Bob Dylan's music making as a child.
Strings of Freedom.
Although Bob Dylan's father Abe, never called himself a great music-lover, music was important to him. He trooped Beatty (Dylan's mother) off to a lodge dance at the drop of an invitation. A Gulbransen spinet piano arrived at much the same time as the television, and was set in the front room for all to admire. Abe couldn’t read a note, but he loved to fake a few chords.
He brought home dance records and he particularly liked Billy Daniels’s songs and Freddy Gardner’s saxophone. When Bob was around ten, curiosity drew him to the piano, and he started to peck out a tune. A cousin, Harriet Rutstein, gave piano lessons. David followed instructions, but Bob endured only one lesson. “I’m going to play the piano the way I want to,” he declared impatiently. For a while he simply ignored the piano. But when he was about 14, music surged into his life, though he never learned to read it.
At Hibbing Junior High School, everyone who counted was playing in the school band. Bob started frequent visits to a Howard Street music store, which offered instruments on $10 three-month rental/purchase plans. Bob first took home a trumpet, announcing he would master it soon. For two days, the air around the house ached—he couldn’t seem to produce a single succession of clear notes. To general relief, the trumpet was returned in favor of a saxophone. Two days later, he returned in defeat. He tried another brass instrument, then another reed. Neither responded the way he wanted. Finally, amid fears that he had worn out his welcome, Bob rented a cheap guitar, which he caressed like a Spanish heirloom. Following the instruction sheet, he moved his hand gently across the six strings, cramping his fingers against the frets. It almost sounded like music. For hours he sat with the guitar cradled in his hands, experimenting and exploring. His fingers stung and ached. Manoloff’s Basic Spanish Guitar Manual gave him some clues. But his own ears and fingers soon took the lead. He mastered one position after the other. He found the scale and he found the key.
...send me a key—I shall find the door to where it fits, if it takes me the rest of my life.
The Guitar Picker
The guitar became his cane, weapon, status symbol, security blanket, and swagger stick. Around Hibbing, some remember him walking up and down the streets with his guitar slung over his shoulder on a leather strap. Chet Crippa recalls Bob having his guitar ready even in the coldest weather. As Dylan grew up, he grew inward, communicating less with family friends and schoolmates. He lavished attention on the friend he could fully trust without reservation, his guitar. Like a Delta bluesman, he treated the instrument as confidant and sidekick. “I didn’t go hunting, I didn’t go fishing, I didn’t play on the basketball team,” Dylan said later. “I just played the guitar and sang my songs. That was enough for me. My friends were like me—people who couldn’t make it as the football halfback, the Junior Chamber of Commerce leader, the fraternity booster, the truck driver working his way through college. I couldn’t do any of those things either. All I did was write and sing, paint little pictures on paper, dissolve myself into situations where I was invisible.”
Dylan’s “invisibility” was partly that of the alien assimilating. Even in “the land of the free,” the thirty or forty Jewish families of Hibbing still had to huddle together against the cold. Abe, who loved to play golf, couldn’t belong to the Mesabi Country Club. He and David played instead at the public course and continued to do so after the Mesabi lifted its restrictions. Bob tried golf only once: unable to play well quickly, he lost interest.6
Bob started to want both personal privacy and public approval. A true Gemini, the introvert grappled with the extrovert, the shy boy turned brash, the kind lad became hostile, the studious boy went bad. There was a duality in his speech. From Abe he inherited a slow and considered pattern of dealing out words, like an Indian, while from Beatty he inherited a constant flow of volatile emotions, a tongue that sometimes could not move as fast as the feelings he wanted to articulate. From adolescence onward, Dylan’s swings of attitude and demeanor were always extreme. “I hate to do the predictable,” he told me, and he began to be unpredictable in his mid-teens. There he was, the introvert setting his high school on its ear with wild rock ‘n’ roll; the homebody turned motorcycle cowboy; the courteous youngster acting as truculent as he could; the anti-sentimentalist falling in and out of love; the son of the middle class spending most of his time with poor folk; the white boy studying black jargon.
“Where I lived,” later Dylan told me, “was really hillbilly country. The radio stations I used to listen to weren’t local, but those on a direct route from Louisiana, right up the Mississippi River.” Hibbing’s station, WMFG, was square before and after Bob’s cousin, Les Rutstein, became its general manager in 1958. Bob often chided Les for not programming rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm ‘n’ blues. In 1968, Les still held that “old standards” were what his housewives wanted. “We don’t program for the youth,” he told me. “Let Duluth do that!” In the early 1950s, WMFG played pop songs like “Too Young” by Frankie Laine, “The Song from Moulin Rouge” by Percy Faith, “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” by the Four Lads, and middle-of-the-road Guy Mitchell, Doris Day, and Perry Como. Bill Haley and His Comets? Not on Hibbing radio!
