Bob Dylan's Early Bands as a Child
In 1968, Le Roy Hoikkala, a sky, slight electronics technician, told Rober Shelton: “I met Bob downtown one day and we got to talking about music. We were in eighth grade, and I was very much involved in playing drums. Monte Edwardson was guitar player, and the three of us got together, around 1955, in Bob’s garage for some sessions.
Monte played lead, Bob played rhythm and sang. We figured we had the makings of a band, and we decided to call ourselves the Golden Chords. Nobody was the leader. Bob really idolized Little Richard then. He could chord quite well on the piano. Rock was just starting then. Haley and Presley were just beginning to make it big.
“We started to get some jobs, playing at some Moose Lodge meetings and a few PTA meetings. Whenever there was a talent contest, we would show up. I’ll never forget the community talent contest at the Hibbing Memorial Building. The judges were chamber of commerce members, so you couldn’t expect them to know too much about music. The Golden Chords won on audience applause, but the judges gave first prize to a girl who played classical piano. The kids booed the decision, because we only came in second.”9
The Golden Chords played some country songs, like Johnnie and Jack’s “I’ll Be Home,” but Bob soon led the trio toward Little Richard’s extroversion. Le Roy was impressed by Bob’s speed in putting together a song as early as 1955. “He would write a song right at the piano. Just chord it, and improvise on it. I remember that he sang one song about a train in R&B style. He could make sense with a song in an instant.” Sunday afternoons, Bob slipped out to jam sessions at Van Feldt’s little snack bar and barbecue, at Fourth Avenue and 19th Street. For months, kids filled the place, making it “the scene” in Hibbing. The Golden Chords held public rehearsals, which the young people treated as a show. Dylan’s other Hibbing bands were called the Shadow Blasters, Elston Gunn and the Rock Boppers. Because it was Sunday afternoon, no parents objected. After all, the boys would soon outgrow this nonsense.
The Talent Contest
The Golden Chords fell into disharmony as Bob became increasingly interested in black R&B while the other two drifted toward more popular white rock ‘n’ roll. Bob soon was the key figure in another nameless band featuring Chuck Nara on drums, Bill Marinec on bass, and Larry Fabbro on electric guitar, with Bob on piano, guitar, and lead vocals. In autumn 1955, the four jammed often, exchanged recordings, and listened to Bob’s plans for a life in music. To the others, music was just a hobby.
Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan) on stage with the Golden Chords. Image courtesy Monte Edwardson and Leroy Hoikkala.
After about a year, Bob and his no-name band appeared at Hibbing High’s Jacket Jamboree Talent Festival. There were reciters and warblers and piano players—all with more gall than technique. Bob said so little in class, was such a quiet loner, that no one was prepared for the sonic onslaught, though the mountain of equipment might have prepared them. Bob had also heightened the shock by insisting that his sidemen tell no one what they were going to do. Even then his rule was: “Don’t say what you are going to do, just do it.”
Bob wore his hair in mounds above his forehead, Little Richard-style. The band worked with amplifiers at full roar, and when Bob began to sing, in a hoarse, insistent, screaming wail, “it brought as much laughter as it did applause,” Fabbro told me. “The songs were drawn from the repertoire of Little Richard and Big Elvis, and the one title that sticks out in everyone’s memory was ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here to Stay.’”
Not at Hibbing High, it wasn’t! K L Pedersen, the principal, was guiding around some touring education officials. The combined force of the house mikes with the band’s amplification was too much, and he ran backstage and cut the microphones. Seeing that he couldn’t raise his voice around there either, Bob seethed, but kept pounding his piano. Some say he broke the pedal off and may have bruised a few strings. “African shrieking,” remarked a startled teacher. One student, Jerry Erickson, who had a quiet little trio of his own before he became a banker, had a typical reaction: “Bobby was just ahead of things. We might have thought that day that he was kind of nuts, even though we always thought he was a nice kid.” Even Fabbro admitted that their performance was shocking: “Bob’s style of singing was quite unique for that time, for that town.”
Another student eyewitness: “My first impression was embarrassment. Our little community was unaccustomed to such a performance. I think a lot of people were embarrassed too. I realize now, of course [in 1969], that there was the young Bob Dylan in his very early form. He was a little bit ahead of everyone, but he didn’t seem to mind. Because he had such a fantastic confidence in his talent, he didn’t care. He just said: ‘Here I am. Either you like it or you don’t. I know that what I’ve got is great.’” The eyewitness was John Bucklen, one year younger than Bob, who became a smooth-voiced pop disk jockey in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He was soon to become Bob’s best friend, shadow to his light, Sancho Panza to his Quixote. “If a musical opportunity came along, Bob wouldn’t hesitate to go to the right person and say what he wanted. He had an unusual way of winning people over.” Bucklen, and his mother and sister, were convinced that Bob had learned something from his father. “We thought,” said Bucklen, “that Bob would make a very good salesman. As a matter of fact, he ended up being a very good salesman—of himself.”10
Tales of the talent contest rocked the school. Teachers laughed, students sniggered, parents alarmed. One teacher, Bonn Rolfsen, was upset about the show, but struck by the difference between Bob onstage and in class. Ten years later, he told me that one key to understanding Dylan was geographical: “If you go a few minutes from here in Hibbing into the desolate bush, you’ll know why we are so independent here.” In class, Bonn remembered, Bob was “very quiet, very introverted, but very bright. I remember him as very much a gentleman, pleasantly mild-mannered. I frankly can’t remember what his writing was like. David has since told me that Bob was writing all along, but apparently I wasn’t aware of it.” Another teacher, Charlie Miller, who taught Bob social studies, remembered him as “different, from the viewpoint that he had a mind. He certainly showed he had talent. When I later heard ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, I was reminded of the social compassion he had shown in our classes.”
After the Jacket Jamboree, Bob slid back into his class chair quietly as usual, although some recall that there was a difference. He seemed to be smiling to himself. Bucklen thought he saw emerging “black humor,” not like Lenny Bruce’s mordant satire, but rather “the sort of put-on humor of a black person toward a threatening white.” Bucklen saw a jokester protecting himself while taunting a differently colored world around him.