, this is a holy day. If time-traveling music historians exist, the birthday of Robert Allen Zimmerman is likely burned into the dashboards of several DeLoreans and phone boxes. Without Dylan, your record collection would suck and you would be a much less interesting person.
Trying to capture the entirety of why Bob Dylan is so important is impossible, and if one wanted to try, reading some of his books, or great books about him is certainly a place to start. But really, if you’re trying to remind yourself why Dylan is so great, without getting overwhelmed by his 39 studio albums (yes 39!), the best bet is just to hit up one specific “Best of” record. For parents, this leads to a natural question: Which Bob Dylan album should be the first one you introduce to your kids? Well, with extreme bias, and only anecdotal evidence, I’m going to make a strong case for what may be the best “best of” record ever; Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume II. Seriously, if you want to get your kids into Bob Dylan, I don’t recommend starting with Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks. Because of his massive output, it’s okay to start with a Dylan album that isn’t really an album, and for my money, that non-album is the double-vinyl Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume II.
For about three years, I’ve been casually putting on this record on Sunday mornings during breakfast. My wife loves it, of course, but what we noticed right away, was how well our young daughter responds to this particular set of songs. We’re a vinyl record house and my kid has been used to spinning her own wax selections since she was two. She’s not obsessed with Bob Dylan, the way she is with The Beatles, The Strokes, or Blondie, but I’m confident that this specific Dylan compilation was the best way to go. And the reason I know that, is that I noticed her general curiosity about music grew after this record started playing regularly in our house on the weekends. Once she got into Dylan, she could get into anything else, with any kind of voice. Plus, the best thing that I think kids like about Dylan is that through him, they learn grown-up music can be funny. Dylan isn’t always kidding around with his lyrics, but sometimes his delivery is just sarcastic enough to get a kid to crack a smile.
The songs on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume II do truly run the gamut of his styles, at least up until 1971. But there’s also a beautiful, calming quality to these selections. Notably, “Rainy Day Women” is not the first track of this album, but instead, the breezy and jaunty “Watching the River Flow.” Meanwhile, the second side of the second record starts with “If Not For You,” which sometimes I think is the best song to play for anyone — child or adult — who isn’t really sure about Bob Dylan. The previous side gives you “All Along the Watchtower,” which despite the arguably superior Jimmy Hendrix cover version, should be experienced in its original Dylan, first. (Plus, only the Hendrix version will reveal if your kid is a Cylon, right?)
All in all, from songs like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” to “Maggie’s Farm,” Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume II presents two things about Bob Dylan perfectly: First, his utter originality in creating images in your mind that don’t exist in any kind of popular music, anywhere. Second, the utter beauty of his melodies. Yes, some of his most beautiful music arguably exists after 1971 (“Most of the Time” springs to mind from 1989), but if you’re just trying to get the absolute basics of Dylan’s brilliance, Greatest Hits Volume II does an amazing job of truly representing what all the Dylan fuss is about. It may be the most boring, easy selection to make for hardcore Dylan fans, but for dads trying to get their kids to listen to the greatest singer-songwriter ever, Greatest Hits Volume II is essentially a miracle.
In 2008, a parody video circulated an earlier version of the internet with one punchline: Bob Dylan secretly wrote every single great pop song ever, even ones released in the early aughts. It’s not true, of course, but when you play great Bob Dylan music to very young people, it seems true. Every type of cool rock, pop, folk, and country song is totally contained in Dylan tracks. He doesn’t belong to any one generation, because the songs are like a Rosetta Stone of everything else. If you get your kids to listen to Dylan, you open the door to them having better taste in everything else, forever.