Until eclipsed by Elvis Presley, Haley was the most successful white rock ‘n’ roll musician. As early as 1953, he had recorded black rhythm ‘n’ blues hits. Haley’s first rock hit was the cover version of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” He borrowed black R&B’s choreography and visual games, country music’s accent and stagemanship. Haley wanted his lyrical messages bright, cheerful, and escapist. He once said: “I personally have objected to protest…and crying songs. My idea in creating rock ‘n’ roll was to make kids happy…Kids…have to face problems…when they get older, and I think it’s wrong to make them face problems so young.”
Haley’s work, especially “Rock Around the Clock,” became known around the world through the soundtrack of the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, about a problematic city high school. The rock tide had been rising since 1951, when Alan Freed, the late disc jockey, had begun to push the new music on Cleveland radio. By 1954, rock ‘n’ roll had spread to major Coast stations, but WMFG ignored it. Dylan had to turn his radio on to a thin line that linked him with the farmers of Louisiana and the truck drivers of Tennessee. “‘Henrietta’ was the first rock ‘n’ roll record I heard,” Dylan said. He also calls Johnnie Ray “the first singer whose voice and style I totally fell in love with.”7
Bob took most of his journeys down the Mississippi late at night, when the air was clearer. He often placed his radio under the covers to keep from waking anyone with sounds he caught from Shreveport or Little Rock. Gatemouth Page, a voluble southern DJ, alternated country music with R&B. While Bill Haley was syncretizing the two musics, Dylan’s radio fed him both. In 1954, McCall’s Magazine editorialized about togetherness, an idyllic portrait of American family life updating Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell, Andy Hardy films, One Man’s Family. For Bob Dylan, who felt increasing separation from his family after he entered high school, togetherness was a midnight radio show from the South that said white and black music got along very well. The Joan Baez liner notes again:
I learned t’ choose my idols well
T’ be my voice an’ tell my tale
An’ my first idol was Hank Williams…
Hiram “Hank” Williams was “the hillbilly Shakespeare” to millions of farmers, truck drivers, and factory workers. Born in an Alabama log cabin, he took his only musical instruction from Tee-tot, a black street singer. Williams wrote 125 songs, dozens of which wring pathos out of the simplest lyrics. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” and “Alone and Forsaken” embody a world of loss and loneliness. Hank Williams, making his sad songs sadder, died on New Year’s Day, 1953, at the age of 29. Officially, he died of a heart attack. Unofficially, he died of too much living, alcohol, and drugs.8
If Hank Williams was the poet, Little Richard was the pulse, a rhythm ‘n’ blues John Henry. Richard Penniman, born in 1935 in Georgia, started to sing at the age of 10 in churches and on street corners before going professional with Sugarfoot Sam from Alabam and Dr Hudson’s Medicine Show. His music, and life, swung from sacred to secular, from tabernacles to juke joints. Seemingly possessed, he shouted and pranced with demonic emotion that led John Lennon to describe him as the first primal screamer. He was a bridge between black gospel and modern soul. Presley recorded his songs, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds identified his style, Paul McCartney was his devotee. In the mid-Fifties, Dylan enrolled as a student of Little Richard in the radio university, heeding his raunchy sermon: “My music is the healing music that makes the dumb and deaf hear and talk.” Little Richard briefly retired to become a theology student, then returned to show business in 1962. He worked with the Beatles at the Cavern in Liverpool, instructing them in the high falsetto wail, the “yeah, yeah, yeah” line. Dylan, who had not met Little Richard, assimilated his style seven years before the Beatles did. In his 1959 high-school yearbook, Bob listed his ambition: “To join the band of Little Richard.”
Grateful for these early musical influences, but impatient with himself for not having understood more, Dylan once told me: “It was just like an adolescent, you know. When you need somebody to latch on to, you find somebody to latch onto. I did it with so many people, that’s why I went through so many changes. I wrote a lot of stuff like Hank Williams, but I never grasped why his songs were so catchy or so classic. As for Presley, I don’t know anybody my age that did not sing like him, at one time or another. Or Buddy Holly.” Even as he was amassing musical idols, he shed them to rely on himself. As he later wrote on Joan Baez:
In later times my idols fell
For I learned that they were only men…But what I learned from each forgotten god
Was that the battlefield was mine alone…
As time passed, however, the forgotten gods were remembered again. During his world tour of 1978, Dylan told me of his reaction to Elvis’s death: “It was so sad. I had a breakdown! I broke down…one of the very few times. I went over my whole life, my whole childhood. I didn’t talk to anyone for a week. If it wasn’t for Elvis and Hank Williams, I couldn’t be doing what I do today.”
Soon after Dylan had learned his way around his first guitar, he wanted a bigger, flashier instrument. He saw it in a Sears, Roebuck catalog: turquoise with a little white wing by the strings. He saved toward the twenty-dollar down payment, and nineteen dollars more to pay it off. Fearing his father’s annoyance, Bob hid the new guitar until he had paid for it. Abe had to admire Bob’s resourcefulness. Bob bought as many records as he could afford without a weekly allowance. His first collection was of Hank Williams 78s. He went on to the new 45s by Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Hank Thompson. Bob gyrated from record player to guitar to the family piano, where he aped Little Richard, who danced from microphone to a standing slam at the piano keyboard. Now, all Bob needed was a band.
