Bob Dylan: The Early Years
He came from the north country. Minnesota to be exact. Born in Duluth on May 26, 1941.
His paternal grandparents, Zigman and Anna Zimmerman, immigrated to America from Odessa, after the anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia in 1905; his material grandparents came from Lithuania. His parents, Abram and Beatrice, were part of a close-knit Jewish community in Duluth, until Abram contracted polio and the family moved to a small town in the iron-ore producing Mesabi Range, 80-some miles northwest of Duluth.
In high school he played in several bands, imitating Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Once, when his band performed “Rock ‘n Roll is Here to Stay” at a high school talent show, the principle cut off the microphone claiming the band was too loud. In his senior year, using the name Elston Gunnn (yes, 3 n’s), he earned $15 a night — but only for a couple of nights — playing piano with fellow teenager and aspiring rock musician Bobby Vee.
He graduated from high school in 1959, moved to Minneapolis and enrolled at the University of Minnesota. He started playing at a local coffeehouse called Ten O’Clock Scholar, where his interest in rock ‘n roll expanded to folk music. He was influenced by Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, later recalling, “The thing about rock ‘n roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough … There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms, but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph … much deeper feelings.”
Woodie Guthrie’s Biggest Fan
At the end of his freshman year he dropped out of college, and a few months later decided to travel to New York City to see if he could meet his musical idol Woodie Guthrie. He arrived in New York, decamped in Greenwich Village, then journeyed out to a hospital in New Jersey where he succeeded in meeting the folk legend who at the time was seriously ill from Huntington’s disease. The young man, just 20 years old, vowed to become Guthrie’s greatest disciple.
Those of you who know your rock ‘n roll history probably already know who this iconic singer/songwriter is. Soon the whole world would know, as he began to play and sing in Greenwich Village clubs, and hang out with fellow folksingers Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, the Clancy Brothers, Joan Baez.
Bob Dylan Albums
In 1962 he released his first album, consisting mostly of covers of standard folk tunes. The record landed with a thud, selling only 5000 copies and barely breaking even. Then using the name Bob Landy he contributed to a blues album, and as Tedham Porterhouse he played harmonica on a record for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, another disciple of Woodie Guthrie.
His second album was released in May 1963, and this time his record featured original songs, including “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” The album was called The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and proved a breakthrough of historic proportions.
Some critics were put off by the rough edge of Bob Dylan’s voice, but he found many admirers among his contemporaries, including The Beatles, and soon many musical acts were begging to record his songs, from Peter, Paul and Mary to the Byrds and the Beatles themselves.
Bob Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are a-Changin’ reflected a more political side of the songwriter, and then in 1965 he stunned the music world at the Newport Jazz Festival by bringing out an electric guitar. He released Bringing It All Back Home, which featured recordings with electronic instruments, and then he put out a single “Like a Rolling Stone,” which proved to be his biggest hit and was ranked by Rolling Stone Magazineas the Number 1 “Greatest Song of All Time.”
Bob Dylan Continues To Inspire Us
There’s lots more to the Bob Dylan story, of course. There are several books out by and about Bob Dylan, including Dylan’s own memoir Chronicles: Volume One, and the definitive book on his early career, No Direction Home by New York Times critic Robert Shelton. In 2005 movie director Martin Scorsese produced a Dylan documentary, again focusing on his early years and also called No Direction Home.
And yes, Bob Dylan is still alive and well and touring. If you want to go see for yourself. For his complete tour dates go to his website bobdylan.com.
Meantime, here’s Dylan in Madison Square Garden at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, singing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” from his breakthrough album of 50 years ago.