The Poet Before the Electric Age
Bob Dylan's poems for his parents (see below).
Bob Dylan's father, Abe Zimmerman, was a short man with an appealing smile that revealed irregular teeth. Behind his strong glasses, his eyes were a soft boyish blue, until they hardened. His wavy black hair was flecked with gray. He dressed in sport shirts, slacks, and sweaters that suggested California more than Minnesota. He frequently sported a fine, thick cigar. Abe’s speech was slow and deliberate, in contrast to Beatty’s (Bob Dylan's mother) torrential flow.
He peppered his talk with double negatives, yet he didn’t sound unschooled. On his home turf, he was a big man in commercial and community circles, and he wanted to be in charge. When Abe said I had to see someone in town, it was less an invitation than an imperative. If I said I wanted to go somewhere on my own, he’d say: “Well you’re pulling the strings.”
Abe and Beatty were clean and orderly, their house always ready for visitors. The social pivots of their large family, they were very proud to have retained many Duluth friends. They lavished attention on the boys, especially their oldest. Bob learned at his mother’s knee to expect and receive a great deal of attention from women. Beatty was warm, effusive, and outgoing. The other neighborhood kids called her Beatty, without concern for formalities. She ran a house “on love, warmth and laughter.” Abe enjoyed a good laugh himself. He wanted only what any man wanted—respect, especially from his sons. There were rules, of course, and Bob followed them where he could, for years, before he escaped them and tore up the rulebook with a rip heard around the world. But as Beatty put it: “We were more like friends. We would tell the boys that they could have children of their own one day and they would want to be friends with them.”
Abe was an organization man. He had belonged to the Golden Circle at Standard Oil, an executive group whose members “could do no wrong.” He was active in various lodges of B’Nai, B’Rith, a Jewish fraternal order, and designed basketball suits for one lodge’s team. A loyal member of the Hibbing Rotary, Abe was delighted to have edged Bob into the Boy Scouts. Bob’s membership was brief. “He got the uniform and I was glad he joined,” his father said. “But I didn’t ask him if he liked it or not.”
David’s earliest recollection of his brother was the day Bob guided him, hand-in-hand, into their new Hibbing home. The place was dark. Carpets were rolled up mysteriously on bare floors as Bob took his brother into their new playground. Bob remained the leader, although not always hand-in-hand. Bob was scrappy, and occasionally the parents returned home to find big brother firmly seated on little brother’s stomach, pinning his shoulders to the floor. “This kid was so strong, he could lift a refrigerator,” his mother claimed. Beatty tried to show no favoritism, carrying equal-time provision so far as to put two soup bowls on the table at the same moment. The brothers generally got along well, trading Illustrated Classics comic books, rough-housing, going to Dad’s store to play with a portable disk-recording machine.
Around the early 1950s, Bob began to spend an increasing amount of time in his upstairs room. Beatty will never forget her rapture when on one Mother’s Day she saw his first poem. Written on notebook paper, it was carefully rhymed in twelve balanced stanzas of four or five lines each. The sentimental words told how his mother’s face shone in the light, and described his fears that without her love he would be “six feet under.” It concluded: My dear mother, I hope that you Will never grow old and gray, So that all the people in the world will say: “Hello, young lady, Happy Mother’s Day.” Love, Bobby Beatty: “I had to read it to the women. I must have had about twenty of them just crying their eyes out…We were going to frame some of those other poems, but I just kept them in a drawer. One of them I read over so often that the wording was nearly rubbed off the paper.”
By June 1951, Bob had another poem to show:
My dear mother, I hope that you
Will never grow old and gray,
So that all the people in the world will say:
“Hello, young lady,
Happy Mother’s Day.”
Beatty: “I had to read it to the women. I must have had about twenty of them just crying their eyes out…We were going to frame some of those other poems, but I just kept them in a drawer. One of them I read over so often that the wording was nearly rubbed off the paper.”
By June 1951, Bob had another poem to show:
For Father’s Day
This present is for my dad alone
To use when playing golf or sitting home.
He can use them after supper, or when riding in the car,
He can use them when relaxing or taking a trip far,
I know my dad is the best in the world.
Worth more to me than every diamond and peril [sic]
Though it’s hard for him to believe
That I try each day to please him in every little way,
When sometimes he gets real mad at me
I think it best to keep quiet
So that he doesn’t get more angry.
I keep his picture on my desk,
And also his handball medal above all the rest.
I’m very lucky to have a Dad this good
And if all the other kids only could,
You just can’t beat him at any cost.
And without my dad, I’d be very lost.
Happy Father’s Day…Love, Bobby.
The poems Bob wrote at ten or eleven were a chance to “make something”; he was not especially interested in crafts or model building. He wrote a great deal. “We thought he would get it out of his system, but he never did,” his mother told me. For a time, the writing was eclipsed by an exciting diversion. In 1952, the family acquired the first TV set in Hibbing.
The new gadget delighted the boys and, after several moves, it reposed upstairs, in the room the brothers shared. Bob and David were pioneer TV children, glued to the set for hours, watching everything from Milton Berle to Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Bob’s superior muscles meant he generally chose the show. He liked music and variety shows, and western adventure series. He loved the bravado and individuality of badman and lawman alike, and the names of the TV frontiersmen rang with earthy American directness. He could imagine himself as Wyatt Earp. Or, even more heroically, as the greatest frontiersman since Daniel Boone, that lean, laconic, fearless man of justice from Dodge City named Matt Dillon.