In 1968, Le Roy Hoikkala, a sky, slight electronics technician, told me: “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.
Herzl Camp, 1957. From left to right: Larry Keegan, Jerry Waldman, Robert Zimmerman (AKA Bob Dylan), Louis Kemp, David Unowsky.
Be It Ever So Square
Bob’s parents did not overtly discourage his music making, but they certainly couldn’t share his passion. He occasionally brought Le Roy and Monte home for rehearsals, generally when his parents were away. Only in hindsight did Abe and Beatty realize that, from 14 on, Bob was inexorably drifting away from all they held dear. Dylan touched on his flight from Hibbing with a metaphoric question to me: “Did you ever smell birth? That’s why I always had to move when something new has happened.” He was talking specifically about leaving one Woodstock home for another after completing an album, but he indicated it was a long-entrenched attitude of his, the flight from a form of death and the escape from the scene of birth. Another time he said: “There were a lot of people who were just plain straight and kind to me, when I was really nothing. You understand, I never was a kid who could go home. I never had a home, which I could just take a bus to. I’m not proud of it. I would not recite it. I made my way all by myself. The only way I could do it was because I did not care. But here I am…I’ve got to accept what I’ve done and where I’ve gone and what I’ve become.”
His parents would have been appalled to know their son felt he didn’t have a home with them. Abe still thought that, inevitably, Bob would complete his schooling and join the family business. Whenever he could, Abe found a chore to bring Bob into the shop. It was a losing battle. Bob would “run away” into his music, his writing, his reading behind his closed bedroom door. “Are you there, Bobby?” his mother often called up the stairwell. “It’s all right, ma, I’m only reading,” he could have replied.
“He was never detached from family or friends, but he dreamt a lot,” his mother told me in 1966. “He would go upstairs and dream that he would be very famous. He was going to do something very different. How often that boy told his grandmother: ‘Grandma, someday I’m going to be very famous. You are never going to have to worry about anything.’ He told her he would make a lot of money and that she would never have to want for anything.”
On both visits to Hibbing, I repeatedly pressed Dylan’s parents on the genesis of his writings. Mother: “Bob was upstairs quietly becoming a writer for twelve years. He read every book there was. He bought only comics that had some meaning, like Illustrated Classics. He was in the library a lot. I don’t know what authors he liked, we hardly ever discussed writers. We would just be laughing and talking.” Father: “I used to tell Robert that if he needed any help with his studies to let me know. I used to help him with math…history was always a problem with him. He just refused to get a good mark in history. I used to argue that history only required you to remember what you read. He said there was nothing to figure out in history. I asked him why it was so hard, and he would just say: ‘I don’t like it.’” Mother: “I remember he said: ‘I am not going to take physics, I don’t like it.’ I offered to get him a tutor. He said: ‘I don’t like physics. Please, please, let me drop it.’
“Bobby could write and he could draw. He was an artist. He was always drawing or painting the pictures that you put the colors in. I tried to push architecture. I figured at least he could make a living. From these poems, you are going to die and then be discovered. I said: ‘Please go to school and make yourself a living. These poems aren’t going to make you a living.’ This was in the ninth and tenth grade. Those poems he wrote in high school, he wouldn’t show to anybody, just to me and his dad. I said to Bobby that you can’t go on and on and on and sit and dream and write poems. I was afraid he would end up being a poet! Do you know the kind of poet I mean? One that had no ambition and wrote only for himself. In my day, a poet was unemployed and had no ambition. Here we would be at the back of him with a pitchfork. ‘Bobby, you have to eat.’ He still doesn’t eat enough. He eats to live.”
I asked if he ever called himself a poet: “No!” they chorused emphatically. Mother: “I never called him a poet. Sometimes, when he was planning to go to college, I would say: ‘Bobby, why don’t you take something useful?’ He said: ‘I’ll take something in science, literature, and art for a year and then I will see what I want to do.’ I told him: ‘Don’t keep writing poetry, please don’t. Go to school and do something constructive. Get a degree.’”
Only minutes after revealing their obliviousness to the import of his early passion for writing and music, Beatty and Abe turned to a painful subject. They couldn’t understand why they had not then shared his success, even though he often sent them money. They were mystified at his saying that he ran away from their happy home. For a while they blamed his manager, Albert Grossman, for keeping them out of the picture. Beatty: “Did Albert really think that people all over the world thought Bob was an orphan?” Abe: “I told Albert: ‘This can’t go on forever, our hiding from the world.’ I told Albert we have something to be proud of. We gave Robert his start, the encouragement he needed from the beginning.”