Bob Dylan was born on May 24th 1941 in St Mary's Hospital, Duluth, Minnesota.
Although it may not have been widely noted at the time in Duluth, the literary world of 1941 mourned three of its giants. James Joyce died in Switzerland. F Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson, two of the writers whom critic Maxwell Geismar later numbered among “the last of the provincials,” also died early in the year.
Meanwhile, Bob Dylan's mother, Beatty had a news bulletin of literary and musical significance. “Abe,” she exclaimed. “Abe, I feel it! I think the baby is coming.”
Beatty’s bulletin was premature, but by 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 24 1941, she went into forced labor at St Mary’s Hospital, and delivered her first child, a hefty ten-pound boy. It was not an easy birth, because the baby had a very large head. The condition of her spine dictated that the obstetrician should operate. Beatty believed it nearly cost the life of the baby, if not her own. Abe bought cigars for the boys at Standard Oil. He was proud to announce that he had a son, Robert Allen, and that mother and baby were doing fine! After a week, Beatty and her baby made the trip home. A nurse and a domestic were there to help with the early difficult weeks.
Even the neighbors had to admit that Bobby Allen was a beautiful child. He had a golden head of hair, and Beatty would say to him: “You should have been a girl, you’re so beautiful.” She put colored ribbons in his hair and posed him for the camera. “He was always clean. He didn’t get dirty,” she recalled. A picture at fifteen months showed, indeed, a cherubic child, apple-cheeked and smiling, with that burst of golden blond hair. His father continued at Standard Oil, an essential job that exempted him from military service.
Rare picture of Bob Dylan as a young child
In the late 1930s, when the powerful John L Lewis was organizing, Standard Oil had formed the Tri-State Petroleum Union, a company union to head off the demands of the militant Congress of Industrial Organisations. With around 300 members signed up at a dollar a head, all the new union needed was a leader. They elected honest Abe. “Our personnel man felt that Standard Oil would fold up if Lewis came in with his demands,” Abe explained. The company union was soon banned by the Wagner Act and the Duluth drivers entered the tough-talking Teamsters Union. Standard Oil survived, and so did Abe.
When he brought his two-year-old son into the office, secretaries and clerks crowded around. When he was three years old, Bobby Allen gave his first public performances, perched atop his father’s desk, talking and singing into a Dictaphone. The boy marveled at the recorded sound of his own voice. Sometimes Abe recorded him alone and would tease secretaries by slipping in a brief performance by Bobby between invoice numbers.
In 1946, there was a Mother’s Day celebration in Duluth, where Bobby was taken with his grandmother Anna. “It was the talk of Duluth. In fact, they still talk about it,” Bob’s mother recalled. “Everyone was getting up to perform, but nobody else but Bobby was listening to what was going on. They talked. Bobby just sat there and watched and listened. Then they called on him. This little four-year-old codger gets up with his tousled, curly hair and goes to the stage. He stamped his foot and commanded attention. Bobby said: ‘If everybody in this room will keep quiet, I will sing for my grandmother. I’m going to sing “Some Sunday Morning.” ‘Well, he sang it, and they tore the place apart. They clapped so hard that he sang his other big number, ‘Accentuate the Positive.’ He didn’t know much more than those two songs. Our phone never stopped ringing with people congratulating me. My mother and mother-in-law had lots of other grandchildren, but Bobby was the special apple of their eyes. He was the one they doted on, but he wasn’t spoiled. How he remained unspoiled, I’ll never know.”
Within two weeks, Bob had another gig. Beatty’s sister, Irene, had a lavish wedding reception at the Covenant Club. Bob’s mother decked him out in a white Palm Beach suit. (In 1968, she still kept the collarless, three-button outfit handy in a front closet.) A fan club of relatives sponsored Bob’s first paid performance. Proffering a handful of bills, an uncle said “Bobby, you’ve got to sing.” He refused. The pleading increased, although the fee remained the same. Bob turned to his father. “I told him,” his father said, “that he should sing, because all those people had come to hear him. I told him that if he would sing we wouldn’t pester him to sing publicly anymore.”
“So he sang,” his mother recalled, “but not until he had announced: ‘If it’s quiet, I will sing.’” It was not what you would call a boy soprano, but it was a thin, beguiling voice, and everyone was quiet as Bob’s two-song repertoire was delivered. Again the audience cheered, and Bobby walked over to his uncle and took the twenty-five dollars. He approached his mother with his first gate receipts. “Mummy,” he told her, “I’m going to give the money back.” He returned to his uncle and handed him the money. He was the hero of the day and nearly upstaged the bride and groom.
His father remembered: “People would laugh with delight at hearing him sing. He was, I would say, a very lovable, a very unusual child. People would go out of their way to handle him, to talk with him. I think we were the only ones who would not agree that he was going to be a very famous person some day. Everybody would say: ‘This boy is going to be a genius, or he was going to be this or that.’ Everyone said that, not just the family. When he sang ‘Accentuate the Positive’ the way other children his age sang ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ people said he was brilliant. I didn’t pay too much attention to this, frankly. I figured any kid could learn a song like that from the radio—if he heard it often enough.”
