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Who is Bob Dylan?

by Bill McGaughey


Good question. Lots of people have been trying to figure that out for most of my adult life.

I was born the same year as Dylan - he in Duluth, me in Detroit. I came to live in Minnesota in 1965. By then, Dylan had been gone from this state for four years. Later on, I kept running into people who knew Dylan when he was a student at the University of Minnesota. I even knew “Red” Nelson, proprietor of the “Ten O’Clock Scholar” where Dylan got his start as a performer. The lucky few old timers remember him directly. The rest of us catch occasional glimpses of him filtered through the media.

Dylan has become a legend in his own time. He is an elusive character whom we are always trying to meet and understand. But Dylan did not want to be understood. He claimed once to have been a carnival worker living in New Mexico. He wanted to be who he wanted to be, not some popular brand.

It starts with the name: Dylan. Bob Dylan’s birth name was Robert Zimmerman. He took the stage name Dylan while a student at the University of Minnesota. Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, was popular then. Asked about the name change, Bob Dylan told an interviewer: "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."

Bob Dylan’s legend starts when, as a teenager in Hibbing, Minnesota, he listened to a country and blues music radio station in faraway Shreveport, Louisiana. He had his own high-school band. Then, he later revealed, he attended a concert of Buddy Holly in Duluth on that last, fateful tour. The two locked eyes. Holly’s musical power and mystique passed to Dylan at that moment.

Dylan, then Zimmerman, went to Minneapolis to attend college. His enrollment lasted less than a year. But in that year, Dylan became a poet. He became a writer and performer of folk music. Then, looking for more, he migrated to New York to meet Woody Guthrie, the Depression-era troubadour who was terminally ill with Huntington’s disease.

Dylan became part of the Greenwich Village scene. He performed at various coffee houses there. Then Columbia Records gave him a contract. His fame grew. Dylan’s rise as a songwriter and performer coincided with the Civil Rights movement and “the torch being passed to a new generation”. Dylan wrote two songs that came to define the spirit of that era: “Blowin’ in the Wind” and The Times They are a-Changin’. He penned songs protesting abuse of black people in the south, performed at the 1963 “March on Washington”, and toured the country with folk singer, Joan Baez, also a protest figure.

Bob Dylan quickly became an icon of political and social protest. He brought an intellectual as well as emotional dimension to his songs. The college students loved it. Dylan was a rather unique musician. He sang with a raspy voice and had a harmonica wired around his neck. Other ‘60s performers picked up Dylan’s songs and gave them more soothing treatment. However, the music was his.

Dylan seemed to be on top of the world but something troubled him. He was now locked into a particular kind of identity defined by his fans and critics. In defiance, Dylan tried deliberately to tarnish his brand. For example, he claimed sympathy with Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused killer of President Kennedy. He went out of his way to needle the press. Offending folk purists, he began singing rock music. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan played an electric guitar. The audience booed. Someone pulled the cord.

Even so, Bob Dylan continued his career as a high-octane performer and writer of protest music until in late 1966 a motorcycle accident near his home in Woodstock, New York, forced him to take a break. Dylan then withdrew from the public. He did not go on tour for another eight years.

A recent (October 2014) article in Rolling Stone magazine - whose name is taken from one of Dylan’s songs - advances the theory that Dylan was desperate to escape the legend he had created. Secretly married in 1965, he now aspired to a life of blissful domesticity. He denied that he protested the war and said he was considering voting for George Wallace in the presidential election. Everything he stood for in the public mind he was now renouncing. Bob Dylan wanted to be something else.

But this only made the reclusive Dylan an enigma that everyone wanted to know and figure out. People sometimes broke into his home in Woodstock wanting to meet their hero. I remember meeting a free-lance journalist on a months-long quest to interview Bob Dylan. The so-called “Woodstock” festival, attracting 400,000 participants, had to be moved to a more remote location in New York State to accommodate the crowd. Characteristically, Dylan himself declined an invitation to appear at this festival and instead performed at a concert on the Isle of Wight.

Now, in late 2014, Bob Dylan has been an American icon for over fifty years. He has not died like some other rock icons but lived and performed and constantly moved on, reinventing himself in various ways. Befriending Johnny Cash, he recorded country music. Born a Jew, he became a born-again Christian and recorded Christian music. He performed with George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh. He sang at a benefit to combat hunger in Africa. He hosted a weekly show on XM Satellite radio. He published an autobiography and starred in films. Meanwhile he has continued to go on tours. Tickets for the one at the Orpheum theater in Minneapolis next week cost $195.

At the risk of trying to put Bob Dylan in a box, all I can say is that Dylan has stubbornly refused to be what other people wanted him to be. He has insisted on choosing his own identity. Therefore, Bob Dylan is a conspicuous example of Identity Independence and a fitting hero for this web site.


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