Friday, May 3, 2013

Remember Him?

     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.

University of Minnesota
     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."

     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.

     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.

50 years ago
     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 Magazine as the Number 1 "Greatest Song of All Time."

     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, he's appearing this weekend in Charleston, SC, and St. Augustine, FL, and again in June in Palm Beach, Tampa, Atlanta and Nashville. For his complete tour dates go to his website

     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.


DJan said...

There is nobody else like him. I grew up with his music and felt it was unlike anything else I'd ever heard. Blowin' in the Wind is one of my favorite songs of all time. Thanks for this. :-)

MerCyn said...

Love your Remember Him/her posts.

Olga said...

The first concert I ever attended was Bob Dylan and I am still a fan.

Anonymous said...

I saw Bob Dylan perform at the Waikiki Shell years ago and loved his singing from the get go.

Lorna said...

I grew up with Bob Dylan. This was a good post.

Kay Dennison said...

Saw him in concert every time I could!!!!

#1Nana said...

I remember hearing Dylan singing Mr. Tamborine Man and remnarking to my father that The Turtles did it soooo much better. What can I say, I was young!

Stephen Hayes said...

Love him or hate him, Bob Dylan is a unique talent. said...

Those days are gone forever. Bye Bye Miss American Pie, welcome to old age.

City of New Orleans is still my favorite. Willie Nelson wrote many of the songs youngsters played back in the 1970s.

I loved Hank Williams and James Morrison (visited his grave in Paris). Dylan was wonderful but not the best ever.

Dianne (not a Baby Boomer)

Dick Klade said...

I had no idea he was a Minnesotan. Bob Dylan did a concert in Kalamazoo last weekend. It drew several thousand, and got great reviews.

CathyS said...

I was channel flipping this week and ended up at HGTV (not unusul) to a servies about older houses and who lived there. This house was in Woodstock, NY and this is a shock, muscicians lived there in the seventies. One of the people they mentioned who lived and recorded there was Bob Dylan. He isn't a spot light guy, but clearly woven into the BB experience

Douglas said...

Cathy, look up an album called "Music from Big Pink". It was about that house and featured "The Band", Dylan's back up band of the past (then called "The Hawks"). One of my favorites of the era.

Tom Sightings said...

Douglas -- I'll have to do a "Remember Him?" on Levon Helm.