Return to Hibbing
The end of World War II triggered a great migration. Troops returned from around the world. City people moved to the suburbs, country folks to the cities. Everybody who could afford it moved house. The economy moved from swords to ploughshares. Abe and Beatty considered moving to Hibbing. He had lost his job at Standard Oil, which, by 1945, was a post equivalent to office manager, in charge of the stock and auditing division. Abe and Beatty had another son, David, in February 1946. Bobby was then attending kindergarten at Duluth’s Nettleton School. On the first day, Bob simply refused to take the big step without his father. Abe escorted him, somewhat embarrassed to be the only father in a sea of mothers. Bobby seemed to fit in well at kindergarten.
Then Abe was stricken in the 1946 polio epidemic. Always one to keep tight rein on his emotions, he took the illness with Spartan toughness, remaining in hospital for only a week because it was short of help and equipment. The doctor was annoyed at his leaving too soon. “I’ll never forget coming home—I had to crawl up the front steps like an ape.” He remained home for six months, while Beatty was carrying or nursing David. Gradually he recovered, although the ordeal left him with one limp leg and weak muscles in the other. Bobby was left to his own devices, stringing beads together and creating building-block cities.
The parents needed to be closer to their family while Abe recovered. The Zimmermans moved in with Beatty’s parents, on Third Avenue in Hibbing and Abe joined his brothers Paul and Maurice in a furniture and appliance business. They had prospects: consumer goods were rolling off assembly lines and everyone who could afford it was getting their home applianced. For Bob, the first two years in Hibbing was a period of bustling confusion. He started first grade at the Alice School right next door to the Stones’ apartment. When the bell rang for recess, Bobby thought it meant the end of the day and returned home. After a few dropouts, he began to realize how long the school day was. Ben Stone took Bobby on deliveries and other store business. It was Ben, they say, who was the first to perceive Bob’s intelligence.
Before Ben’s death in 1952, Beatty and Abe had already found their own home, a spacious corner house on Seventh Avenue in the Fairview Addition. Three floors and nine rooms gave the boys plenty of space to explore and play, even after their widowed grandmother came to live with them.
Their neighborhood was an uncrowded middle-class section of some six houses, containing fifteen children. The families were friendly. Beatty: “I went to all their weddings, confirmations, and graduations. The neighbors were of all different faiths—Catholic and Lutheran and other Protestants—and we were the only Jewish family. But we absolutely respected each other. We have been better friends with our immediate neighbors than we have with some relatives. And our boys? No one ever called me to tell me they were touching their dogs or throwing rocks in the yard. They never stole anything. There was never anything but high regard in the whole neighborhood for my boys. They didn’t go out of their way to be a nuisance.”
The Case of the Purloined Crab Apple
“Bobby and I used to steal crab apples from the neighbors’ trees all the time. Or we would steal carrots and onions. We just did the normal things that growing boys do,” Larry Furlong told me in 1966. “We used to build backyard playhouses that looked just like outhouses. We used to go up to ‘Pill Hill,’ a few blocks away. Then it was just an old ore dump, long before it was the Lebanon Addition. They call it ‘Pill Hill’ now because so many doctors live there. But for Bob and me, and Luke Davich, and my brother Pat, and Bob Pedler, it was just a grand wilderness. We constructed forts and campsites and discovered little streams. The kids used to tease Bob, sometimes. They would call him Bobby Zennerman because it was so difficult to pronounce Zimmerman. He didn’t like that. Usually, he was fun to be with. He wasn’t spoiled. He seemed no different than any of the kids in the neighborhood. But I do remember that his feelings could be hurt easily. He often went home pouting. Later, in high school, he wasn’t so well liked, mostly because he stayed to himself so much. We’re all very proud of Bob now.”
“No artist can accept reality,” Nietzsche said, and the same could be said of “no Zimmerman.” Middle-class, small-town propriety impelled Beatty not only to say, but also to believe, her own version of reality. Abe freely admitted, with appropriate rising gestures of his hands, “I’ve got pride up to here and ego up to there.” For the parents, their home life and their son’s early years were a placid paradise of parental permissiveness and sagacity. For Bob, the Hibbing years were so limiting that he came to accept no limits.
As their son’s career developed, the parents occasionally made light of his self-images, but their own image-making was nearly as prodigious. Abe wanted to impress the town Rotarians, and Beatty wanted to impress the “old lady judges,” as Bob would call them, of her family and community. Bob wanted to impress the world with a romantic flight to somewhere else. None of them was a liar. All of them were compelled, like Pirandello, to find their own realities.
Dylan’s personal mythology was both shield and armor while smashing and desecrating countless other myths around him. Knowing the value of myth, he also knew its potential danger, which he may have discovered the day his mother was told that her pride and joy had stolen the forbidden crab apple.
The Poet Before the Electric Age
Abe 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 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.”
Continued here: Bob Dylan's Poetry as a Child